Arsonist sentenced in death of PFD firefighter

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By Natalie Rivers By Natalie Rivers

PHOENIX - The man found guilty of negligent homicide after starting a fire that killed a Phoenix firefighter has been sentenced.

Christopher Benitez, 27, was sentenced to a total of seven years in prison.

A judge gave him four years for negligent homicide, seven years on one arson count and four years on another count of arson. He will serve the sentences concurrently.

According to investigators and prosecutors, Benitez was a teenager at the time and allegedly had been caught stealing beer from the Southwest Supermarket just days before the fire in 2001. 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.