Michael Kiefer | The Arizona Republic
August 19, 2012
Michael Marin was on top of the world in May 2009.
He was standing on top of Mount Everest, a place only an elite group of climbers have ever reached.
Two and a half months later, he was in jail in Phoenix. His Biltmore Estates mansion had been gutted by fire, and Marin faced an arson charge that could lead to decades in prison.
The two extremes framed Marin's life.
He had traveled the world and lived in foreign countries, flown planes, traded in complex investments, charmed beautiful women, bought and created art. He could sing and play the piano like a professional musician. He doted on his children and had close friends all over the world.
In short, Marin seemed to have everything and to be capable of anything.
But there was a dark spot inside of him, an insecurity that few people saw. The drive and ego that pushed him to be an overachiever could also lead him into petty and destructive fights and a fixation on perceived slights.
He mounted a vigorous legal defense against a traffic citation. He spent two years fighting a paternity claim. In 2009, a few months after summiting Everest and after authorities smashed his plan to raffle off the house that had him deeply in debt, he took another defiant step: A jury believed he lit a fire that tore through the home on Biltmore Estates Drive.
But even that would not be his most dramatic act.
The blaze, which he denied setting, drew media attention not so much for its ritzy location but for Marin's unlikely escape. He told investigators he had awakened to find the house in flames, donned scuba gear stored in a bedroom closet, and escaped by breathing compressed air before making his way down a rope ladder.
Maybe he was telling the truth — or maybe he was just trying to stage a dramatic scene. He had a flair for appearing understated when he was being grandiose.
But instead, he became a comic figure — that guy who climbed out the window wearing scuba gear — and that is who he was to the jury that found him guilty of arson on June 28. He was to be taken into custody immediately after the hearing.
The verdict led to the final act of his life. As a live TV camera focused on his face, he slipped something into his mouth — an autopsy would reveal it was cyanide. Fifteen minutes later, he lay dead on the courtroom floor.
What Marin left behind helps define the highs and lows of a storybook life:
A stack of writings, unpublished or self-published, record an inner dialogue and an outsized biography.
A family of four grown children refuses to speak about him except to say that he was innocent. His friends and lovers say the same.
And if they were shocked by his suicide, they were not all surprised.
"He killed himself because he's Michael Marin," said his former attorney Richard Gierloff. "It's because he didn't set that fire. And if people misunderstand him so badly they thought he did this crime, then he's through with people."
"From Everest to jail is just him," said Marin's ex-wife, Tammy Gunderson. "He's not one who did things anywhere in the middle."
An adventurer's life
Michael Marin was born in December 1958 and was raised in Oak Harbor, Wash., a Navy town on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. As a faithful member of the Mormon Church, he attended Brigham Young University and served a mission.
It took him to Japan, where he learned Japanese. After college, he attended Yale Law School, and after being admitted to the New York State Bar in 1987, instead of going into private practice or working in government, he went to work in the legal department of banks, which sent him back to Japan. From there he put his mathematical mind to work as an investment banker, and made a fortune trading in complex investments for Merrill Lynch, Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers.
He traveled extensively in Asia. A book he wrote about investment banking in Asia purports hair-raising adventures in Papua New Guinea, firefights in Cambodia, a trumped-up drug bust and torture by Malaysian police officers.
His kids were raised in Asia and in Chicago; his wife, Tammy, left him in 1992, after 12 years of marriage, and she moved to the Phoenix area. Then, in the late 1990s, after a decade of working the Asian market for Wall Street banks, Marin returned to the United States, eventually landing in Gilbert.
"He was very charming," said Christine Marie Katas, who dated Marin in 1999 and 2000 and entered into a business agreement with him.
"Michael definitely lived his life to the fullest," said Kristin Martin, who dated Marin in 2004. As for his personality, she said, "There's a level of arrogance when you're that smart."
He created artwork that showed his love of women, acrylic busts molded on women's bodies then draped in color or dressed in shells and coins.
He collected art as well; his mansion had paintings by LeRoy Nieman on the wall, and he bragged that his Picasso etchings were worth millions.
He had a walk-on role in Arizona Opera's production of "Aida" this spring.
Marin could be heroic: After his death, a woman wrote on his Facebook wall, recounting a visit to Yosemite's El Capitan, a destination for big-wall rock climbers: "I can still hear your calming voice talking me down the final rappel when I was injured, and I will never forget how you carried me up the steep path back to the road that day."
He climbed the highest peaks on six continents: McKinley in Alaska, Aconcagua in South America, Elbrus in Europe, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Kosciusko in Australia, Everest in Asia. When he went hiking he sometimes wore a jacket with the names of the summits on it and a check mark next to the ones he had climbed. All that remained unchecked was Vinson Massif in Antarctica, but he intended to take that peak next year.
There's a clip from a documentary film that shows Marin at his best before his life fell apart.
He's being interviewed at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, an event he attended every year, dressed as a commercial pilot — which he wasn't — to give free rides in his Cessna to fellow festivalgoers.
Never mind what he's saying: His eyes are alive and flashing beneath the brim of his captain's cap, his smile gleams, his voice flows musically.
He waxed purple about mountaineering, once writing:
"I have dared to climb the highest mountains in the world, appalling pyramids of unforgiving snow, ice, and living rock, and set my feet on windswept heights known only to the courageous and the crazy, where views far too beautiful for mere words to express dazzle the senses and touch in the soul a paradise of peace and joy where the horrors of the half-lived life are unfamiliar. I have dared to profane with my presence high sacred places where the thin veil between here and now and the mystery of the great beyond is but a frozen whisper in a howling wind. Feeling excruciating fatigue, gasping for breath in the rarefied air, mindful of lost friends, and worried loved ones, I have experienced things you may never know, even in your wildest dreams, and while pushing myself beyond the boundaries of human endurance, facing mortal danger with every step, I have opened my eyes and beheld the face of God. I am awake."
An unreliable narrator
But there were other facets of Michael Marin's personality, and they led to his unraveling.
And for all his adventure and showmanship, Marin was an unreliable narrator of his own life.
He claimed his Picasso etchings were worth millions of dollars. But a girlfriend who was with Marin when he bought them in Las Vegas said he was sincerely moved by their beauty, but had paid only a few hundred thousand dollars for them.
He had photographs of himself in exotic destinations around the world, and stories of his trips that he had long told to friends, so his travels were mostly real.
But his self-published book "Fluctuations," which told of his adventures and close calls in Southeast Asia, also carried this note on the copyright page: "This book is a complicated hybrid of fact and fiction. Virtually all of the stories and incidents are true, but in many instances, names, places, and other details have been changed or fictionalized to protect the privacy, anonymity, and safety of the individuals to whom they refer."
He wrote "Fluctuations" after he left Asia and investment banking. Marin described the book's tone as humorous and ironic. It also is full of animus, and at times seems a rant.
In the book, he issues warnings to his former colleagues, boasting that he has firearms training and that if anyone tries to sue, he could unleash information that would reveal their mistresses or open them to criminal investigation.
In its first pages, he admits he will never work in banking again, given the bridges he burns over the rest of the book.
One former female friend said he could be a bully.
He could not let go of his defeats, however trivial, and instead lashed out self-destructively.
In 2000, Marin got a traffic citation in Gilbert for running his motorcycle into a car. He went over the handlebars and ended up in the hospital, and was issued a citation for failure to control a vehicle to avoid collision.
One might think that the rich man and world adventurer would pay the fine and go on with life. But Marin appealed, acting as his own attorney, and lost the case. He wrote a self-aggrandizing and condescending brief to the court, detailing the charity work he had done right before the accident, and his driving expertise for having attended a world-famous driving school.
He got a new trial — but only because the audio recording of his first trial was garbled. He lost the second trial as well, but he didn't let it go. In 2002, he self-published another book, this time about "moron drivers."
And one might think a man who doted on family would own up to fathering a child.
Marin lived with a woman for three months in 2003. In 2004, she filed a paternity suit, seeking support for her newborn daughter. Marin spent two years fighting her until a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that he was indeed the child's father and needed to pay child support.
Finally he softened: He accepted the child as his own. He introduced her to his four children by his ex-wife, Tammy. He called every Sunday night at 7p.m.
Tragically, the child's mother died of natural causes just six days before Marin's death.
An unbelievable escape
How Marin ended up with a multimillion-dollar mansion in the Biltmore Estates is as fuzzy as everything else in his life story.
He bought the house in September 2008, after a friend and business partner lost it to foreclosure, and he paid for it through a complex series of transactions. It came with a monthly mortgage payment of $17,250 and an imminent $2.3million balloon payment.
The next spring, Marin devised a lottery to sell the house. He would sell 176,000 lottery tickets at $25 each. Then, in the end, the mortgage would be paid off, Marin would make a profit, and the rest would go to a worthy charity he had chosen, a crisis center for children.
Later, he would explain his plan to New Times reporter Paul Rubin: "I thought, 'Here's my chance. I'm gonna sell this house anyway and pay a real-estate agent $200,000 or $300,000. Why not sell it a little bit at a time with the raffle?' I wasn't going to make any money on the deal, just get out of it what I put into it and move along. If it went well, the center would have gotten maybe $500,000, so it sounded like a great thing, no downside."
In May 2009, Marin climbed Mount Everest. He thought publicity from the climb would aid in the sale of lottery tickets. He did live interviews with a local TV station while he was atop Everest.
But then state authorities determined that the lottery was illegal and shut it down.
The lottery drawing was supposed to be on July 4, 2009.
On July 5, Marin called 911 to report that his house was on fire and that he was going to escape using a rope ladder. He claimed he was asleep inside the house when he heard the smoke alarm. As he struggled through the thick smoke, he remembered that he had a scuba tank in his bedroom closet. He said he put on the tank and mask, climbed out a window and descended a rope ladder to escape.
Media responded to his incredible escape. That evening, he did interviews from his hospital bed.
Arson investigators — and the insurance company that held Marin's home-insurance policy — took a closer look. Marin's prized paintings were not in the house when it burned, nor was his pet macaw. They found boxes full of old telephone books stacked end to end, as if to fuel the fire. And they claimed the fire had been intentionally started in four separate spots in the home.
Prosecutors charged Marin with arson of an occupied structure, a crime with penalties as severe as second-degree murder — even though the "occupant" was Marin himself. He was arrested on Aug. 19, 2009, and spent 10 days in jail before being released on bond.
His former attorney, Richard Gierloff, claimed that the fire had started in an electrical box and that the boxes of phone books were in such a position because Marin was only moving in, and the newsprint in the books was to be used in Marin's decoupage artwork. Marin worked with resins, which could explain the open containers of acetone that the arson investigators suggested were accelerants.
But Marin was out of money. Prosecutors later showed that his bank account had dwindled from about $900,000 in 2008 to $42,700 just before the fire. His 401(k) had only $50 in it. And he was facing new legal expenses.
In September 2009, he sent an e-mail to his friends, asking if they could help him financially.
"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)," he wrote. "How would you (...) 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."
He needed somewhere to live while awaiting trial, so Jana Bru, Marin's best friend of 12 years, former girlfriend and business partner, took him into her Chandler home.
By April 2011, he had to let Gierloff go and request a court-appointed attorney. At the end of the required financial statement, he penned a note explaining that he no longer had any assets.
A month later, in May 2011, he bought a canister of cyanide from a California mail-order chemical supplier for $93.77 including shipping.
That same month, two of Marin's friends were struck by a post on Facebook in which he asked something like, "What would you do if you only had a short time to live?"
Robert Morgan Fisher, a childhood friend of Marin's who had recently reconnected with him on Facebook, was alarmed by the post.
Recently when he went back to the site to look for it, he found it had been deleted. Fisher's own response was still there, asking if Marin was in bad health or if something else was going on.
Former girlfriend Kristin Martin saw it, too, and in hindsight she related it to something Marin had once said about his detention in Malaysia, as if he was saying he would never go to prison.
"He told me he would never be in a situation like that again," Martin said.
The inner man emerges
In December 2011, Marin contacted Fisher on Facebook to tell him he had written a play about his 10 days in jail after his arrest. Fisher is a writer and a singer-songwriter, and Marin wanted his opinion as to whether the play was any good.
The play's main character is named Michael Marin, and he is in jail after being falsely accused of burning down his house. The character Marin has climbed Mount Everest.
"I reached the summit a little over three months ago," he says. "It's been downhill ever since."
And one beat later: "I've wanted to say that ever since I got arrested."
The onstage Marin has the hallmarks of the real character's life of extremes. He's an intellectual. He's a karate expert — his cellmates pronounce him to be "hard-core, bad-ass." The script compares his character to the man from the television beer commercials: The Most Interesting Man in the World.
He talks about his time in Asia, his mountain conquests, his brushes with death, his artwork. But then the arrogant promo turns into heartfelt confessional. The tough-guy voice softens, and the inner Michael Marin emerges.
"I really don't know what things are like for most people, but for most of my life I've been terribly insecure," he says.
"I'd like to think that for all of my strengths and weaknesses, good points and bad points, successes and failures, I am fundamentally a good person, worthy of being loved and accepted just the way I am, simply because I'm a human being, but it seems like the only forms of love and acceptance I've ever experienced are highly conditional."
At the end of the play, the Marin character is beaten unconscious by sheriff's detention officers and, one presumes, left to die.
On May 20, Michael Marin made this post to Facebook:
"Three years ago today, I was on top of the world. Tomorrow my trial begins. ... One ceases to recognize the significance of mountain peaks if they are not viewed occasionally from the deepest valleys."
The opening arguments in Marin's arson trial were on the morning of May 21.
Deputy County Attorney Chris Rapp said, "Michael Marin couldn't pay his mortgage, so he burned down his house."
Marin's defense attorney, Lindsay Abramson, countered, "The state wants you to make a leap, that because he is eccentric, because he saved his own life wearing a scuba suit, that he committed arson."
Abramson pointed out that many of the prosecution's experts were paid for by the insurance company that covered the house.
At trial, forensic accountants detailed Marin's finances and arson investigators went through their findings. Marin did not testify.
To his friends, Marin seemed optimistic and controlled despite the pressure. He made Facebook posts with quotations by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Will Smith and others: "In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends." And "If you're absent during my struggle, don't expect to be present during my success."
He was outwardly upbeat.
Susie Spicer, Marin's last girlfriend, was with him during the trial. The two had met sometime in 2011, Spicer said, "synchronistically, on the top of Camelback Mountain."
"In the last weeks, Michael was very much at peace and very focused on actively working toward feeling happy despite his life circumstances," Spicer said in an e-mail. "He was very spiritual. He meditated daily and spent weekends mountain climbing and canyoneering."
Marin, however, fought with his court-appointed attorneys. He especially felt they didn't understand relevant fire science that would exonerate him.
In a note that his family and closest friends received after his death, ostensibly to relay his wishes for his burial, he said, "I wrote lengthy memoranda to help my lawyers, but it was like I was playing piano for ducks. They just didn't get it."
After his death, Marin's son Paul posted a message to one of Marin's Facebook friends, saying his father "felt the investigation was biased and flawed, that the prosecution was overzealous and unfair, and that his defense was grossly inadequate and the sentencing overly harsh. He prepared a document for us to release concerning his vision of how his defense should have gone. We (his kids) are unsure as to whether releasing this would just add fuel to the undesired raging media attention."
A man in despair
The verdict was reached on the morning of June 28. It was to be read at 1 p.m.
Marin messaged Spicer to pick him up, and they went to court in her car. He had already e-mailed someone in his family to let them know where his car could be found in the event things went bad.
The hearing began late. Marin sat at the defense table; Spicer sat behind him in the gallery. The jury entered; the clerk read the verdict.
Marin closed his eyes in despair when he heard the word "guilty" and that the jurors found it to be a dangerous crime, which meant he would not be eligible for parole and would be taken immediately into custody to await sentencing.
He rubbed his hands up his face, with one hand cupped, and as he brought them back down, it appeared as if he opened his mouth and swallowed something.
The jury left the courtroom, and Judge Bruce Cohen was talking to the attorneys about how they would argue the trial's next phase, when the jury would decide if Marin was eligible for a harsher-than-average prison sentence. Cohen would make the final decision: the usual, or "presumptive," sentence was 10½ years in prison, but Cohen could have given Marin up to 21 years.
About seven minutes had passed since the clerk read the verdict. Marin looked to Spicer and nodded. He mouthed the words "I love you," and she said the same back to him.
He reached out as his attorneys' paralegal offered him a box of tissues, then put his head down. Spicer heard him say, "I can't do this." He began shaking.
Suddenly Marin gasped like a man who had been holding his breath underwater and had finally breached the surface. He started to collapse forward, making a loud snoring noise as if his trachea were a balloon releasing air.
Abramson, his attorney, caught him as he buckled toward the floor. Nearly everyone in the courtroom froze, but Spicer rushed forward and she and Abramson laid Marin on his back and tore off his tie and opened his shirt collar.
The judge stayed on the bench, watching in shock. The prosecutor stared blankly. Marin's other attorney paced anxiously. Two dozen spectators sat numbly in the gallery, and a few laughed nervously.
Sheriff's deputies and even the fire captain who had investigated the arson attempted to administer first aid. When clear liquid began flowing from Marin's mouth, they turned him on his side to keep him from choking. Spicer laid Marin's cheek on her thigh and stroked his hair.
Paramedics arrived and started administering chest pressure. Minutes later, they wheeled Marin out of the courtroom on a stretcher. His cheeks were blue, and he was already dead.