Man convicted in 2001 death of Phoenix firefighter
2011-04-26 - 11:49:46 - Current News
A Maricopa County Superior Court jury convicted a Phoenix man of negligent homicide and arson in the death of a Phoenix firefighter in a 2001 supermarket fire in west Phoenix. Christopher Benitez, 27, was on trial for arson and first-degree murder ? the second time he was prosecuted in the case. Prosecutors alleged he set the fire to get back at the market?s management following a failed beer run. Firefighter Bret Tarver, 40, died of burns and smoke inhalation after becoming tangled in debris inside the burning market. In November: Hung jury in trial over firefighter?s death In 2009: Phoenix Fire Department announces arrest in arson case Jurors decided against first-degree murder in favor of negligent homicide. The verdict Monday followed a mistrial that was declared Nov. 25 when another jury deadlocked on murder and arson charges. That jury was split 11-1 in favor of acquitting Benitez. Both trials were overseen by Judge Glenn Davis. Back in November, following the mistrial, Benitez had angrily confronted prosecutor Shawn Fuller. ?You?re wrong, you?re wrong,? he said. ?I did not start no fire. I did not start no fire that killed Mr. Tarver.? Jury foreman Jeff Kluve, 37, of Scottsdale, said that the jury had reached a unanimous agreement that Benitez was not guilty last Thursday, when they broke for the weekend. But on Monday, one woman on the jury had changed her mind, and despite two and a half more days of discussion, did not yield. Prosecutors theorized that Benitez, then 17, had an argument with a Southwest Supermarket manager, who called the police and accused him of stealing beer from the store at McDowell Road and 35th Avenue. Then, on March 14, 2001, they allege he set a fire in a trash pile in the alley behind the store. Benitez is the only person with a motive to commit the arson, Fuller told the jury. Tarver, 40 and a father of three, was among the firefighters who responded to the blaze. Benitez was not charged until 2009, while he was a soldier stationed in Iraq. The Army pulled him back to Fort Hood, Texas, and he was extradited to Phoenix to face charges on arson and first-degree felony murder, meaning that someone died during the commission of a felony ? arson. Prosecutors had also increased their chances of a conviction by making alternative charges to lesser murder counts. The jury never got past the arson, Kluve said. If they had found him guilty of that crime, Kluve said they would have considered the murder charges.