ARSON and Serial Murder
ARSON and Serial Murder
Often labeled “fire-setting” when committed by juveniles, arson is ranked by all experts as a major childhood WARNING SIGN of future violent behavior. It is also a crime unique in itself, and some serial killers pursue sidelines in arson throughout their adult lives. As with homicide, the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual (1992) divides arson into various categories by motive, several of which apply to known serial slayers.
The first category, vandalism-motivated arson, is most likely to be seen in children or adolescents, though adults are by no means immune to the urge. The subcategory most applicable to serial stalkers in this field is willful and malicious mischief, often targeting schools, churches, and similar institutions.
The next category, excitement-motivated arson, is subdivided by the FBI into groups labeled thrill seeker, attention seeker, recognition (hero), and sexual perversion, all of which apply to known serial killers. DAVID BERKOWITZ kept a detailed log of fires he set and false alarms he telephoned to New York City fire stations. In England, BRUCE LEE could only reach orgasm while lighting and watching residential fires, a quirk that claimed 22 lives before he was captured. Serial arsonist John Orr, himself a captain and arson investigator with the Glendale, California, Fire Department, was convicted and sentenced to prison in 1992 for setting various brush and house fires around the Los Angeles area during 1990 and 1991, including one fire that destroyed 67 hillside homes; six years later, in June 1998, Orr was convicted of setting the 1984 blaze that killed four persons in a Pasadena hardware store. Curiously, Orr set fires most often after attending seminars with fellow arson investigators.
Revenge-motivated arson may include fires set for personal retaliation, societal retaliation, institutional retaliation, group retaliation (as by gangs and cults), or intimidation. David Berkowitz once tried setting fire to the apartment of a total stranger whom he thought was somehow “plotting” against him. David Wayne Roberts killed three persons when he torched the home of a salesman who reported him for stealing auto tires. Crime-concealment-motivated arson is another type that fits some serial offenders. In New York, sadistic slayer Richard Cottingham set fire to a hotel room where the headless corpses of two women he’d killed were recovered from the ruins. Russia’s ANATOLY ONOPRIENKO, with 52 kills charged against him, massacred whole families with his favorite shotgun, then burned their houses down in an attempt to destroy evidence. Similar motives are seen in cases of bodies left in burning cars (though torching a car is not legally classified as arson).
Profit-motivated arson is a favorite pastime of certain BLACK WIDOWS and other serial killers driven by desire to collect insurance payoffs. BELLE GUNNESS and Virginia Rearden both collected insurance payments from multiple fires before they turned to killing for profit. (Belle also faked her own death, leaving another woman’s headless corpse in the ashes of her Indiana home before she fled to parts unknown.)
Extremist-motivated arson, in FBI parlance, is subdivided into arson as a tool of terrorism, discrimination, or riots and civil disturbance. A prime case in point is racist nomad JOSEPH FRANKLIN, who torched synagogues between his deadly sniper attacks on blacks and interracial couples.
Serial arson rates a category of its own in the FBI manual, once again defined (as with SERIAL MURDER) as “three or more firesetting episodes, with a characteristic emotional cooling-off period between fires.” Predictably, the cooling-off period remains undefined but “may last days, weeks, or even years.” No allowance is made in the FBI’s taxonomy for arsonists arrested after their second fire, but again, those deemed to act without the undefined hiatus are dubbed spree arsonists. Finally, mass arson is defined by the Bureau as the setting of multiple fires at a single location, as on several floors of a high-rise hotel. No explanation is offered for how this may differ from, say, the profit-motivated burning (with multiple ignition points) of a large building torched for insurance.