For those of you who have been hooked on the TV series, Castle, you may have caught an episode this month involving a serial arsonist who becomes a murderer also. The main character, Richard Castle, is a successful writer who probably got bored and decided to investigate real crimes. I’m glad the writers of the show chose a serial arsonist for a number of reasons.
I did a lot of research about arsonists for my book, Flashover. I learned that they have a very different psychological personality makeup from other criminals. Statistically, they look like other criminals: low education, low skills, low income, male usually, chemical abuse issues, etc. But in other areas, they look much different.
For one thing, many arsonists are sociopaths. The simple way to psychologically define a sociopath is to say that they lack a conscience. As a result, they aren’t able to emotionally relate to other people. They don’t follow moral or ethical rules because “the rules don’t apply to them.” They can certainly understand the rules intellectually, but they don’t care. At the same time, they can fake having a conscience—which makes them dangerous since the rest of us tend to believe them.
To be a successful arsonist, may require some technical skills. Of course, it’s easy to set a fire in a garage and run, but many arsonists pride themselves on their skills compared to other violent criminals. For instance, bombs are often used to ignite a fire and that takes a technical understanding beyond the ability of most criminals.
Many arsonists are gutsy and relish the challenge of committing a crime and getting away with it. For instance, a common way to start a fire is to tape some wooden matches half-way down the side of the cigarette. The arsonist lights the cigarette, goes into a store, tosses the smoldering cigarette into a pile of highly combustible material, (pillows, potato chips, plastic products), and leaves the scene. When the cigarette burns down, it ignites the matches which create a flame. Meanwhile, the arsonist gets a five to ten minute head start to get away.
Usually, arsonists watch the fires they’ve built. They take pride at their “creations” and get a psychological high by watching and listening to the other spectators comment on the fire. As a result, many become addicted to this high and set larger fires and even expose themselves to greater risk of capture. Combine this with a sociopathic personality and you’ve got a dangerous criminal.
Do the police solve these cases?
Rarely. Unlike the usual crime scene, a fire destroys all the evidence. There would be very little for a CSI team to analyze. Maybe that’s why arson is one of the fastest growing crimes in the country.