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 arsonists 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.