“Have you heard the news of the Wall Street banker Michael Marin who committed suicide in court after getting convicted of arson?” On Friday night, a friend randomly asked me that question.
Friday night during a photo shoot at our studio, a friend randomly mentioned the court suicide story headlining the news and asked if I had heard about it. A millionaire adventurer and former banker from Wall Street once owned a Picasso collection, an airplane, a Rolls Royce and a mansion that he tried to raffle off for charity. When that failed, ironically, the mansion caught on fire with the man inside. The guy cleverly escaped succumbing to smoke inhalation by using the scuba air tank from his scuba gear and climbing out the ladder from his window.
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 that he was having financial problems.
Michael Marin was charged with arson.
The media nicknamed this the case of the “Burning Man.” Almost every “Burning Man” story mentioned his Picasso’s, 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 summer 2000. 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. They weren’t Picasso originals like the media sometimes implies, 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 got tears in eyes, almost like a spiritual experience.
He was on top of the world then.
Here’s a video of what the news reports about him now.
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 many things about him. He was a brilliant, Yale-educated attorney, former general counsel to Salomon Brothers, a bass in the church choir. He made a fortune in exotic derivatives – whatever those are. He was a devoted dad; his kids were smart, fun and talented; my kids like 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 PMSubject: Arizona Dream House RaffleTo:
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 wonder if he was 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 worked, it would have been an ingenious way to solve the financial problems that only he knew he was about to face.
Apparently, the state stepped in and stopped his raffle.
The next time I heard from Michael, he just got out of jail.
Below I have pasted parts of his letter. (I assume he sent this letter to everyone he knew.)
This was not the confident, charming Michael Marin that walked with me down Rodeo Drive. This was not the arrogant Yale attorney business shark that would win at any cost. This was a broken man crying out for help. I was in shock. It shows Michael’s side of the story, something the media has completely ignored.
From: MICHAEL MARIN <mjmarin@***.com>Date: Wed, Sep 2, 2009 at 5:12 PMSubject: Help!To: Christine Marie
Dear Christine,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 that overturned 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. On June 28, 2010, I received an announcement where he sounded like he was back on top of the world. I assumed the case was dropped.
From: MICHAEL MARIN <mjmarin@****.com>Date: Mon, Jun 28, 2010 at 12:09 PMSubject: New e-mail addressTo: Michael Marin
I sent a note asking if his case had been resolved, but I never heard back. In late May, 2012, I was surprised to read that the trial of the Burning Man had begun. Ironically, Michael Marin is the one who educated 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, since I knew how much Michael loved 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 coverage was sketchy, and then there was a break. I forgot to check up on the trial.
On Friday morning my husband said, “Christine, there’s a Michael Marin in the news. You should see if it’s the one you know.” Sadly, it was.
He was found guilty of arson. Afterward, he committed suicide in court by taking a poison pill.
I’ve been thinking about Michael ever since. 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 feel sad. I wonder about his kids, I wonder how his macaw will fare without him. I can’t get him out of my mind.
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 reported that firefighters were shocked to see Michael climb out the window wearing a scuba suit – they had never seen that, so surely it was another sign of his guilt. The image conjured up in my mind included a wet suit, scuba tank and fins. But the photo I saw primarily shows a scuba tank, not a scuba suit. If you were a diver, and you had a scuba air tank that you knew how to use in a house filled with smoke, is saving your life a sign of guilt, or resourcefulness? If anyone was resourceful, it was him.
And then there’s even more evidence of guilt: he wasn’t panicked when he was on the phone reporting the blaze. 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.
The big fat piece of evidence the prosecution had, though, was that arson was indicated by the multiple points of origin and flammable material.
Even that was disputable. Furthermore, even if it was arson, that doesn’t mean Michael did it. He had his enemies too. Which rich guy from Wall Street doesn’t? I’m curious about the defense that was mounted in court. Michael said setting fire to his house would have compounded his financial problems, not solved them.
Michael explained his lack of incentive to reporter Paul Rubin of the Phoenix New Times, “If you bore into my finances, this was the worst thing that could have happened to me. Not only did I not have any incentive personally, I totally had a counter-incentive.”
“To hammer that point home about my finances,” Marin told New Times, “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 would not have even been the recipient of the insurance money; it would have gone to the lenders. He could have collected insurance on the lost furnishings and personal contents in the house, but he did not have much in the house. In other words, financially he stood to gain absolutely nothing. Furthermore, the lenders were prepared to work with Michael to help him get back on his feet.
Occupying a house that is set on fire doesn’t make a person an arsonist. But for arson to occur about 6 months after he tried to raffle off his house to charity – that definitely mucked things up. However, if Michael had an enemy who followed what he was doing, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Questioning the Guilty Verdict
With the few facts shared by the media, I can see why it might make sense for the jury to 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 get away with a crime. He was an attorney. He was a litigator. 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 think he would get a way with it? That’s a tough pill to swallow.
He was far too brilliant to leave an overwhelming amount of obvious and incriminating evidence like that. Mind you – we’re talking about the man who is headline news today, sadly, because he planned ahead for a contingency, outsmarted court security, and accomplished something no one else has ever done.
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. None of it makes sense to me.
In the last few communications, Michael seemed to be a changed, caring, humbled man. On his facebook page, people shared their stories, called him an inspiration and a hero. 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 feel sorry, and I can’t stop thinking about this complex man who lived an uncommon life and crossed my path years ago.
Michael had a Leonardo da Vinci quote listed as his favorite on his facebook page.
“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.”
Good bye, Burning Man.
Enjoy your freedom. The sky is yours.
A more detailed version of this article can be found on my personal blog
Comments are welcome in either place.