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Chapter 1
The Study of Serial Arsonists

Introduction

The information contained in this report is the result of on-going research conducted by the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy in Quantico, Virginia. The NCAVC is a law-enforcement-oriented resource center that consolidates research, training, investigative, and operational support functions to provide assistance to law enforcement agencies confronted with unusual, high-risk, vicious, or repetitive crimes. In 1986, a subunit was established within the Center to study arson and bombings. Representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms joined the Center staff to serve in the Arson and Bombing Investigative Services Subunit (ABIS). This arrangement is based upon a concurrent investigative responsibility with the FBI in these areas. ABIS has the primary responsibility to provide assistance in arson, bombing, terrorism, and related violent crimes submitted to the NCAVC by federal, state, local, and foreign law enforcement agencies. The staff of the Center is joined by faculty from major universities, members of the mental health and medical professions, and other law enforcement representatives (NCAVC, 1992).

The subunit has conducted a series of studies on serial arsonists (See Icove and Estepp, 1987; Icove and Gilman, 1989; Icove and Horbert, 1990; Sapp, Gary, Huff and James, 1993, 1994; Sapp, Huff, Gary, Icove, and Horbert, 1994; Huff, 1993, 1994; and Sapp and Huff, 1994. See also Douglas, Burgess, Burgess and Ressler, 1992). These studies form the basis for the conclusions and recommendations contained in this report.

Statement of Problem

This study arose from a concern about the extent of serial arson in the United States. Serial arson is an offense committed by firesetters who set three or more fires with a significant cooling off period between the fires (Douglas, et al, 1992). Arson is a violent crime, often taking the lives of innocent people, while also causing tremendous financial losses in property. According to the Uniform Crime Reports produced by the FBI (1992), arsons in 1991 exceeded one billion dollars in property loss. Arson is the second leading cause of deaths in residential fires (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1988). Despite the huge losses in property and the deaths caused by arson, relatively little research has been conducted on arsonists. Most of the available research is in the form of clinical studies of very small numbers of arsonists. (See Geller, 1992 for an extensive review of the literature on arson studies in forensic psychiatry). This study is intended to fill some of the gaps in knowledge about arsonists, particularly the serial arsonists.

This project was planned and implemented with several research goals designed to meet specific needs of arson investigators and prosecutors. The goals included:

  • Identify common characteristics of arsons committed by serial arsonists.
  • Identify common motives and related characteristics of arsonists who repeatedly set fires.
  • Determine if serial arsonists share common characteristics with other arsonists.
  • Determine the extent to which serial arsons may be classified in accordance with the Crime Classification Manual for serious crimes developed at the NCAVC. (See Douglas, et al, 1992).
  • Identify any related characteristics that would be of assistance to investigators of serial arsons.

These goals are based on the belief that any understanding of the typology of arsonists, particularly typological classification based on motivations, may enhance investigative efforts and provide a focus for intervention efforts. Examination and reporting the results may facilitate dialog between the various disciplines and investigative units involved in arson study and investigation. It is also intended that the information supplied will assist arson investigators in developing skills in reading the characteristics of crime scene evidence and applying that evidence to behavior and patterns of thinking on the part of the arsonist.

Definition of Terms

The following terms are used throughout the report and are defined here to facilitate understanding of the findings and conclusions of the research.

Arson - Arson is the willful and malicious burning of property (Douglas, et al, 1992). The criminal act of arson is divided into three elements (DeHaan, 1991):

  1. There has been a burning of property. This must be shown to the court to be actual destruction, at least in part, not just scorching or sooting (although some states include any physical or visible impairment of any surface).
  2. The burning is incendiary in origin. Proof of the existence of an effective incendiary device, no matter how simple it may be, is adequate. Proof must be accomplished by showing specifically how all possible natural or accidental cases have been considered and ruled out.
  3. The burning is shown to be started with malice, that is, with the specific intent of destroying property (p.324).

Arsonist - A person apprehended, charged and convicted of one or more arsons (Douglas, et al, 1992).

Accelerant - Accelerants are any type of material or substance added to the targeted materials to enhance the combustion of those materials and to accelerate the burning (Douglas, et al, 1992).

Classification of Arson by Style and Type

A variety of descriptive terms are added to the term arson in an attempt to communicate varieties and variations in arson behavior. Some commonly used terms are single, double, triple arsons, as well as mass, spree and serial arson. As reflected in Chart 1 below, the style of the arson involves the number of fires set, the number of separate events occurring, the number of sites or locations involved, and whether or not there was a cooling off period between the fires.

Chart 1
Arson Classification by
Style and Type

Style

Single

Double

Triple

Mass

Spree

Serial

Number of fires

1

2

3

3 or more

3 or more

3 or more

Number of events

1

1

1

1

1

3 or more

Number of Sites

1

2

3

1

3 or more

3 or more

Cool-off Period

No

No

No

No

No

Yes

This classification by style and type is compatible with the classification used in the Crime Classification Manual. The terms single, double and triple arsons are shown to be the number of fires set at one site at one time in a single event. The other three terms are somewhat more complex and are defined as follows:

Mass Arson - Mass arson involves an offender who sets three or more fires at the same site or location during a limited period of time (Douglas, et al, 1992).

Spree Arson - Spree arson involves an arsonist who sets three or more fires at separate locations with no emotional cooling-off period between the fires (Douglas, et al, 1992).

Serial Arson - Serial arson involves an offender who sets three or more fires with a cooling-off period between the fires (Douglas, et al, 1992).

 
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