On April 27, 2005, arsonist Thomas Sweatt was arrested as he left a meeting for KFC employees. It would mark the end of 30 years of fire-starting for Sweatt.
Those 30 years included 353 fires, many of which were never attributed to Sweatt until he identified them as his work. Perhaps that’s because, Sweatt, a Southeast resident, was a civic-minded man who kept to himself. But Washington City Paper‘s Dave Jamieson embarked on an award-winning correspondence that lasted over a year to find out just what drives the mind of an arsonist. After the jump, read an excerpt from the 2007 story.
For Sweatt, different fires grew out of different feelings—many out of a sense of powerlessness, others out of spite, some even out of love—but more than anything else, his decades-long rampage was about sexual fantasy:
Why did I set the fires when I set them? That’s an all too familiar question that can not be understood if you don’t know the story. There were different reasons for most of the fires. It could be because of one feeling the need to have power about something or someone….I don’t want you driving that car so the fire becomes a weapon to destroy it. Or in case of some house fires—I might like a particular style of a house and wish one day to own it (but it’s only a dream). Fire is a tool to destroy and some house fires also becomes my phantasy of people scrambling to exit windows and sort-of feel like they need my help so I stay and watch. Then I’d masterbate over the fire while driving away from the schene.
Sweatt was finally apprehended after an investigation that lasted nearly two years and substantial manpower. He is now serving a double life sentence in a federal prison Terre Haute, Ind.