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Summary and Conclusions (continued)

History of Arsons by Subjects

The age related arson data is interesting in several ways. Analysis of 1,474 arsons, where the age of the arsonist was known, revealed that 58.7 percent of the fires were set before age 18 and 79.7 percent before age 30. It was interesting to note that 625 (42.6 percent) were set between the ages of 14 and 18. A notable drop in the number of fires, the number of arsonists, and the average numbers of fires set was found at age 19 to 21. The 35 serial arsonists who set fires between the ages of 14 and 16 years averaged 9.1 fires each during those ages. Between 17 and 18 years, 34 offenders averaged 9.0 fires each. In contrast, between the ages of 19 and 21 years, 22 offenders set an average of 4.2 fires. In the two earlier age groups, the total fires exceeded 300 for the 14- 16 year old age group and for the 17 - 18 year old age group. For the 19 - 21 age group, the total was less than 100 arsons.

However, the decrease in arson activity did not hold throughout the older age groups. Those aged 30 or older set more fires, on average, than did the younger arsonists. The averages went from 13.5 arsons in the 30 - 35 age group, 13.3 arsons in the 36 - 40 age group, and 33.7 arsons each in the 41 -50 age group. Overall, the conclusions are evident. There are considerably more juvenile offenders whose firesetting activities decrease or end around age 19. Even so, the serial arsonists who continue their criminal firesetting after that age become more frequent offenders, setting more fires than their younger counterparts.

The offenders in this sample of serial arsonists each set about 31 fires. They were questioned but not charged in 3 of those fires, and ultimately charged and convicted of three arsons. The remaining 25 arsons did not result in questioning or charges filed. These numbers suggest a clearance rate for serial arson of about 11 percent. Arson clearance rates nationally, according to the Uniform Crime Reports, averaged 18.3 percent for the period 1982 - 1991. The data would suggest that arsons committed by serial arsonists have a lower clearance rate than the overall national rate.

Several of the variables in the study reflected the relative lack of mobility for serial arsonists. Most (61 percent) walked to the scene of the fires they set with 70 percent of the fires set within a radius of two miles or less from the residence of the serial arsonist. Almost all of the arsons were committed in areas with which the serial arsonist was acquainted. Few owned vehicles and most set fires in their own state, town or neighborhood.

Most were apprehended through the efforts of law enforcement investigators, although nearly 15 percent confessed or turned themselves in to police. Almost none took any steps to avoid identification. They accepted responsibility for their arsons and pled guilty to charges. Most either did not consider the probabilities of being caught or rated those chances as slim. Many would have set the fires even if they thought they would be convicted. The findings from these variables suggest that much of the serial arson activity is compulsive in nature.

Characteristics of The Offenses

There were no discernible patterns in the overall target selection of the serial arsonists. A wide range of responses were given to questions about target selection. The methods of gaining access to an arson target were much more patternable. The most commonly reported method of entry into a target structure was through open entryways, a method reported by 37.8 percent of the serial arsonists. Another 18.9 percent broke into the structures and 16.2 percent used multiple methods to gain access to the selected target.

Accomplices took part in the serial arsonists’ criminal acts in 20.3 percent of the cases. The sixteen serial arsonists who reported having an accomplice included 14 who had a male accomplice, one a female, and one had both a female and a male who accompanied them during their commission of arson offenses. It is interesting that those with accomplices set considerably fewer fires (average 6.1 fires) than those who worked alone (average 32.6 fires). This information, coupled with the information on methods of apprehension, suggests that some of the apprehensions were the result of accomplices turning the arsonist in to police.

Almost all of the serial arsonists used unsophisticated methods in setting fires. They used available materials, paper, and gasoline as the most common accelerants and matches or cigarette lighters for ignition of the fires. Few used any kind of hand made device in their arsons. Nearly one-half left items at the scene, including items that would be key evidence. About one-fourth of the arsonists removed items, mostly valuables, from the scene before igniting a fire.

After setting a fire, about one-third of the serial arsonists remained at the scene of the fire. About one-fourth usually went to another location, away from the scene, to observe the fire and the action involved in fighting it. Another 40 percent departed from the scene and did not return. Slightly over one-half did return to the scene at some time after the fire. The return to the fire scene ranged from minutes after the fire was set to as much as a week later although, 97.3 percent returned to the scene within 24 hours of the arson.

Residential structures were the target of 10.5 percent of the arsons. contrasts with an average of 34.1 percent of arsons reported in the UCR for the period 1982 - 1991. The large difference in these data may be explained by the numbers of nuisance fires set by the serial arsonists. Nuisance fires are less likely to be included in official arson reports. Businesses accounted for 18.1 percent of the arsons committed by the serial arsonists in this study. The percentage of businesses and commercial structures victimized by arson in the ten year UCR data was 13.3 percent. Other structures were the targets of the serial arsonists in 14.6 percent of the 1,450 fires. Other structures accounted for only 8.6 percent of the UCR arsons based on a ten year average. Overall, the serial arsonists selected structures 43.2 percent of the time. In the ten year average of the UCR data, structure fires of all types accounted for an average of 55.1 percent of the fires. Vehicles were the target of the serial arsonists in 16.3 percent of the offenses while the national UCR average for all arsons was 26.1 percent vehicles. A major difference was noted in the UCR category of other than structural or mobile targets where the 10 year average was 18.0 percent. In contrast, the serial arsonists selected a target in this category for 40.5 percent of the fires they set. (See Table 62.) That serial arsonists would set more fires in vegetation and in non-structures, such as trash bins and dumpsters, should not be surprising. Many of the serial arsonists set fires for excitement and any fire may provide that excitement. The large difference in this category could, however, be explained by the failure to include such fires in the local law enforcement counts of arsons.

By far the majority of the serial arsonists set only one fire in a location. However, some returned to set new fires in the same place many times. While the frequency of firesetting did not significantly change over time, the severity of offenses did. Of 37 serial arsonists who answered the questions about severity of their offenses, 64.9 percent increased severity over time.

Nearly one-half of our sample used alcohol before setting fires and 26 others reported significantly different alcohol use at the time of fires. One in three of the serial arsonists used drugs other than alcohol before setting fires and 5.1 percent increased drug use significantly at the time of setting fires. The significantly different use involved heavier than normal substance use by the individual. Overall, 16.9 percent reported increasing alcohol or drug use after setting a fire.

Motives and Reasons for Firesetting

A variety of reasons and contributing stress factors were reported by the members of the study group. These reasons and stress factors reflect the general lack of skills of the arsonists in dealing with problems of life in general. As evidenced in the findings, the serial arsonists generally had failed in almost every aspect of their lives. Despite most having average or above intelligence and most coming from families that were relatively comfortable socioeconomically, the life histories of serial arsonists are replete with failures. They failed in interpersonal relationships in the family, with playmates, in marriage, and in school. Their occupational history reflects more failure and most have either extensive psychological histories or medical histories. For many, arson may be only thing they have tried in their life that yields relative success.

All but five of the serial arsonists could be classified by motive according to the Crime Classification Manual (Douglas, et al, 1993).The most common motive was revenge with 41.4 percent of the offenders. Excitement motivated arsonists accounted for another 30.5 percent, vandalism (7.3 percent), and 4.8 percent each had motives of arson for profit and arson for crime concealment. Five members of the sample had mixed motives. The remaining five offenders were classified as mentally disordered with severe psychological problems (2), religious fervor (1), and "evil spirits" (2) as motivation factors. The mentally disordered motive classification is not included in the Crime Classification Manual.

In the revenge motivated arsons, the majority directed their retaliatory arsons against institutions and society. Personal and group retaliation arsons tend to be single occurrence events since the desired revenge may be gained through a single act of arson. However, revenge against institutions and society may require, in the mind of the arsonist, multiple acts of arson to fully extract the desired level of revenge. The personal and group retaliation serial arsonists exhibited repeated hostility against other persons and other groups, suggesting that their potential targets might never be exhausted. Thus, they exhibited serial arson behavior even though their individual targets would normally be the recipient of a single arson offense.

These preliminary, descriptive results are the first step in a comprehensive examination of the data collected in this study. Hopefully, the completed analyses will add to the body of knowledge about one of the most serious of crimes, arson, and specifically about the offenders who repeatedly commit this crime.

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