A couple nights ago, a friend randomly asked if I had heard about the court suicide story headlining the news. Indeed I had. A former millionaire, adventurer and Wall Street banker with a Picasso collection, an airplane, a Rolls Royce and even an extra mansion ran into financial problems and tried to raffle his mansion for charity, but he was blocked from proceeding.
Six months later, ironically, the mansion caught on fire with the man inside. The guy cleverly escaped from succumbing to smoke inhalation by using the oxygen tank from his scuba gear and climbing out the ladder from his window.
“Yes, I know about it,” I said with a wince.
Fire officials had never seen such a thing. Why would a man climb down the ladder of a burning mansion wearing scuba gear? How could he have been so prepared? They were suspicious from the beginning. Then they learned about an upcoming balloon payment on a mortgage.
Michael Marin was charged with arson.
The media nicknamed this the case of the Burning Man. Almost every Burning Man story mentioned his Picasso collection, I suppose, because it symbolized that he was a man of privilege.
I knew Michael Marin. In fact, I was with Michael when he bought the Picasso collection. It was 1999, I think. We had a business lunch in Beverly Hills, and afterwards Michael took me for a walk down Rodeo Drive. It was like a foreign country to me. The luxury boutiques, the designer goods, and the prices were out of my world. Not Michael. He could afford $3,000 alligator shoes. I could afford a bagel, maybe, if I got less gas. I felt out of place even walking down the street. Michael owned the street. I wondered what it would be like to be him.
He wasn’t out searching for art. We just happened to step into one of the art galleries and there they were. The art sketches weren’t ‘originals’ like some articles implied, they were the Picasso-signed proofs for the lithographs. Still, they were valuable, collectible, and historic, and I was awestruck. Michael knew about art, he knew what these pieces were, and he bought them on the spot. He was so overwhelmed with joy he started weeping, almost like it was a spiritual experience.
He was on top of the world then.
Here’s the current news. It’s a video. Click it.
It’s utterly heart-breaking.
It had been years since I’d seen or talked to Michael Marin. Our business dealings didn’t work out for various reasons, and he wasn’t my favorite person on earth, but I still respected certain things about him. He was a brilliant, Yale-educated attorney, former general counsel to Salomon Brothers, a baritone in the church choir and men’s groups. He made a fortune in exotic derivatives – whatever those are. He was a devoted dad; his kids were smart, fun and talented; and my kids liked his kids. He was a pilot, he was building his own airplane, and he had a macaw named Sunshine that he adored. When it came to business, he was a shark. Nothing about Michael was run-of-the-mill.
He was an adventurer who climbed the tallest mountains in the world, yet he was also a philanthropist. For years he was actively involved in helping underprivileged children on an Indian reservation, and hardly anyone knew. He was deeply committed to making a difference in the lives of children. That’s what I loved that about him the most.
Even though we hadn’t been in touch for years, when I received an email from Michael in 2009 about raffling off a mansion for charity, it didn’t seem strange to me at all. He knew that preventing child abuse was one of my causes. If there was anything worthy of letting bygones be bygones, it was helping children. To me, it was very Michael.
Here’s the actual email.
"From: MICHAEL MARIN <mjmarin@***.com> Date: Fri, Jan 23, 2009 at 4:28 PM Subject: Arizona Dream House Raffle To: Christine Marie Dear Christine, You may as well get in on this too. I’ve been coping with the grief over the recent loss of my father by throwing myself into two giant-size undertakings. One is a huge house raffle I’m doing to benefit the Child Crisis Center, a local charity here in Arizona that works to prevent child abuse and neglect. (Check out www.ArizonaDreamHouseRaffle.com and by all means buy some tickets. Make sure you spread the word to all your friends too, because it’s for a good cause, and someone is going to end up with a $3.5 million house for only $25! Why not you? There’s also an art gallery page on the website where you can see some of the art I’ve been working on. I’d love to know what you think, even if it’s “I hope you can get a day job to fall back on.”) The other thing I’m keeping busy with is once again preparing to climb Everest. I was supposed to do that last year, but for political reasons the Chinese pulled the plug on all expeditions approaching the mountain from the Tibet side. Hopefully, things will go better this year, although 2009 does mark the 50th anniversay of the Dalai Lama’s exile, so the political situation might still be a little unstable. Wish me luck!"
"From: MICHAEL MARIN <mjmarin@***.com>
Date: Fri, Jan 23, 2009 at 4:28 PM
Subject: Arizona Dream House Raffle
To: Christine Marie
You may as well get in on this too. I’ve been coping with the grief over the recent loss of my father by throwing myself into two giant-size undertakings. One is a huge house raffle I’m doing to benefit the Child Crisis Center, a local charity here in Arizona that works to prevent child abuse and neglect. (Check out www.ArizonaDreamHouseRaffle.com and by all means buy some tickets. Make sure you spread the word to all your friends too, because it’s for a good cause, and someone is going to end up with a $3.5 million house for only $25! Why not you?
There’s also an art gallery page on the website where you can see some of the art I’ve been working on. I’d love to know what you think, even if it’s “I hope you can get a day job to fall back on.”) The other thing I’m keeping busy with is once again preparing to climb Everest. I was supposed to do that last year, but for political reasons the Chinese pulled the plug on all expeditions approaching the mountain from the Tibet side. Hopefully, things will go better this year, although 2009 does mark the 50th anniversay of the Dalai Lama’s exile, so the political situation might still be a little unstable. Wish me luck!"
How sweet was that? I was amazed. Looking back on it now, I can imagine him hoping it would generate press, stimulate hundreds of thousands of people to jump in on the raffle, generate more than enough money to pay his bills and benefit the Child Crisis Center in the process. Had it proceeded, it would have been an ingenious way to avert financial problems and make a difference at the same time.
Both Michael and the Child Crisis Center wanted to ensure they did everything by the letter of the law. They used attorneys to make sure. A question about the legality of the raffle was posted in the Q & A section of the raffle’s web site.
Is this raffle legal?
Yes. The Child Crisis Center is conducting the raffle pursuant to Arizona Revised Statute §13-3302, paragraph B, as an organization which has qualified for an exemption from taxation of income under Arizona Revised Statute §43-1201, paragraph 4, and which has been in continuous existence in Arizona for at least the last five years as required by the statute.
And just in case there was a legal glitch the attorneys may have missed, the official rules of the contest stated, “We reserve the right to modify the Rules as may be necessary or advisable to comply with the requirements of legal, regulatory, and tax authorities having proper jurisdiction.”
According to an article on News 10, the state deemed the raffle illegal anyway.
The next time I heard from Michael,
he was just released from jail.
This was not the confident, charming Michael Marin that walked with me down Rodeo Drive. This was not the arrogant Yale attorney and business shark that would increase his advantage at any cost. This was a broken, traumatized man crying out for help. I was in shock.
The email he sent shows a glimpse of his side of the story, something the media has yet to cover.
The Entire Email is HERE. It’s worth reading.
"From: MICHAEL MARIN <mjmarin@***.com>
Date: Wed, Sep 2, 2009 at 5:12 PM
To: Christine Marie
If ever I’ve ever needed a favor from you, this is the time. With an urgency that defies the power of mere words to express, I desperately need your help…On Wednesday, August 19, 2009, I was wrongfully accused and arrested for arson in connection with a house fire on July 5, 2009 that came perilously close to claiming my own life. (Who sets a fire and then traps himself upstairs to make the escape more challenging? I was hospitalized for several days.) The prosecution’s case is very weak, not a surprise since I am completely innocent, but that did not keep me from spending 10 days in jail, virtually cut off from the outside world, a truly harrowing ordeal in a very violent place.
I was released early in the morning of Sunday, August 30, 2009 on a $200,000 bond, and now my most urgent task is raising the money I need for my defense. In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not okay, not by a long shot–the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail system here, is extremely adept at waging psychological warfare to demoralize, dehumanize, and break you down in every possible way–but I look forward to my day in court. My attorney is extremely confident that we will crush the prosecution’s flimsy case, … I’m facing 7-21 years in prison if convicted, and I’ve got to raise at least $100,000 to pay my attorney’s retainer, hire expert witnesses, and mount a successful defense.…
Alternatively, perhaps you (or someone you know) might like to take advantage of my situation and purchase one or more of my remaining assets from me at rock-bottom, fire sale prices (if you will pardon the unfortunate metaphor). How would you (or someone you might know) like to buy a Picasso on the cheap? Or an airplane?…
I’ve exhausted all of my other options. I am literally at the end of my rope. If all you can do is send positive energy and best wishes my way, I would be deeply grateful for that too. You can reach me by e-mail or by telephone. If I don’t respond, there’s always the possibility that the authorities have re-arrested and jailed me on another trumped-up charge, in which case please contact my lawyer Richard Gierloff.
I did what I could. I networked for him a bit, sent him some referrals, and when I discovered a fresh CNN article discussing the flawed science involved with arson convictions, I passed that along too.
I hadn’t heard a peep about the case in a long time. Even when I searched online, there was never any news. Then on June 28, 2010, Michael emailed this announcement that sounded like he was back on top of the world. Read it. Click it to see it larger.
I assumed the case was dropped.
I sent him a note asking if his case had been resolved, but I never heard back.
Fast forward two years. About 5 weeks ago, I was surprised to spot something on the news about the trial of the ‘Burning Man.’ Ironically, Michael Marin is the one who first told me about the Burning Man Festival, a week long art gathering in the desert. I’d never heard of it before that. He was a diehard fan of Burning Man. He tried to get me to go with him, but I didn’t. Still, knowing how enthralled Michael was with the Burning Man Festival, I wondered if he enjoyed the media’s nickname for him.
I tried to follow the news coverage on the Burning Man trial, but the local coverage was sketchy, and then there was a break for a judge’s conference and I forgot to check back to see if the trial had resumed.
Friday morning my husband Tolga said, “Christine, there’s a Michael Marin in the news. You should see if he’s the one you know.” Sadly, tragically, it was.
He was found guilty of arson. Afterward, he apparently ingested a poison pill.
I can’t get him out of my mind. There was a reason I chose to keep my distance from Michael, and we weren’t exactly close friends. Still, I wonder if I should have communicated more, if there was any thing I could have done to have saved him from such a horrible ending. I wonder about his kids, I wonder if he still had his macaw.
I even wonder if he was wrongly convicted.
It strikes me odd that the prosecution used the fact that he climbed out of the window on a rope ladder – against him. That’s why people have rope ladders in their homes. I even had them in the 2nd story bedrooms of my old farmhouse. That’s what they’re for: escaping fires.
Plus he was LDS, or Mormon, as was I. Mormons are trained to be prepared for emergencies – every year they have training events for emergency preparedness. The fact that he was prepared for an emergency is hardly a sign of guilt. The media also keeps reporting that firefighters were shocked to see Michael climb out the window wearing a scuba gear – they had never seen such a thing; surely it was another sign of his guilt. One paper showed an illustration of Michael’s face inside the black hood of a wet suit, engulfed in flames, looking ridiculous. This gave me the impression that firefighters watched him climb down the ladder in a wet suit and flippers. That would have been ‘bizarre behavior,’ the term used to brand Michael in a way that has created public hatred.
The evidence photo shows a scuba oxygen tank, aka a tank containing breathable air. The pink mask made me wonder if it belonged to a daughter or female friend who, after a short dive, just slipped the vest and tank off as a set, just like I did in the past when I felt lazy after a dive. Or maybe it was Michael’s and he was going to put it away properly in the closet of his master bedroom. Scuba gear isn’t something used often, so why not store it in the closet of a big, unoccupied house?
Furthermore, if you were a diver, and you had breathable air available in a scuba tank when your house was filled with smoke, is using that scuba tank to save your life a sign of guilt? Wasn’t that the rationale behind the drowning test for witches in Salem in 1692? Suspected witches would be thrown in the deep water. If they lived, they were guilty.
Why all the negative media hysteria over the use of a scuba air tank to avoid smoke inhalation? To me, it was a sign of resourcefulness. If anyone was resourceful, it was the guy who could survive on Mt. Everest.
Having a scuba tank in the house when a fire breaks out is neither a sign of guilt, nor planning. It was the fact that Michael Marin used it successfully and escaped on the fire ladder successfully that made him a suspicious character. Had he died in the fire instead of spending just four days in the hospital, would he have been declared an innocent victim of someone else’s arson?
More evidence of guilt revolved around his Picasso collection. Conveniently, prosecutors said, his most prized possessions were not hanging on the walls of the mansion, but in storage at the time of the fire. But when I knew him, they were almost always in storage. He kept them there for safekeeping unless he had a reason to display them.
There’s even more powerful “evidence” of his guilt: he wasn’t panicked when he was on the phone reporting the blaze. He sounded calm. Wow. I rode in his private airplane once when it started having problems, he didn’t panic then either. But I did. I can’t imagine Michael ever panicking.
Emergency agencies always train the public to be calm when they call 911. In fact, on a Phoenix firefighter supply web site, a huge banner at the top advertises their “Keep Calm” shirts and products. The page is filled with “Keep Calm” products for the “Keep Calm” campaign. But when Michael deliberately followed instructions and spoke calmly, it was used as evidence of guilt.
I don’t get it. What did the defense say? Does anybody know?
The biggest, fattest piece of evidence the prosecution had, though, was that arson was supposedly indicated by the multiple points of origin. I thought that was indisputable, until I learned that there were multiple assessments. Why? Because the first forensic analysis came back with “inconclusive results.” The insurance agency wasn’t happy with that, so more assessments were done. The evidence at trial was based on the “scientific” conclusions the insurance company was happy with: obvious arson.
Ok. For the sake of argument, say it was indeed arson. Where is the proof that Michael did it? He had his enemies too. Was that explored?
What about those who commit arson for arson’s sake? A house that is not lived in is an ideal target for an arsonist, especially if he can sneak in and prepare it properly in advance. Is that too wild of a theory? Doesn’t arson happen in Phoenix? Coincidentally, the day I learned of Michael’s suicide, I went searching for information about his defense. On the Arizona news site where I found the story of his conviction and demise, I also saw this story get posted that same day.
“Arson suspected in LDS church fire in Tolleson.”
I’m curious about the defense that was mounted in court. What was it? I’m frustrated that no media has provided any information about his defense or shared his side of the story. I think he deserves that.
Michael said he had a bigger financial incentive NOT to set his house on fire. “If you bore into my finances, this was the worst thing that could have happened to me,” he said in an interview with Paul Rubin of the Phoenix New Times. “Not only did I not have any incentive personally, I totally had a counter-incentive.”
“To hammer that point home about my finances, the biggest thing in front of me was the one-year, interest-only balloon payment. I had a $2.3 million bill to pay. So I refinance or sell or I am totally screwed. If I were to burn it, that’s slitting my own throat. I lose everything.” (New Times, Aug, 27, 2009)
“Michael Marin couldn’t pay his mortgage, so he burned down his house,” Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Chris Rapp told the jury. But according to the New Times, Michael Marin would not have been the recipient of the insurance money. It would have gone to the lenders. Do you get it? In other words, financially, Michael stood to gain nothing by the fire. Furthermore, the lenders stated they were prepared to work with Michael to refinance to make things more manageable. They weren’t even planning to evict him. So what was his big urgency?
If this is true as the New Times reported, it’s a bombshell. A more accurate opening statement to his trial might have been,
“Michael Marin couldn’t pay his mortgage, so he quit working on solutions with his lenders and instead decided to burn down his house, sabotage his options for solving his financial problems and put himself in deeper financial trouble.”
Michael was formerly general counsel to a financial firm. He certainly knew there were more reasonable ways to eliminate a balloon payment he couldn’t afford like letting the lenders take the house back or filing for bankruptcy.
Timing Was Ill-Fated
Occupying a house that is set on fire doesn’t make a person an arsonist. But for arson to occur about 6 months after his highly-publicized attempt to raffle off the mansion to charity – that definitely mucked things up. I agree.
However, if Michael had an enemy that could read the news, he would have known the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Officials would suspect Michael and never look elsewhere.
Questioning the Guilty Verdict
With the few facts shared by the media, I can see why the jury might deliver a guilty verdict. But if you knew Michael Marin, a guilty verdict doesn’t make sense for one main reason: He’s far too cunning to not have known how to cover his tracks had he been trying to commit insurance fraud. He was a top-notch attorney, for heaven’s sake. He knew the world of litigation. He was a formidable chess player. Would Michael have set his house on fire using multiple points of origin, combined with evidence of gasoline and flammable materials, and think he would stay out of prison? That’s a tough pill to swallow.
Years ago, Michael was falsely accused and imprisoned in Malaysia where he was then tortured. Eventually, higher powers stepped in to demand his release, but not before leaving him with the scars of a prisoner of war. Over the years he told countless people he’d rather die than go to prison again. Those were not idle words. For man so traumatized by a past experience that he would prefer to die than go to prison, it seems he would have been more careful about not getting caught.
Prosecutors said there was an overwhelming amount of obvious and incriminating evidence. Was that the sloppy work of someone who didn’t care about possible consequences or think ahead? That was not Michael Marin. Mind you – we’re talking about the man who is headline news today because he was savvy enough to plan ahead for the worst case scenario, outsmart court security and accomplish something the U.S. courts had never seen.
I chose not to have Michael Marin in my life for personal reasons, but I’m not buying that he was a bumbling arsonist.
I’m horrified by his final moments. Watching the video made me cry. It’s not right that he will go down in history like he is portrayed.
In the last few communications, Michael was a changed, caring, humbled man. On his facebook page, people shared their stories, called him an inspiration and a hero. Therefore, in memory of the bright side of Michael, I decided to share a few of those tributes.
"Mike will be remembered as one of the best Sunday School teachers ever. He took the class with him to the highest elevations of thinking and reason mingled with spiritual insights, even to the tops of the Mt. Everests of the human mind and soul, so to speak. Mike, we love you and we miss you. May peace be yours forever. – Rich Nibley
I met him when I was a journalist in Arizona. He was brilliant, fearless, funny, kind, generous and a consummate gentleman. I am stunned, and very sad for him and his family. He lived a remarkable life, and I’m sorry it ended this way. I will most definitely remember him as being on top of the world. – Amanda Kingsbury
I knew Michael for 42 years. We were in the “gifted” class at Clover Valley Elementary in Oak Harbor, WA, where he grew up. He fascinated and inspired me throughout my life. RIP. – Robert Morgan Fisher
I can still hear your calming voice talking me down the final rappel in el cap. when I was injured, and I will never forget how you helped carry me up the steep path back to the road that day. I didn’t know you well or for very long, but the gifts you gave to me have changed my life and I will be forever grateful. Thank you for you patient teaching and for believing in me. You are my mentor and my hero. – Teresa Baldridge"
I don’t know whether Michael was innocent or guilty. All I know is that I’m sorry, I wish there was more information about his side of the story, and I can’t stop thinking about this complex man who lived an uncommon life and crossed my path years ago.
Michael has some words by Leonardo da Vinci listed as his favorite quote on his facebook page. It’s beautiful.
“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
On that note I say good bye, Burning Man.
Enjoy your freedom. The sky is yours.