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Chapter 1 (continued)

Classification of Motivations of Arsonists


It is in the area of motives that most of the literature on firesetting and arson has concentrated. The literature also offers a number of classification schemes and typologies, most often based on motives. Geller (1992) offers an exhaustive review of that literature and identifies 20 or more attempts to classify arsonists into typologies. Several of the earlier typologies contributed significantly to the current understanding of the motives and profiles of arsonists (in particular, see Lewis and Yarnell, 1951; Steinmetz, 1966; Robbins, 1967; Hurley and Monahan, 1969; Inciardi, 1970; Vandersall and Wiener, 1970; Wolford,1972; and Levin, 1976). In a more recent work, Sapp, et al (1993a, 1993b) followed the Crime Classification Manual typology in their study of the motives of shipboard arsonists. Geller (1992) adds another classification to the literature, more clinically focused than most of the others. He notes that arson may be unassociated with psychobiologic disorders or may be associated with medical or neurological disorders, or mental disorders. Geller (1992) also separates juvenile firesetting and juvenile fireplay from the adult arsonists. Appendix contains a comprehensive bibliography of research literature related to arson and motivations for arson.

Motive is defined as an inner drive or impulse that is the cause, reason or incentive that induces or prompts a specific behavior (Rider, 1980). The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), located at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia engages in the research of arson motives. Through this research, the NCAVC has determined that the identification of the offender’s motive is a key element in crime analysis. This method of analysis is used by the NCAVC to identify personal traits and characteristics exhibited by an unknown offender.

The NCAVC reviewed arson research literature, actual arson cases, and interviewed incarcerated arsonists across the nation. As a result, the following motive classifications consistently appear and prove most effective in identifying offender characteristics:

  1. Vandalism
  2. Excitement
  3. Revenge
  4. Crime Concealment
  5. Profit
  6. Extremist

The motivations discussed in this chapter are outlined and described in the Crime Classification Manual (Douglas, Burgess, Burgess and Ressler, 1992). For purposes of reference and ease in cross referencing, the motives are classified using the same numbering system used in the Crime Classification Manual (CCM).

200. Vandalism-motivated Arson:

Vandalism-motivated arson is defined as malicious or mischievous firesetting that results in damage to property. One of the most common targets is schools or school property and educational facilities. Vandals also frequently target abandoned structures and flammable vegetation. Vandalism- motivated arson is further discussed in Chapter 5.

210: Excitement-motivated Arson:

Offenders motivated by excitement include seekers of thrills, attention, recognition, and rarely, but importantly, sexual gratification. (The stereotypical arsonist who sets fires for sexual gratification is quite rare).

Potential targets of the excitement motivated arsonist run full spectrum from so-called nuisance fires to occupied apartment houses at nighttime. Fire fighters are known to set fires so they can engage in the suppression effort (Huff, 1994). Security guards have set fires to relieve boredom and gain recognition. Chapter 4 contains additional information on the characteristics and behaviors of excitement motivated arsonists.

220. Revenge-motivated Arson:

Revenge motivated fires are set in retaliation for some injustice, real or imagined, perceived by the offender. (See Chapter 3). Often revenge is also an element of other motives. This concept of mixed motives is expanded and further discussed below. The primary motive of revenge is further divided into four major subgroups.

221. Personal Revenge:

The subgroup with this motive, as the name implies, strikes at an individual with the use of fire to retaliate for a personal grievance. This one-on-one retaliation may be a one time occurrence and not the product of a serial arsonist. Triggering such retaliation may be an argument, fight, personal affront or any of an infinite array of events perceived by the offender to warrant retaliation. Favorite targets include the victim’s vehicle, home or personal possessions.

222. Societal Retaliation:

Perhaps the most dangerous of the revenge motivated arsonists is the one who feels he has been betrayed by society in general. This person generally suffers from a lifelong feeling of inadequacy, loneliness, persecution, or abuse. He strikes out in revenge against the society he perceives has wronged him. He may suffer from a congenital condition affecting appearance or health. His targets are random and he often escalates in his fire setting behavior. All known cases involve serial arsonists.

223. Institutional Retaliation:

Arsonists with retaliation against institutions in mind focus on such institutions as government, education, military service(s), medicine, religion, or any other entity reflecting and representing the establishment. Often these arsonists are serial arsonists, striking repeatedly at the institution(s) against which retaliation is sought. The offender, in such cases, uses fire to settle grievances with the institution and to intimidate those associated with the institution. Buildings housing the institutions are the most frequently selected targets.

224. Group Retaliation:

Targets for group retaliation may be religious, racial, fraternal (such as gangs or fraternal orders), or other groups. The offender tends to feel anger towards the group or members of the group collectively, rather than anger at a specific individual within the group. The target may be the group headquarters building, church, meeting place, or symbolic targets such as emblems or logos, regardless of to what they are attached. Arsonists motivated by group retaliation sometimes become serial offenders.

230. Crime Concealment- Motivated Arson:

Arson is the secondary criminal activity in this motivational category. The fire is set for the purpose of covering up a murder or burglary or to eliminate evidence left at a crime scene. Other examples include fires set to destroy business records to conceal cases of embezzlement and the many cases of auto theft arson where the fire is set to destroy evidence. Crime concealment motives are discussed further in Chapter 5.

240. Profit-Motivated Arson:

Arsonists in this category expect to profit from their fire setting, either directly for monetary gain or more indirectly to profit from a goal other than money. Examples of direct monetary gain include insurance fraud liquidating property, dissolving businesses, destroying inventory, parcel clearance, or to gain employment. The later is exemplified by the a case of a construction worker wanting to rebuild an apartment complex he destroyed, or an unemployed laborer seeking employment as a forest fire fighter, or as a logger to salvage burned timber. (See Chapter 5 for further details).

Arsonists have set fire to western forests to rent their equipment as part of the suppression effort. In what may be the most disturbing of all, there are cases of parents murdering their own children for profit, with fire used to cover the crime. While this motive is uncommon, it is by no means rare (Huff, 1994). Cases are documented where an insured child is murdered, but more commonly the parents wish to profit from getting rid of a perceived nuisance or hindrance: their own child.

Other, non-monetary, reasons from which arsonists may profit range from setting brush fires to enhance hunting game, to setting fires to escape an undesirable environment as in the case of a serviceman (Sapp, Gary, Huff, and James, 1993, 1994).

250: Extremist-Motivated Arson:

Arsonists may set fires to further social, political, or religious causes. Examples of extremist motivated targets include abortion clinics, slaughter houses, animal laboratories, fur farms and furrier outlets. The targets of political terrorists reflect the focus of the terrorists’ wrath.

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