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Chapter 4
Excitement-Motivated Arson

Douglas, et al (1992) classify excitement motivation arsonists into several sub-classifications. Included are thrills motivated, recognition motivated, sexual motivation, and attention motivation arsonists. The most common type of excitement motivated arsonist found in this study was the thrills type, accounting for 17 of the 25 (68.0 percent) of the excitement category. One woman was classified as an excitement motivated, thrills seeker arsonist. The thrill seeker sets fires because he craves the excitement that is satisfied by firesetting (Douglas, et al, 1992:170). Four (16.0 percent) of the excitement motivated arsonists were classified as recognition seekers. These arsonists are sometimes described as the "hero" type, often remaining at the scene of the fire to warn others, to report the fire or to assist in fire fighting efforts. This type of arsonist craves the recognition and praise s/he receives for their efforts. Four (16.0 percent) others were attention seekers. These arsonists set fires to gain attention and to meet their needs of being important.

The "Typical" Excitement-Motivated Serial Arsonist

Some attributes, characteristics, and behaviors were noted repeatedly in the analysis of the characteristics and behavior of excitement-motivated serial arsonists. These most commonly occurring characteristics and behaviors are presented here in the form of a "typical" excitement-motivated serial arsonist. Again the reader and the fire investigator are reminded that no single offender is likely to display all of these typical traits and behaviors, although it is likely that any excitement-motivated arsonist will exhibit many of the traits and behaviors. The purpose here, as in the previous chapters, 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 Excitement-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The typical excitement motivated serial arsonist is a white male who is single. He is likely to have tattoos. He has an average 11 years of schooling and was an average student in academic performance. He has a felony arrest record and may have multiple felony arrests. He is less likely to have a misdemeanor record.

Life History of the Typical Excitement-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The typical excitement-motivated serial arsonist has an extensive record of institutionalization, having been in foster homes, juvenile detention, state juvenile centers, as well as county jails and state prisons. Most have a mental health history as well. Those with mental health histories may also have suicide attempts in their background.

Usually, the excitement-motivated arsonist has a stable work background, usually employed in skilled and unskilled labor positions. He is most likely to have had a middle-class family described as average to comfortable in socioeconomic status. His relationship with his mother was likely to be warm and close but with his father, a cold and troubled relationship. He probably lived in a home with one or both parents present. His relationship with playmates aged 4-12 was reportedly warm and close but the school atmosphere was described as cold and troubled. The family was usually stable but often described as troubled and cold.

History of Arsons by the Excitement-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The excitement-motivated serial arsonist set his first fire at age 12 and set a total 40 fires on average. There is wide variation in the number of fires set by excitement motivated serial arsonists, based on the subgroup classification. Excitement-thrills motivated serial arsonists set 56 fires each while the excitement-attention motivated serial arsonists only set an average of four. The single excitement-sexual arsonist in the study set 40 fires. The excitement-recognition arsonists averaged 11 each.

The fires set by the excitement-motivated serial arsonist are typically within 1-2 miles of his home or workplace. All are set in areas with which he is familiar. Generally, he will walk to the scene of the arsons. Because he is not interested in hurting anyone, most targets are selected for minimal damage, except when the excitement-thrills arsonist is involved. In such cases, he is likely to set major conflagrations, involving businesses, residences and other structures. When he sets a vegetation fire it is likely to be a major fire, as well. His motivation requires big fires to provide the thrills.

Characteristics of the Offenses of the Excitement-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The excitement-motivated serial arsonists generally uses available materials as an accelerant and ignites the fire with matches or a cigarette lighter. Only the excitement-recognition arsonists used a device to delay ignition of the fire until he could get in position to respond to the fire. The excitement-motivated serial arsonists do not usually remove anything from the scene but they are likely to leave matches at the scene.

After setting the fire, the excitement-motivated arsonist either remains at the scene or goes to another location to observe the fire and fire suppression efforts. He will return to the scene within 24 hours of the fire. He gives no thought to the chances of being caught and would likely set the fire even if he knew he would get caught. This suggests a degree of compulsive behavior in this type of arsonist.

Once the fire is over, the excitement-motivated arsonist loses interest. After returning to the scene to see the damages, he does not follow the case in the media nor does he take souvenirs. He does not contact media, police, or victims, nor does he confide in anyone. He makes no life style or behavioral changes. Typically he does not use drugs or alcohol before the fires. If there is substance use, it is no different from normal patterns of usage. The frequency of fires may increase slightly over time but the severity is almost certain to increase. Particularly the excitement-thrills motivated arsonist seems to need bigger and bigger fires over time.

The "Typical" Thrills-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The thrills-motivated serial arsonist was the most frequently noted excitement-motivated arsonist in the ABIS study. The thrills-motivated serial arsonist differs from other excitement-motivated serial arsonists in several significant ways.

Attributes of the Thrills-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The typical thrills-motivated serial arsonist is a white male. He is single and never married. He has an average of less than 10 years schooling. His school performance was poor to average and he is unlikely to be engaged in any type of significant relationship with a woman at the time of his offenses. He is unlikely to have served in the military although he may have attempted to enlist but was rejected. He is likely to have misdemeanor arrests and almost certainly will have a record of felony arrests, probably multiple felony arrests.

Life History of the Thrills-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The typical excitement-thrills serial arsonist has an extensive history of institutionalization, ranging from foster home placements to prison. He has a history of juvenile detention and juvenile institutional placement. He has been in county jail at least once and is likely to also have a mental health record and history. He is most likely to be heterosexual but nearly one-third are bisexual or homosexual. He has a generally stable work history at unskilled and skilled labor positions.

The typical excitement-thrills serial arsonist came from a middle class family where one or both of the natural parents were present. The family was described as socioeconomically comfortable and average and the family situation was stable. However, the family atmosphere is described as cold and troubled most of the time. His relationship with his mother was warm and close but, the relationship with his father was cold and troubled. His relationship with playmates was warm and close but the school atmosphere was cold and troubled.

History of Arsons by the Thrills-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The typical excitement-thrills serial arsonist first set a fire at age 12. Subsequent to that fire he has set an average of 56 fires. Most were in residences and vegetation but others targeted businesses, structures other than residences and vehicles. All of the fires were set within 1-2 miles from his home or workplace, in areas with which he was very familiar. When he selected a target, it was premeditated and planned. If the building did not provide open entry, he would break in to set the fire. He set the fires alone and usually walked to the scene, When setting the fire, he has feelings of thrills, excitement and power.

Characteristics of the Offenses of the Thrills-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The excitement-thrills motivated serial arsonist uses available materials for accelerants and ignites the material using matches which were left at the scene. He removes nothing from the scene and does not take souvenirs. After setting a fire, he usually leaves the scene but goes to another location to watch the fire and fire fighting efforts. He will return to the scene, usually within 24 hours to briefly observe the damage.

He is typically questioned as many as five times before being arrested. He gives little or no thought to the possibilities of being caught and states he would set fires even if he knew he would be caught. This suggests a sense of compulsion about his firesetting behavior. When arrested he offers no resistance and accepts the responsibility for his fires. While he has no direct interest in hurting anyone, his desire for fires may lead him to disregard occupants of buildings and to set fires in occupied structures.

Once he has viewed the damage, he loses all interest in the fire and returns to his usual life style and behavioral patterns. He confides in no one, discusses the case with no one and does not follow the case in the media. His fires may increase in frequency slightly over time. In the area of severity, almost certainly, the fires set by the typical thrills-motivated serial arsonist will become more severe and more dangerous to fire-fighters and local residents.

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