While researching background material for a new book that I’m working on, I’ve studied the odd crime of arson. It’s one of the easiest crimes to commit but also one of the hardest for law enforcement to solve.
Last post, I looked at the recently arrested arsonist, Harry Burkhart, who is alleged to have started more than 50 fires in California. I also pointed out that fire investigators try to solve two mysteries at the scene of a fire:
1. Where did the fire start?
2. How did the fire start?
The answer to these questions can lead to the conclusion the fire wasn’t accidental but was the work of an arsonist. Who are arsonists?
Research has created some statistical answers:
1. The majority of arsonists are between 17-26 and are almost always male.
2. Usually, the arsonists are average to above-average intelligence but poor academic performers, lower income, and unsuccessful people in most commonly accepted ways.
3. They have poor relationships with family and friends
Investigators also look at the possible motives of the arsonist. These can include:
3. Financial–start the fire to get the insurance money
4. Failing business
5. A sociopath who started the fire for psychological reasons of power, control, and success.
Investigators use a variety of investigative techniques. Witnesses, if any, can provide answers to the source of the fire, how and when it started, and possible suspects observed at the scene of the fire. The firefighters are often the best witnesses because the know what to look for and are usually unemotional about their observations.
Investigators do a forensic analysis of evidence obtained at the scene. Often, they may find evidence of igniters, like gasoline, in the charred remains which can indicate arson. They have hydrocarbon meters that can detect the presence of gas or other flammables even if it has soaked into carpeting or wood. They will also analyze the financial records of businesses or individuals to see if there might be a motive to collect insurance money.
As a result of these clues, investigators can often establish a rough profile of the arsonist suspect and focus their investigation on that person. If a suspect is caught, investigators have specialized interrogation techniques that are different from usual police questioning and work more successfully with arsonists.
One of the scariest arsonists is the sociopath. These are people who, psychologically, have no conscience. They don’t have any remorse (actually, most arsonists don’t have remorse) and don’t have an ability to connect emotionally with other people. Fire becomes an instrument for power and a weapon of choice. Studies have grouped these offenders into the following motivations:
1. Jealousy motivated– Uses fire to get back at some insult to his vanity.
2. Pseudo hero– Uses fire to rush in and make a rescue, save a life, etc.
3. Fire buff– Like a police groupie, only with firefighters.
4. Excitement oriented– Uses fire out of boredom
5. Pyromaniac– Uses fire repeatedly as a kind of neurotic obsessive-compulsive behavior.
For fire investigators, the sociopath is the scariest because they lack any conscience and even if caught, will often not confess because they don’t feel any remorse and sorrow for lost lives or property. Luckily, there aren’t many of these kind of fire starters around!