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Chapter 5
Vandalism, Crime Concealment, Profit and Other Motives

This chapter presents information on arsonists motivated by vandalism, profit, crime concealment, and other motives. Included are descriptions of arsonists and arson-related behavior drawn from the various ABIS studies and the Crime Classification Manual.

Vandalism-Motivated Arson

Vandalism-motivated arson is based on malicious and mischievous motivation that results in destruction or damage, or setting fires simply to destroy things. The serial arsonist study conducted by the ABIS included six willful and malicious mischief arsonists whose histories and cases were used to construct the "typical" arsonist discussed below.

Attributes of the "Typical" Vandalism-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The vandalism motivated serial arsonist is typically white, male with some form of tattoo, scar or birthmark. Most have never been married and none had served in the military forces. The average educational level for vandalism-motivated serial arsonists was 11 years of schooling. His performance in school was fair to poor. He has average or below average intelligence as measured by IQ tests. His sexual orientation is heterosexual.

Life History of the "Typical" Vandalism-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The vandalism-motivated serial arsonist is likely to have a long history of institutionalization. Part of his childhood may have been spent in foster homes and in care of relatives. He has a history of multiple 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. Suicide attempts and depression are often noted in the mental health histories of these arsonists.

Their usual occupations are unskilled laborer positions and service jobs. Their employment history is described as stable or generally stable. Most come from middle class homes with average or comfortable socioeconomic conditions. The families are described as usually stable. Relationships with parents are described as warm and close with the mother but cold and distant with the father. Most lived with one or both natural parents for most of their childhood. (In this study four of the six were third born children in the family). Relationships with school and young playmates were described as cold and troubled. Their families were very religious and involved in local church activities.

History of Arsons by the "Typical" Vandalism-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The typical vandalism-motivated serial arsonist started firesetting at an early age. Fires may have been set before six years and the first arson fire was set at an average age of eight years. The vandalism-motivated arsonist sets fires only in areas that he is well acquainted with and sets fires alone. Trash bins, dumpsters and trash cans are his primary targets but he will set fires in unoccupied or vacant buildings, usually setting the fire outside the building unless there is open entry to the structure. Businesses will rarely be the target of a vandalism-motivated fire.

Vandalism-motivated serial arsonists set fires whenever the opportunity arises but most will be set after work or school hours or on weekends. This likely time is based on opportunity, not a particular choice of the arsonist. Typically the fires will be set within one-half to one miles from home or work with the arsonists walking to the scenes of the arsons. An automobile may be used, if available, to travel to the scene of the offenses. If ( so, the vehicle likely will have average wear and tear and will have no special accessories, such as spotlights, Citizen Band radios or scanners.

Characteristics of the Offenses of the Vandalism-Motivated Serial Arsonist

The typical vandalism-motivated arsonist will use available materials to set fires with book matches and cigarette lighters as the ignition device for the fires. Typically, nothing is left at the fire scene nor is anything removed from the scene before the fire is ignited. In this study, the vandalism-motivated arsonists set an average of 12 fires each. He will take no actions to avoid identification.

Usually the vandalism-motivated arsonist will leave the scene and not return to the scene. His interest is in setting the fire, not watching it or the fire-fighting activities generated by the fire. On average the vandalism arsonist will be questioned twice before being arrested and charged. He will offer no resistance when arrested but will qualify and minimize his responsibility. After an initial not guilty plea, the vandalism-motivated arsonist will typically change the plea to guilty before trial.

This type of arsonist does not consider it likely that he will be caught or does not even consider the possibility. The fires are impulsive, opportunistic, and unplanned. Vandalism-motivated arsonists may become involved in the case, following the case in the media and sometimes communicating with police or media, They are unlikely to interject themselves into the case, however, nor or they likely to confide in anyone about their arsons. Most will maintain their current lifestyle without significant change after firesetting.

Case Study of a Vandalism-Motivated Serial Arsonist

A 19 year-old school dropout was responsible for a series of arsons in a northeastern city. His fires were set using available materials and lit by a cigarette lighter. He admits to setting 31 fires in vacant buildings and garages. He also burned "quite a few, I don’t remember exactly how many, dumpsters and old cars and stuff like that. I just burned them for the hell of it. You know, just to have something to do. Those old houses and that other stuff wasn’t worth anything anyway." He was questioned twice before being arrested and formally charged with nine of the house fires.

After dropping out of school in the 10th grade, he had worked only sporadically at unskilled jobs. He lived with his grandmother, who let him do anything he wanted. "The only thing she ever griped about was she didn’t like it if I brought a lot of my friends around because she didn’t like most of them." His mother and father had divorced when he was two years old and he had lived alternately with his mother and grandmother. He had no contact with his father and said his mother had been "remarried two-three times and, you know, two-three others she had around for a while. When I didn’t like him, I’d raise hell and she’d send me to my grandmother for a while."

Several times, he reported just striking a match and tossing it into dry leaves or grass and walking away without even looking back to see if it burned or not. "I didn’t care nothing about watching no fire. It was just something to do. There wasn’t much going on most of the time, you know. Just hanging out. It was just kid stuff, just for the hell of it. Half of the guys I knew that hung out would set a fire for the hell of it."

The vandalism-motivated arsonist is likely to have consumed alcohol or used drugs before fire setting; however there is no significantly different alcohol or drug use at the time of an offense. Over time the frequency of offenses will remain relatively stable. However, the severity of the fires set be the vandalism-motivated serial arsonist is very likely to increase.

Crime Concealment Motivations

Four of the serial arsonists were classified as crime concealment motivated. According to the Crime Classification Manual (Douglas, et al, 1992), the arson is secondary to another crime and is set to hide or conceal the primary crime activity. In the four cases in this study, the primary crime was burglary. After burglarizing a business or a residence, the serial arsonists set fire to the structure to destroy the evidence of the burglary.

In a current study underway at ABIS, arson-homicides are being studied. Preliminary results suggest that crime concealment is a major factor in such crimes. Of 62 cases of arson-homicide studied, nearly one-third involved a burglary, over one-fourth a sexual assault, and nearly one-fifth, a robbery as well as the arson-homicide. Thus, 79 percent of the cases of arson-homicide involved an associated crime. In many of these cases, the primary purpose of the offender was likely to commit the associated crime with homicide and then arson as secondary and tertiary events after something went wrong in the primary event. If these arson-homicides are representative, the data would suggest that crime concealment may be the primary motive for the arson component of the crimes.

Another component of the current ABIS study of arson-homicides deals with the issue of time of fire injury in homicide cases. The major question studied is whether the fire injuries to the body of the victim occurred before death (ante-mortem) or after death (post-mortem). The assumption is that, in almost all cases, fire injuries post-mortem are intended to conceal the crime, destroy evidence or make identification of the victim more difficult. In cases of ante-mortem fire injury, the fire becomes part or all of the cause of death. Post-mortem fire injury was noted in almost 70 percent of the bodies in 183 cases of arson-homicide. However, the percentages differed considerably by general location and specific location. Table 6 illustrates the percentages of post-mortem injuries by general and specific location of the body.

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