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Chapter 3
Revenge-Motivated Arson

Revenge motivated fires are set as a form of retaliation for some real or perceived wrong. The event or circumstance that is perceived as a wrong may have occurred months or years before the firesetting activity (Icove & Horbert, 1990). The broad classification of revenge motivated arsonists is further divided into sub-groups based on the target of the retaliation (Douglas et al, 1992). Serial arsonists are more likely to direct their retaliation at institutions and society than at individuals or groups. In the study of serial arsonists conducted by the ABIS, 59 percent of the revenge-motivated arsonists directed their retaliation against society in general. Seven arsonists (20.6 percent) sought revenge against institutions of society. Five (14.7 percent) set personal revenge fires and two (5.9 percent) set fires to retaliate against a group.

The "Typical" Revenge-Motivated Serial Arsonist

In the analysis of the characteristics and behavior of revenge-motivated serial arsonists, some attributes, characteristics, and behaviors were repeatedly noted. These most commonly occurring characteristics and behaviors are presented here in the form of a "typical" revenge motivated serial arsonist. It is important for the fire investigator to understand that no single offender is likely to display all of these typical traits and behaviors. However, it is also likely that any revenge motivated arsonist will, in fact, display many of these traits and behaviors. The purpose is to do more than reflect a typical arsonist. It is to provide a range of behaviors and traits most likely to be exhibited by the offender.

Attributes of the Revenge-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The revenge-motivated serial arsonist is almost always a male, although three of the five women in this sample were classified as revenge motivated arsonists. The arsonist is likely to be a white, single male with an average of 10 years of education. His performance in school was fair to poor although he has an above average intelligence as measured by IQ tests. His sexual orientation is heterosexual. He has tattoos or other disfigurements. He has not served in the military and has a menial, laborer type of job.

Life History of the Revenge-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The revenge-motivated serial arsonist is likely to have a long history of institutionalization. He has a history of misdemeanor and felony arrests and has served time in juvenile detention, state prison, and county jails. He has a psychological history and likely has been in a mental health institution for one or more stays.

He came from a lower to middle class home with average, comfortable socioeconomic status. He was raised by both parents in a family that was often described as unstable. He was most likely to be a first or second born child, raised in a family atmosphere described as cold and distant. Although his relationships with young playmates was reported to be warm and friendly, his school environment was cold and distant.

History of Arsons by the Revenge-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The revenge-motivated serial arsonists set an average of 35 fires each before their career was ended by conviction and incarceration. The average age among revenge-motivated arsonists for setting the first fire was 15 years, generally an older age than most other serial arsonists. More likely to set fires in buildings other than residences, in vegetation and vehicles. He is least likely to set business fires. Almost all of his fires will be set either outside a building or vehicle or inside when there is open entry to the vehicle or building. He very rarely breaks into a building to set a fire. The fires set by the revenge-motivated serial arsonist are intentional, pre-meditated and targeted. Although he may sometimes set a fire impulsively, the target will be one that fits his personal target criteria, based upon specific intentions to retaliate.

Characteristics of the Offenses by Revenge-Motivated Serial Arsonists

The revenge-motivated arsonist sets fires within walking distance of his home or workplace. He almost never has an accomplice and rarely confides in anyone about his role in particular fires. The fires are set in familiar areas within the arsonist’s comfort zone. He usually walks to the fire scene, and leaves as soon as the fire is set. He usually does not return to the scene.

The fire is set using available materials found at the scene. The most common ignition device is a match, either paper or wooden. The revenge-motivated serial arsonist does not remove items from the scene but he usually leaves the matches. He does nothing to avoid identification and does not consider the possibility of being caught. On average, he is questioned by fire investigators three to five times before arrest. When arrested, he offers no resistance. He readily accepts the responsibility for his fires and is most likely to plead guilty.

He blames his actions on conflict with others that leads to feelings of anger while setting the fires. The revenge-motivated serial arsonist does not follow the arson case(s) in the media and does not communicate with police, media or victims. He does not take souvenirs from the scene of the fire nor does he interject himself into the case in anyway. He makes no noticeable change in his lifestyle before or after the fire.

Although the revenge-motivated serial arsonists usually use alcohol or drugs before setting a fire, the use of those substances is not different from normal use. The arsonist does not significantly alter his use of drugs or alcohol after a fire. The frequency of firesetting by revenge-motivated arsonists remains very consistent. However, the severity of the fires tends to increase over time.

The "Typical" Societal Retaliation Serial Arsonist

The revenge-motivated serial arsonist whose retaliation is directed to society in general is the most dangerous of the revenge-motivated arsonists. The personal or group retaliation arsonist may feel that his revenge is complete after one or several fires. The societal retaliation arsonist, in contrast, can never totally retaliate against society with a single fire, or even a series of fires. Therefore, he is most likely to set many more fires than the other revenge motivated arsonists. The discussion below provides some of the most common attributes and behaviors of the societal retaliation arsonist.

Attributes of the Societal Retaliation Serial Arsonist

The societal retaliation serial arsonist is most likely to be male, although two of the five females included in this study were classified as societal retaliation arsonists. The arsonist is also likely to be white and single at the time of the offenses. Although not married at the time of the arson activity, the arsonist has previously been married one or two times. He has an education of 11 years with a school record of fair to poor performance. His intelligence is above average, as measured by IQ tests. He is unlikely to have served in the military services. He is employed, in jobs ranging from menial to skilled labor and has a generally stable employment record. His sexual orientation is heterosexual.

He is likely to have a juvenile record as well as a criminal history involving both misdemeanor and felony arrests. He probably has served at least one sentence in a state prison. He is very likely to have a psychological history, often involving one or more suicide attempts.

Life History of the Societal Retaliation Serial Arsonist

The societal retaliation serial arsonist was most likely raised in a lower to middle class family with average to comfortable socioeconomic circumstances. He is likely to be the first born child in a family where both parents were present, but in a home with chronic instability. He had poor relationships with his parents and his home atmosphere was cold and troubled. School was similarly reported to be in an atmosphere that was cold and troubled and his relationships with younger playmates were often troubled as well.

History of Arsons by the Societal Retaliation Serial Arsonist

After starting setting fires at an average age of about twelve and one-half years, the societal retaliation arsonists in this study set an average of 69 fires each. He typically works alone and does not confide in anyone about his arsons. He sets fires in structures other than residences and businesses, vehicles and vegetation. He rarely selects residences or businesses as targets although buildings associated with government, education, religion or other institutions may be selected. His fires are premeditated and intentional, although individual fires may be opportunistic in terms of selection of the target.

Characteristics of the Offenses by Societal Retaliation Serial Arsonists

The fires are set in areas that are familiar to the societal retaliation arsonist, normally within one to two miles of home or workplace. Most frequently, the arsonist walks to the scene of the fire. The fires are usually set after work hours and involve targets that have open entry. If open entry is not possible, the arsonist will set the fire outside. He uses available materials and lights the fires with matches which he leaves at the scene or with a cigarette lighter that he takes with him upon leaving the scene. He does not remove anything from the scene of the fire.

He leaves the scene and does not attempt to watch the fire. He will typically return to the scene within 24 hours to view the damage. He does nothing to disguise himself or to avoid identification. He does not consider the chances of getting caught. When he is arrested, he offers no resistance, admits responsibility and usually pleads guilty. On average, the societal retaliation serial arsonist is convicted of six arsons. Typically, he is questioned an average of five times by investigators before being arrested and charged.

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