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Arsonist and His Motive Elude Officials in D.C. Area

September 28, 2003|Shweta Govindarajan | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Most of the fires begin the same way: The arsonist lurks outside in the predawn hours. Inside, residents lie fast asleep. Flammable liquid is splashed on a front porch or a rear entrance. A flame is thrown, and the culprit flees into the dark as the blaze takes hold.

After more than six months, police have yet to capture the serial arsonist who may have set as many as 28 fires at seemingly random residential locations in Washington and suburban Maryland, killing one person and injuring seven others.

A deluge of leads in the investigation has generated a composite drawing of a possible suspect and a psychological profile that may provide a glimpse into the arsonist's mind.

But the criminal's identity -- and motivation -- have continued to elude authorities.

"I believe we are getting closer [to solving the case] every day. We have a number of ... promising leads," said Ronald D. Blackwell, Prince George's County fire chief, who is head of the task force formed to investigate the fires. "[But] leads that offer great promise don't always pan out."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
District of Columbia arsons -- A quote in an article in Sunday's Section A about the investigation of a series of arsons in the Washington area was attributed incorrectly to David Sneed, president of the International Assn. of Arson Investigators. It should have been attributed to Prince George's County Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell.

Shortly after the last fire was set this month, Blackwell issued a public appeal asking the arsonist to contact the task force.

"This fire-setting may be a means for him to relieve stress or frustration caused by other people," Blackwell said in a public statement. "This individual may feel pain and anger more than the average person and therefore chose to relieve those feelings through fire-setting.... From our understanding of individuals involved in this type of behavior, we know they often desire to communicate a message to society at large.

"We want this person to know that we are a willing audience for that message."

The decision to engage the arsonist publicly is just one of the multiple techniques investigators are using to solve the string of crimes, Blackwell said. The invitation has yielded calls and information, but nothing conclusive has emerged, he said.

"These arsons are very difficult and painstaking investigations," Blackwell said. "I believe we will get the case solved."

One of the fires, set at a house in northeast Washington, killed an 86-year-old woman in June.

In addition to the Prince George's County Fire Department, agencies involved in the investigation include the District of Columbia fire and police departments and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The apparent lull in the arson activity could be a mixed blessing for investigators, according to one arson expert.

"It is generally easier to effect an arrest if fires are happening, but there are other techniques that can be used to identify someone once a fire is extinguished," said David Sneed, president of the International Assn. of Arson Investigators. "Having the fires is really a two-edged sword, because with the fires there is the potential for someone to be injured or hurt."

Authorities say the physical evidence gathered at the crime scenes has yielded similarities that have helped them link 16 fires in Washington and 12 in Prince George's County. So far, six of the blazes have been conclusively linked as the work of the same person.

"Why are these fires being set? In some textbooks, they talk about motive ... thrill, revenge. We have worked to avoid speculating about why," Blackwell said. "The person responsible knows. We're certainly looking to find out."

Officials said they are working around the clock to follow up on numerous tips coming into an arson hotline. More than 150 suspects have been interviewed and a few of them remain under scrutiny, authorities said.

Authorities have declined to disclose many of the details about the fires, including the exact exterior location of the fires or whether there were any similarities among the homes that were set ablaze.

That the fires are being set while people are sleeping is especially sinister, Sneed said -- an indication that the person is, at the very least, trying to instill fear in his victims.

"This individual is wanting some attention ... he knows [setting fires] is going to cause panic to the people living inside the house," said Sneed, who also is a private arson investigator in Texas. "The individual knows the risk."

Arson is a particularly difficult crime to solve because there rarely are witnesses, Sneed said. Arsonists typically act alone and use relatively simple means to start fires, Sneed said.

The motivation behind the fires could range from a desire for retribution to a way to gain notoriety, he said. The break could signal that the arsonist's desire has been quenched, but serial arsonists often progress to setting larger and more devastating fires, Sneed said.

"If he thinks he's been seen, he'll go underground for a while. If this person is looking for notoriety and exposure, he's going to [do] whatever it takes to achieve that."

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