PHOENIX, AZ (April 25, 2011) – A jury today found Christopher Benitez (DOB 5/5/83) guilty of one count of negligent homicide, one count of arson of an occupied structure and one count of arson of a structure or property in connection with a 2001 structural fire that resulted in the death of Phoenix Firefighter Brett Tarver. All three charges are classified as dangerous felonies. The jury reached a verdict after four days of deliberation.
“Today’s conviction underscores my office’s commitment to the pursuit of justice to hold Christopher Benitez accountable for his criminal conduct,” said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. “While we understand that firefighters face many risks in protecting citizens, we cannot tolerate the death of a firefighter that occurs in the context of an intentionally-set fire,” he added.
At about 4:30pm on March 14, 2001, the Phoenix Fire Department responded to a debris fire behind Southwest Supermarket, located at 1520 North 35th Avenue. After successfully battling the fire, firefighters discovered a significant amount of smoke coming from inside the building. Firefighter Brett Tarver, assigned to Engine 14, entered the building to make sure no one was still inside. While Tarver and his fellow firefighters were clearing the building, the fire quickly spread. Tarver was overcome by smoke, heat and the lack of oxygen and subsequently died from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries.
An investigation later determined that the fire was intentionally set and the incident was classified as arson. In August of 2007, investigators received an anonymous tip through Silent Witness that defendant Christopher Benitez started the fire. At the time the fire occurred, Benitez lived a few blocks north of the supermarket. About a week prior to the fire, Benitez was caught by a store manager attempting to steal beer from the store.
In May, 2009, Benitez was charged with one count of 1st degree felony murder, or in the alternative, 2nd degree murder; one count of arson of an occupied structure, and one count of arson of a structure or property. A November, 2010 trial resulted in a hung jury. The jury in the second trial found Benitez guilty on the two arson counts and the lesser included charge of negligent homicide on the 2nd degree murder count.
Benitez is scheduled to be sentenced on June 3rd, 2011 before Judge Glenn M. Davis.