Suspect in arson, death of firefighter to go on trial again

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By Natalie Rivers By Natalie Rivers

PHOENIX – Jury selection was slated to begin Tuesday in the second trial of a man charged with murder and arson.

The first trial of Christopher Benitez, who was just a teenager when he allegedly started a fire outside a Phoenix grocery store in 2001, ended with a deadlocked jury and a mistrial four months ago.

Prosecutors are hoping for a different outcome this time.

Firefighter Bret Tarver was killed in the massive fire at a Phoenix Southwest Supermarket at 35th Avenue and McDowell Road. That fire started with a pile of cardboard boxes outside the store and quickly spread to the main structure.

An anonymous tip placed Benitez, who lived just blocks from the West Phoenix store, at the scene just before the fire started. Police said he had been caught stealing beer from the store a few days earlier. Prosecutors believe he set the fire in retaliation.

More than 100 firefighters responded to the massive blaze. Several were injured when the roof collapsed. Tarver was separated from other firefighters. He became trapped in a meat-packing room and ran out of oxygen.

Video and audio captured by NewsChopper 3 as it covered the fire, including emergency calls for help from Tarver, were used in the original trial.

It took investigators more than eight years to solve the case.

After receiving the anonymous tip in 2007, investigators talked to Benitez, who was serving at Fort Hood, Texas at the time. They arrested Benitez in July 2009. He was sent home from duty in Iraq after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Charged with arson and murder, Benitez went on trial in November. The jury was not able to reach a verdict, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial.