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Determining Arson Motives

I. We need to determine the motive for an arson in order to narrow the focus of the investigation and try to identify the offender. Observation of offender behavior at the arson scene can identify the motivation for the crime. REMEMBER: Motive is not an element of the offense and need not be proven to obtain a conviction for arson. Evidence of participation by a defendant is required to prove an arson case. However, evidence of motive is admissible and can help a jury answer the question ,"Why?"

A. The investigator should study the victimology of the fire scene.

1. Who is the true victim - owner, insurance company, church, government, society? Using checklists like the ATF Arson Investigation Guide, witness and owner interviews, prior criminal history, is a good start.

2. Ask "why did the offender choose this target"? Assess victim and offender risk. What characteristics of the victim make it a target?

3. Offenders use rational criteria to select targets even when the fire setting behavior makes no sense. The offender decides if the fire setting is "profitable" (meets his needs) and the risk is acceptable.

B. This initial assessment should assist the investigator in determining the motivation for the arson. The primary motivation for all violent crimes is POWER. Power is defined as the ability or capacity to exercise control over others. When we think about it, unleashing the devastating fury of an uncontrolled fire is a tremendous exercise in power. We break the power motivation into 4 categories. They are:

1. Obtaining power

2. Demonstrating power

3. Maintaining power

4. Acquiring lost power

C. We can further identify motives that meet the individual offender's need for power. These motives are:

1. Vandalism

a. This motive is sometimes called "malicious mischief" and helps identify the type of offender - juveniles. REMEMBER however, mental age and chronological age do not necessarily correspond.

b. May be the result of peer or group pressure.

c. Typical targets include schools, abandoned buildings and vegetation.

2. Crime Concealment

a. This is secondary or collateral criminal activity

b. Usually, a fire is set to cover up the primary crime; murder, burglary, auto theft, destruction or theft of records, etc.

c. The offender is trying to impede the investigation by

(1) Obscure the fact that the primary crime has occurred

(2) Destroying forensic evidence of lead value

(3) Delay or prevent identification of the victim

3. Extremist

a. Further social, political, or religious causes.

b. Targets include abortion clinics, houses of worship, government buildings, laboratories and fur farms.

c. Frequently accompanied by a communication claiming responsibility and espousing the cause embraced by the perpetrators.

4. Profit

a. Direct monetary gain includes

(1) Insurance fraud

(2) Liquidating property

(3) Dissolving a business

(4) Destroying unprofitable inventory

b. Indirect monetary gain can include

(1) Creating employment

(2) Eliminating competition

(3) Remodel old property

5. Excitement - nuisance type fires such as dumpsters, recycling bins, trash piles; targets of opportunity; may escalate as fire setting no longer provides enough excitement. Several types:

a. Thrills (most common excitement motive) - enjoys the turmoil created by fire setting

b. Recognition (hero) - firefighter, police officer, security guard, employee

c. Attention - excited by idea everyone is looking for him

d. Sexual gratification - unusual and usually present with other motives

6. Revenge

a. The most common motive for a serial arsonist (NCAVC study of serial arsonists - 41% cited revenge as motive - graphic)

b. Retaliation for some real or imagined injustice.

c. May be an element of other motives.

d. Types of revenge motives include:

(1) Societal - most common serial arsonist motive (70% of revenge motivated serial arsonists) and most dangerous

(2) Institutional

(3) Personal

(4) Group

II. Complex or serial cases can be referred to the NCAVC for Criminal Investigative Analysis

A. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime at the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA

1. Law enforcement oriented behavioral science and data processing center

2. Consolidates research, training and investigative support to provide assistance to any state, local, federal or international law enforcement agency.

3. Focus is on unusual, bizarre, or repetitive violent crimes.

4. ATF has two Special Agents assigned as Criminal Investigative Analysts (profilers) to the NCAVC focusing on arson and bombing matters.

B. Criminal Investigative Analysis (CIA)

1. Frequently called "profiling", but much more than that.

2. Behavioral analysis of crime, criminals and crime scenes to provide information of a lead value to investigators and prosecutors. Can provide focus and direction in an investigation. May also be used to help juries understand the nature of a crime.

3. Not a substitute for a thorough, well planned investigation.

4. Based upon the education, training, research, and experience of the analyst in consultation with other analysts.

5. CIA services include

a. Crime analysis

(1) Independent review of investigative efforts

(2) Detect possible motives

(3) Examine significant events during the offense

(4) Link multiple crimes (signature)

b. Unknown Offender Characteristics (Profiling)

(1) Characteristics of the offense are related to those of the offender

(2) Identify major personality and behavioral characteristics of the offender

(3) Offender motive

(4) Identify personality type - not particular person

c. Investigative strategy

(1) Strategies and techniques may be offered based upon an evaluation of the crime scene and assessment of the offender

(2) Best predictor of future behavior is past behavior

d. Interview and Interrogation Techniques

(1) Analysis of crime and behavior to provide evaluation of subject's personality

(2) Make recommendations about interviewer(s), approach, themes, environment, technique

e. Search Warrants

(1) NCAVC research shows behavior and personality traits are common to certain offenders

(2) Can be used to describe evidence to be found and establish probable cause

f. Prosecution and Trial Strategies

(1) Crime analysis and motivation (theory of case)

(2) Cross examination techniques

(3) Overall prosecution theme development

(4) Jury selection considerations

g. Expert witness

(1) NCAVC members qualified as experts in CIA - NOT PROFILING - offer expert opinions to educate jury about criminal behavior

(2) Helps jurors understand the evidence or determine facts

6. Types of cases submitted for analysis include:

a. Homicides

b. Sexual Assaults

c. Arsons

d. Bombings

e. Terrorism

f. Extortion

g. Threats

h. Kidnapping/Abductions

i. Child Molestation/Exploitation

j. Ritualistic Crimes

k. False Allegations

l. Product Tampering

m. Corruption

n. Equivocal Deaths

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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