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Method of Study

Purpose of the study: This study was conducted to identify characteristics of arson-homicides and to provide arson and homicide investigators with information on patterns and common characteristics of such crimes. Examination of a large number of cases, widely dispersed geographically, could provide information helpful to investigators of these difficult cases. This study is one of a series of related research projects conducted by the Arson and Bombing Investigative Services Subunit of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, housed at the FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia. The subunit has conducted a series of studies on arson and serial arsonists (see Icove and Estepp, 1987; Icove and Gilman, 1989; Icove and Horbert, 1990; Sapp, Gary, Huff and James, 1993; Sapp, Gary, Huff and James, 1994; Sapp, Huff, Gary, Icove, and Horbert, 1994, among others; see also Douglas, Burgess, Burgess and Ressler, 1992).

The Population Studied: Data for 183 cases of arson-homicide were obtained from the Federal Bureau of investigation’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP), located at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. A data search was conducted for fire-related homicide cases from the synopses of almost 10,000 cases reported to VICAP from throughout the United States since 1985. The data set is made up of 183 cases from 36 states and the District of Columbia reported to VICAP between 1985 and 1994. Only 31 of the cases have been cleared by arrest. The 183 cases comprise the total population of cases reported to VICAP that involved significant burning of the body, regardless of whether the burning was prior to death (ante-mortem) or after death (post-mortem).

Cases reported to the VICAP are not randomly selected but are based on reporting criteria that is consistent across the nation’s law enforcement community. These cases do not represent all arson-homicides that occurred during this period but probably do include most of the unsolved cases. Since the analyses below are based on the total cases in VICAP, the differences noted are real differences and not an artifact of sampling or statistical analysis.

Variables Examined: The study examined variables related to the victim, to the known offenders, and the offense. Since the data were collected from case synopses provided by over 150 different law enforcement agencies from 36 states, data for all of the variables were not always available for analysis. Since some of the cases had more than one victim, the only victim data included in the analyses were those available for the primary, or targeted victim. As an example, in one case, a former boyfriend killed a 26 year old female and subsequently set her house of fire. Her children, aged six and four, died in the fire. Only the 26 year-old female’s characteristics were included since she was the targeted victim. This protocol was followed throughout the analyses, thus precluding multiple compounding of data on the offenses and offender.

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