Alleged arsonist, murderer: Opening statements in second trial begin

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By Natalie Rivers By Natalie Rivers

PHOENIX – Opening statements in the second trial of man accused of murder and arson were scheduled to begin Thursday morning.

After two days of voir dire, a new jury will now hear the case against Christopher Benitez, the man who allegedly started a deadly fire outside a Phoenix grocery store 10 years ago.

Now 27, Benitez has already been tried once in connection with the Southwest Supermarket fire. That trial happened four months ago and ended in a jury deadlock that forced the judge to declare a mistrial. The vote was 11-1 in favor of acquittal.

According to investigators and prosecutors, Benitez was a teenager at the time and allegedly had been caught stealing beer just days before the fire. They believe Benitez set fire to some cardboard boxes outside the store in retaliation. Those flames quickly spread to the rest of the store.

Phoenix firefighter Bret Tarver died in that massive fire. He became separated from other firefighters when the roof of the burning store collapsed. He was trapped in a meat-packing room and ran out of oxygen.

The case went unsolved for eight years.

Investigators were able to move forward after receiving an anonymous tip in 2007. That tipster placed Benitez at the scene shortly before the fire started. When the police first received that tip, Benitez was serving at Fort Hood, Texas.

Police finally arrested Benitez in July 2009. He was sent home from duty in Iraq -- extradited to Phoenix --  after an arrest warrant was issued for him. He has been in police custody ever since.

Charged with arson and murder, Benitez went on trial in November.

Criminal cases require a unanimous decision from the jury. The jury in the first trial was not able to achieve that.

“I did not start no fire. I did not kill Mr. Bret Tarver,” a visibly emotional Benitez yelled at prosecutors at the end of the proceeding.

Eleven of the 12 jurors believed Benitez, returning votes of not guilty.

A single juror, however, voted guilty and refused to compromise.

That juror, who did not want to be identified, said she believed Benitez started the fire, but she did not think he intended for the building to burn down, let alone kill a firefighter.

“I do believe he started the fire,” she said. “I wanted so desperately to be able to agree with [the other jurors] and be able to go home and feel OK about that, but I couldn’t. … I’m much more comfortable having another jury try the case than me sacrificing my beliefs.”

Other members of the original jury said they went through the case “inside and out” and found they had “so much reasonable doubt” about Benitez’s guilt. Those 11 jurors had questions about the timeline and said witness testimony was inconsistent.

Prosecutors decided earlier this year to re-try Benitez.