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Chapter 3 (continued)

After setting the fires, the societal retaliation serial arsonist does not contact the media or law enforcement and does not interject himself into the case. He does not take souvenirs nor does he even follow the cases in the media. In all respects, his life style does not change before or after committing an arson. He typically uses drugs or alcohol before setting fires but not at a level of usage significantly different from normal. His arsons tend to increase in both frequency and severity over time.

Case History of a Societal Retaliation Serial Arsonist

A 23 year old dishwasher confessed to setting 16 fires in a small New England community because he was "mad at the world for looking down on him." In his confession he described a troubled life that included sexual abuse and thoughts of suicide. "When I was small, I never had it real easy. My mother used to lie to me. My father used to lie to me at times. And then I started lying. I thought that was more or less a way of life." He said he was sexually assaulted when he was nine years old by a neighbor. He also said his school days were difficult. "I had a lot of trouble in school and I started getting down on myself. I thought of committing suicide from time to time. But I knew life went on." He said he started drinking heavily after his father died three years earlier. He lost three jobs in the three years since his father’s death.

Neighbors described him as "everybody’s friend and a gentle soul." He was born and raised in the town. The son of a farmer, he was neither athletic nor scholarly. He was considered hard-working although limited in his accomplishments. One townsperson said, "he’ll probably never be able to hold much of a job other than dishwashing." He was working as a dishwasher in a local restaurant when arrested. He said his community was "a real pretty place until I started burning the ... thing down." His fires included six vegetation fires, two barns, two summer homes, two unoccupied homes, and an occupied building. Other fires were set at the back of a motel and several other buildings around the town. Most of the fires had been set in the rear of the buildings, often by wedging paper or rags underneath a clapboard and lighting them with a match. The fires seemed to be set randomly, rather than targeted at specific individuals.

221. Personal Retaliation Serial Arsonists

Five of the serial arsonists in the ABIS study were classified as personal retaliation serial arsonists (Douglas et al, 1992). There was insufficient information to form typical statements about this type of serial arsonist. Therefore the discussion below will summarize the observed traits and characteristics of the personal retaliation serial arsonist.

Attributes of the Personal Retaliation Serial Arsonist

All five personal retaliation serial arsonists were white, four males and one female. All four of the men had tattoos. One was married, two divorced, and two were single. The average educational level for the five personal retaliation arsonists was 7. 75 years. Only one had reached the level of a General Education Development (GED) certificate. One had served in the military and two others had been rejected for military service. All five had histories of misdemeanor and felony arrests. The four men had multiple misdemeanor arrests and multiple felony arrests. The female had only one misdemeanor arrest for petty theft but multiple felonies.

Life History of the Personal Retaliation Serial Arsonist

Only one personal retaliation serial arsonists had a foster home placement but all five had several stays in juvenile detention, state juvenile institutions, county jails, and state prisons. Two had also been in a mental health institution. All five had psychological histories and two had attempted suicide. Four of the five had some type of permanent physical handicap or chronic medical condition. Two of the men were heterosexual, two were bisexual and the female identified her sexual personal as homosexual. They had generally stable work histories in jobs involving unskilled and skilled labor. The average IQ score was in the low normal range.

Two came from middle class families and the remainder from lower class families. Two families were described as advantaged or comfortable socioeconomically. The other three were either marginal or submarginal. Three of the five families were described as usually stable and two as chronically unstable. Three lived in families with both parents present, one with mother alone and one with other relatives. All five of the personal retaliation serial arsonists described their relationship with their mother as warm and close but three described their paternal relationship as hostile and aggressive. The family atmosphere was warm and friendly for two, cold and troubled for two and sometimes one and then the other for the remaining member of the group. Similarly there were mixed ratings given to playmates and school atmosphere by the personal retaliation serial arsonists.

History of Arson by the Personal Retaliation Serial Arsonists

The personal retaliation serial arsonists set their first fire at an average age of 23 years, although the range was from 7 years of age to 41 years. The personal retaliation arsonists set a total of 27 fires, an average of 5.3 each. The fires were set within 1-2 miles of the arsonist’s home or workplace and were usually set after work or on days off and weekends. All were in areas with which the arsonist was well acquainted and all were committed alone. Target selection was based on directing the retaliation at a person. When open entry was not available, the arsonist either broke in or set a fire outside.

Feelings as the fire was being set were described as angry, mad, getting even and revenge. Four of the fires were set in residences and four in vehicles that belonged to the person against whom the arsonist was retaliating. No fires were set in businesses by the personal retaliation serial arsonists.

Characteristics of the Offenses by the Personal Retaliation Serial Arsonists

Available materials or gasoline were used as accelerants and gas cans and matches were left behind at the scene. Two of the five personal retaliation serial arsonists used a device for ignition. One used a candle to delay ignition and the other threw a Molotov cocktail against the wall of a house.

After setting the fire, the personal retaliation serial arsonists left the scene and only returned to the scene after 1-2 days. On average they were questioned four times without being arrested. When arrested, four did not resist while one struggled physically with the arresting officers. Two denied responsibility and three accepted full responsibility.

They did not consider the possibility of being caught and three of the five stated they would have set the fire even if they knew they would have been caught. None took any actions to avoid identification. The personal retaliation serial arsonists did not change their life style or behavior after setting a personal retaliation fire. One contacted both the police and the victim after a fire.

Three of the personal retaliation serial arsonists used alcohol before setting a personal retaliation fire and two of the three indicated that the use of alcohol exceeded the normal pattern of usage. Two used drugs without significant deviation from regular drug usage patterns. Thus while substance use may be associated with personal retaliation arsons, the association does not appear to be a critical or essential element in the crime. The frequency of fires set by the personal retaliation serial arsonists did not significantly change over time. The severity of the fires also remained consistent over time.

Case History of a Personal Retaliation Serial Arsonist

Joe (not his real name) is serving a ten year sentence for aggravated arson after he was convicted of setting three fires in occupied structures. Joe is 27 years of age and has a history of misdemeanor and felony arrests, primarily for assaultive behavior. He describes setting his first fire when he was 16 years old: "This old man lived down the street and he hollered and cussed at me for cutting across his yard. To get even with him I burned his garage down." When asked about his other fires, he notes, "Well, this girl just suddenly broke up and didn’t even talk to me and we had gone together, you know, for a while. She got a car for her birthday and she didn’t need to get rides from me anymore so I set the damn car on fire." "Yeah, I set a few other fires, mostly when someone did something to me. Like one day the manager of the drugstore told me to leave because I was looking through a magazine in the store. So like the next day I piled a bunch of cardboard boxes against the backdoor and lit it off." Joe refused to discuss the fires he set in two apartment houses and one private residence except to say that he had "good reasons" for setting the fires. He did admit that he intended to hurt someone in those fires.

Institutional Retaliation Serial Arsonists

In the ABIS study of serial arsonists, seven were classified as institutional retaliation arsonists. This classification of arsonist targets institutions such as churches, government buildings, universities, educational facilities or corporations (Douglas et al, 1992). The following discussion provides summarized information about the behaviors and traits of the seven institutional retaliation serial arsonists.

Attributes of Institutional Retaliation Serial Arsonists

All seven of the institutional retaliation serial arsonists were males. Five were white, one black and 1 Hispanic. Four had tattoos and all seven were single. Only one had a previous marriage. Their average educational level was 8.3 years of schooling. Six of the seven had misdemeanor records and all seven had felony records. Four of the seven had previously served a felony sentence for aggravated arson.

Life History of Institutional Retaliation Serial Arsonists

Four of the seven had records of juvenile detention and juvenile institutions. Three had mental health institution stays in their background and a history of psychological problems. All had served prison time. Three defined themselves as bisexual and four as heterosexual. Overall IQ scores were in the average intelligence range. Four of the institutional retaliation serial arsonists came from middle class families and three from lower class families. Four described their family atmosphere as warm and friendly. The other three said their family atmosphere was cold and distant. School atmosphere was warm and friendly for three and cold and distant for three. Playmates were described as war and friendly.

 
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