ARSONISTS AND FIRESETTERS
"Fire makes for a good servant, but a bad master" (Roger L'Estrange)   

    Arsonists are a varied group of offenders who come from different backgrounds, but the common denominator is that they take enjoyment out of seeing things destroyed by fire or burning.  They even take joy in the aftermath of a burning; i.e., after things have been burned.  The emphasis on burning is clearly evident in the FBI definition of arson as "any willful or malicious burning or attempting to burn, with or without intent to defraud."  As DeHaan (2002) points out, the burning is started with malice.  There is a specific intent to destroy property.  Likewise, the term "firesetting" (typically reserved for describing juveniles or adolescents) conveys a sense of malicious intent (usually in chronic, repetitive behavior) far greater than the term "fireplay" (typically reserved for young juveniles) which conveys a lesser degree of malice or intent (Putnam & Kirkpatrick 2005).  Note also that the law specifies "willful" in conjunction with malicious, so this means that, at least in terms of legal definitions, there is a presumption that all perpetrators of arson are sane. 

    That being said, most juvenile fire-setting is usually a product of antisocial personality (Forehand et al. 1991) while juvenile fireplay is usually a product of curiosity or recklessness (Cox-Jones et al. 1990).  Adult arson is usually a product of vanity or egocentricity (Orr 1989).  When the perpetrator is male, the motivation is more cold-blooded or instrumental; and when the perpetrator is female, the motivation is more hot-blooded, emotional, or affective (Gannon 2010).  Professor James Ogloff, director of the Centre for Forensic Science at Monash University in Australia, says the profile of a typical fire setter is male, late teens/early 20s, unattractive, unmarried, shy, socially isolated, and with lower intelligence.  About a third of perpetrators have co-morbid psychiatric conditions including schizophrenia, and mood and/or personality disorders (usually narcissism).  About half have prior criminal convictions.  One of the more curious clinical characteristics is the apparent lack of motive (typically reserved for the so-called pyromaniac).  No arsonist shows remorse, but only the pyromaniac lacks conscious motivation although they are fully aware of the acts they are committing.  It's as if their mind "blocks off" or conceals short-term memory of whatever rational thought they put into their devious plans.  For this reason, clinicians often characterize the motivation as a combination of pathological and non-pathological.    

    For both arsonists and fire setters, fire is an instrument of power and a weapon on choice.  It is the instrument they believe helps them get ahead in life or at least create a sense of control and/or power that they find absent in their lives.  It is for this reason that most perpetrators come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.  Such people look upon fire as the ultimate weapon, the kind which can be used for both instrumental and expressive purposes.  Setting a fire for instrumental purposes (to achieve a goal) has been less studied than setting fire to fulfill some pathological, expressive need.  It has been found that arsonists and firesetters have co-occurring psychopathologies, such as antisocial behavior, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and cigarette smoking; and that these correlates have far more predictive validity than the ones once thought associated, like bedwetting and cruelty to animals (Slavkin 2000).

     Most psychological profiles are drawn from clinical assessments of captured offenders (Kolko 2002), and by best estimates, may only account for 40% of all known offenders.  Also, it is usually admitted that significant overlap may exist between "types" of offenders.  For example, the clinical literature recognized four (4) types of firesetters, as follows:

     The most common overlap is between the expressive and delinquent types.  The distinguishing characteristic may be stress.  A truly "expressive" type would likely have accumulated enough stress in their life (or led an uneventful life) so that they seek to vent frustration.  However, such motives are also typically associated with vandalism and shoplifting, and it is unknown why some choose one path over another.  A truly "delinquent" type enjoys the power which comes from seeing a substantial reaction or response, such as the arrival of police and fire departments (Macht & Mack 1968).  Curious types can be easily persuaded about the dangers of firesetting.  Pathological types need treatment, and there is some controversy over what is the best mental health treatment.

     Among adult arsonists, pathological types are not impossible, but most typological efforts have been restricted to sorting out key types which are significantly different from the pyromaniac (Lewis and Yarnell 1951; Rider 1980), as follows:

PYROMANIA

    The definition of pyromania has changed considerably over time.  One of the many paradoxes in criminology is that pyromaniacs have long been seen as acting without any "apparent motive."  Clearly, it involves an impulse control problem, and often, a pyromaniac will tell you that they didn't really want to hurt anybody or destroy anything; they simply wanted to achieve their "high" of fascination by watching something burn.  There is much we don't understand about pyromaniacs.  Geller et al. (1997) say that to make a psychological diagnosis of one, they must meet five criteria:

    Holmes and Holmes (2009) provide a good overview of the common elements in the profile of a typical pyromaniac, adapted as follows:

Profile of a Pyromaniac

Age, Race, Gender, Intelligence ages 16-28, White, Male, range from mental defective to genius
Physical defects, Mental disorders frequently present, psychopathy, obsessive-compulsive pattern
Academic adjustment underachiever, some intellectual brightness, but performance marginal
Family background unhappy home life, harsh, inconsistent, or neglectful parenting
Social class background most from middle or upper levels, some lower
Social, marital, sexual adjustment severe interpersonal problems, poor marriages, sexual maladjustments
Occupational history resentful over only having had subservient positions
Criminal history delinquency, runaway, burglary, theft, other property offenses
Personality misfit, feeble, a physical coward, feelings of inadequacy, introverted, reclusive, lonely, wounded self-esteem, craving for power and prestige, inability to express remorse, ambivalent toward authority
Motives desire to be center of attention, render themselves useful, and show themselves clever
Triggering events accumulation of stress, frustration, tension, loss of employment, death of loved one, threat to sense of potency

     Pyromaniacs typically set fires in haste or in a disorganized manner (although organized, older types exist who use elaborate incendiary devices), and are also known to enjoy setting off false alarms.  Their activity is nocturnal.  They have little regard for human life; i.e., it doesn't matter if the property is occupied or not.  At the time of setting the fire, pyromaniacs would describe a kind of trance-like state comes over them, almost as if they were controlled by an external force.  After setting the fire, pyromaniacs would describe a sense of relief.  Some enjoy playing detective at the fire scene.  Most, except for the jealousy-motivated or revenge-oriented types, will frequently return to the crime scene.  Some even turn themselves into the police.  They often readily confess or admit guilt, although they express no remorse or regret.  They are usually cooperative under arrest.

SERIAL ARSON

     Other researchers (Kocsis & Cooksey 2002) have tried to narrow down the profile of a serial arsonist.  There are not only many kinds of offenders, but multiple offenses by the same offender.  Arsonists typically commit nearly a hundred arsons before getting caught.  Numerous motives compel arson:  financial reward, politics, concealment of another crime, attention seeking, revenge, and anger.  A fundamental tenet of behavioral profiling is that if you know the what and why, the who will follow.  Therefore, sometimes behavioral profilers are called in to testify during an arson trial.  They usually present research findings which suggest a profile of the typical arsonist as someone who may be seriously mentally ill and/or intoxicated at the time of the offense, which can be argued as mitigating responsibility.  A full-blown pyromania defense (or claim of pyromania) doesn't work in court.  That's because, in the forensic setting, pyromania is quite rare.  It's far better to simply use the phrase "serial arsonist," but the characteristics for that are somewhat different.  Sapp et al. (1997) found most serial arsonists were white males around the age of 27, with a tenth grade level education and almost all had prior arrests and convictions. Below is a summary of the emerging profiling characteristics for serial arsonists:     

Profile of a Serial Arsonist

AGE: 10-14 (26%), majority under 18 (51%) if adult, late 20s, never over 35 if adult, revenge or profit motive
SEX: 9 out of 10 times (90%) a male; if female, revenge type
RACE: 3 out of 4 times (75%) a white; black (20%) of time if first-timer; Native Americans 3rd largest group
CLASS: majority from lower to working class; middle class if vandalism or excitement
IQ: vast majority subnormal (70-90) with 22% in retarded range (below 70), rare genius
FAMILY: absent or abusive father, history of emotional problems with family/mother; single (65%)
SCHOOL: learning problems and usually held back a grade in school, normally in 10th grade; younger (grades 6-8) if vandalism; despite lack of formal education, may be of average to above average intelligence however
PEERS: social misfit, interpersonal problems with opposite sex, appears physically and emotionally weak compared to peers; but often does manage to involve an accomplice in arson (20%)
WORK: usually chooses subservient position and then resents it (both ambivalent and resentful toward authority-repressed); unemployed if vandal, excite, or profit; otherwise a laborer
CRIMINAL HISTORY: numerous status offenses as juvenile, property crimes, almost all have arrest records
DRUG/ALCOHOL: not usually a problem, but involvement with
SEXUAL HISTORY: 25% report being homosexual or bisexual
MENTAL: lack of remorse may appear as psychopathy, but more typically result of obsessive-compulsive disassociative trance-like state during firesetting
ARREST: majority remain at crime scene except revenge, conceal, profit types; some (25%) attempt suicide in lockup; most easily confess thru cooperation

The SIX MAIN TYPES ACCORDING TO THE FBI CLASSIFICATION MANUAL:

ARSON FOR REVENGE (41%) - precipitating factor is a real or imagined affront that occured months or years ago; attack is focused on individual rivals, a business chain, schools, or some facilities connected with offender
ARSON FOR EXCITEMENT (30%) - precipitating factor is boredom, (sexual) thrill cycle, or need for attention; attack is focused on large or outdoor targets, like parks, construction sites, arenas, as well as residential areas
ARSON FOR VANDALISM (7%) - precipitating factor is family disturbance or peer pressure; attack if usually focused on educational facility as well as residences and outdoors
ARSON FOR PROFIT (5%) - precipitating factor is a recent financial loss which triggers an urge to cheat the insurance company, recoup a bad investment, or dispose of some depreciated assets
ARSON FOR CRIME CONCEALMENT (10%) - precipitating factor is a desire to cover up some other criminal activity, such as auto theft or murder
ARSON FOR EXTREMISM (7%) - precipitating factor is to further a social, political, or religious cause, or to burn down buildings associated with specific races or religions

    Serial arson is defined as an offense involving three or more fires with a significant cooling off period between the fires.  The exact length of this cooling off period is unknown.  Douglas et al. (1997:186-7) say the cooling off period may last days, weeks, or even years.  Serial arson is also different from double arson, triple arson, spree arson, and mass arson.  What all these different types have in common is the repetitive nature of the crime. 

SAMPLE INTERVIEW WITH A SERIAL ARSONIST

I (Interviewer): What do you think gets kids in trouble?

 O (Offender): From the minute they're a baby and they grow up they see what their family does and what their family does they're going to do.  Parents think they are helping a kid by beating them, but it makes them worse.

 I: Do you feel your problems stem from the way your father punished you?

 O: Yeah, for example, once when I was 6 or 7, I saw a can of red paint in the garage, and I drew a red stripe down the side of the neighbor's car.  Now I could see getting a spanking for that, but not for little things like "Hi Dad, what's for lunch?"  When I was little I was always asking questions, and Dad would just give me a smack and say "Don't bother me".

 I: What was your mother like? Did she love you?

 O: When I was 3 my mom left because he abused her. I saw him knock her teeth out, slam her against the wall, and he took me and my brother and rammed our heads together to knock us out.  Mom eventually came back all the time after stuff like this, but he was too abusive to let her show her love.

 I: Was peer pressure a factor is what you did {a string of 16 serial arsons aimed at business establishments, schools, and churches}?

 O: No, I wasn't talking much to anybody, but that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be with the "in" crowd, but they were too rowdy.

 I: Have you experimented with drugs?

 O: I've seen kids commit murder and things like that while needing drugs, like crack.  I used to take it myself. You get high for about a minute or two, then depressed, and then it makes you feel dirty and not wanted and things like that. It makes you feel YUCK.

 I: Was lack of money a big problem with you and your family?

 O: You know, kids see themselves and their family not having much and other people having it and making it, and it's a strong feeling inside.  Everyone wants money, and there's all kinds of wrong ways to get it, but you can't get greedy, you know, or you'll get caught.

 I: What importance did school and church play in your life?

 O: School sucks and makes you stupider and stupider.  There ain't no learning going on.  Sometimes the teacher treats you like "Well, just sit there if your hands hurt and you can't write an assignment" or they give you something stupid to do just to get you out of their way.  Church never really was a factor in our family.  Mom was religious a bit, but we never went to church.

 I: What do you think causes a fascination with fire?

 O:  Well, it's probably a lot of things.  People telling you you're good for nothing, seeing everything around you getting worse and worse.  Torching a place kind of lets you feel good for awhile, like you're somebody important.  It's also a natural high in itself. You never know how bad it's gonna get and it does bring people out to clean up the community.

 I: Did you do it for the fun, revenge, or what?

 O: Different reasons. It's enjoyable, you know. Different people like to do different things.  Some like to steal or beat people up, and what I did helped me at the time to sort through what passes for a so-called life.  There's lots of other bad stuff I could've done, but I didn't.  There's a lot of work involved in picking a place to torch and how you're gonna do it.

 I: What do you think about the people you killed and hurt {One of the offender's fires killed a business owner who was sleeping inside; two fires resulted in serious injury}? Do you feel any remorse?

 O: They weren't supposed to be there, but if they were, they should've gotten out of the way.  I can't control everything, and I guess I'm sorry, but nobody understands the extremes you go through once you start doing this stuff and how solid your reasons are for doing it.

 I: What do you think would help prevent this kind of behavior in other people?

 O: I dunno, maybe more money poured into the community, less crazy stuff on TV.  You know, I can point to music videos and certain TV shows which helped give me ideas.  There's just too much bad stuff out there, and too few choices for anything else.

A COMPARISON OF ARSONISTS AND RAPISTS

 Arson

-Nation’s fastest-growing crime.

-50% of all fires (incendiary & suspicious), determined by ruling out other factors: electrical, accidential, natural, unknown

-Legal elements: burning, intent, malice

-Characteristics of "firesetters":

AGE: 10-14 (26%), majority under 18 (51%) if adult, late 20s, never over 35 if adult, revenge or profit motive

SEX: 9 out of 10 times (90%) a male; if female, revenge type

RACE: 3 out of 4 times (75%) a white; black (20%) of time if first-timer; Native Americans 3rd largest group

CLASS: majority from lower to working class; middle class if vandalism or excitement

IQ: vast majority subnormal (70-90) with 22% in retarded range (below 70), rare genius

FAMILY: absent or abusive father, history of emotional problems with family/mother

SCHOOL: learning problems and usually held back a grade in school, normally in 10th grade; younger (grades 6-8) if vandalism

PEERS: social misfit, interpersonal problems with opposite sex, appears physically and emotionally weak compared to peers

WORK: usually chooses subservient position and then resents it (both ambivalent and resentful toward authority-repressed); unemployed if vandal, excite, or profit

CRIMINAL HISTORY: numerous status offenses as juvenile, property crimes, almost all have arrest records

DRUG/ALCOHOL: no problem

MENTAL: lack of remorse may appear as psychopathy, but more typically result of obsessive-compulsive disassociative trance-like state during firesetting

ARREST: majority remain at crime scene except revenge, conceal, profit types; some attempt suicide in lockup; most easily confess thru cooperation

TYPES other than concealers or for profit (who constitute 22% of total):

ARSON FOR REVENGE (41%) - precipitating factor is a real or imagined affront that occured months or years ago; attack is focused on individual rivals, a business chain, schools, or some facilities connected with offender

ARSON FOR EXCITEMENT (30%) - precipitating factor is boredom, (sexual) thrill cycle, or need for attention; attack is focused on large or outdoor targets, like parks, construction sites, arenas, as well as residential areas

ARSON FOR VANDALISM (7%) - precipitating factor is family disturbance or peer pressure; attack if usually focused on educational facility as well as residences and outdoors

ARSON FOR PROFIT (5%)

ARSON FOR CRIME CONCEALMENT (17%)

 Rape

-One of world’s first felonies; for many years, only crime to have a nonconsent factor; filled with cultural overtones

-Statistics misleading: time clock method estimates beating against woman every 20 seconds, rape every 20 minutes

-Apprehension rates high and conviction rates low

-Nonreporting problem before "shield laws"; estimates were that less than 10% of rapes were reported

-Fairly constant 15% false reporting rate

-Characteristics of rapists:

AGE: 75% under age 25, 80% under age 30; over 30 if sadistic type

SEX: male normally 100% of the time

RACE: Vast majority are black (75-90% of rapists in prison are black); crime tends to be intra-racial; rapists are usually unarmed; 1 in 4 times (25%) uses a knife or instrument.

CLASS: majority are from poverty-lower class backgrounds

IQ: majority in normal range 90-110

FAMILY: sibling history more important than family history, may have been sibling bed sharing, overt sexual behavior in family with siblings and/or (sadistic) mother; lack of support from (absent) father; temper tantrums as child

SCHOOL: usually no learning problems and typically a high school graduate; some college possible; discipline problems likely, most likely involving pornography interest

PEERS: mild to moderate social maladjustments, but normally one of the "boys"; tries to cultivate a reputation as a tough fighter, but known as a punk and low life to many; usually married, divorced, or lives with a women, in that order, but has demonstrated poor relations with women

WORK: majority work reliably around women; lack self-confidence to improve self; if sadistic, takes better job

CRIMINAL HISTORY: majority are successful at avoiding this; average of 2.5 priors, only 2 years served on each

DRUG/ALCOHOL: noted problems in this area

MENTAL: antisocial personality; defines self as normal in every way except sexually, where suffers a known philia or mania; ritualism may border on psychotic with sadistic type

ARREST: frequently leaves clues with victim; plays games with police; difficult to get confession

TYPES based on Hale’s research, not Scully’s:

POWER REASSURANCE (30%) - precipitating factor is lonliness and lack of self-esteem on 7-15 day cycle; neighborhood nonviolent attacks; keeps souvenirs, thinks victim liked it

POWER ASSERTIVE (30%) - precipitating factor is desire to dominate an impersonal sex partner on 20-25 day cycle; cruises singles bars, acts macho; may repeat on same victim

ANGER RETALIATION (24%)- precipitating factor is perceived injustice at hands of women on 6-12 month cycle; sees self as athletic and masculine, action-oriented; uses blitz attack

SADISTIC (16%)- precipitating factor is need to express fantasy; compulsive in personal appearance; carries rape kit; learns better ways to stalk, and will eventually kill


INTERNET RESOURCES

C.I.S. Fire & Arson Investigations Website

Combatting the Nation's Arson Problem
FEMA's NAPI: Subject Matter: Arson
Fire and Arson Investigation Resource Page

IAAI's Fire Investigator's Checklist

InterFIRE.org
Legal Admissibility of Arsonist Profiling
MegaLinks Lecture on Arson Investigation
Pyrotechnics FAQ

Scope Blog Entry on Motivations for Fire Setting
Strawberry Pop-Tarts as Incendiary Devices

The Terrorist's Handbook (web edition)

PRINTED RESOURCES
Cox-Jones, C., Lubetsky, M., Fultz, S. & Kilko, D. (1990). "Inpatient psychiatric treatment of a young recidivist firesetter." Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 29(6): 936-41.
DeHaan, J. (2002). Kirk's Fire Investigation, 5e. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Douglas, J., Bergess, A., Burgess, A. & Ressler, R. (1997). Crime classification manual. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Forehand, R., Wierson, M., Frame, C., Kempton, T. & Aristead, L. (1991). "Juvenile firesetting: A unique syndrome of an advanced study of antisocial behavior." Behavioral Research Therapy 29: 125-28.
Gannon, T. (2010). "Female arsonists: Key features, psychopathologies and treatment needs." Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes: 73, 173-189.
Geller, J. McDermeit, M. & Brown, J. (1997). "Pyromania? What does it mean?" Journal of Forensic Science 42(6): 1052-57.
Holmes, R. & Holmes, S. (2009). Profiling Violent Crimes: An Investigative Tool, 4e. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Holt, F. (1994). "The arsonist profile." Fire engineering, March: 127-28.
Inciardi, J. (1970). The Adult Firesetter: A Typology. Criminology 8: 145-55.
Kocsis, R. & Cooksey, R. (2002). "Criminal Psychological Profiling of Serial Arson Crimes." International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 46:631-656.
Kolko, D. (Ed.) (2002). Handbook on firesetting in children and youth. Boston: Academic Press.
Lentini, J. (2005). Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Lewis, N. & Yarnell, H. (1951). Pathological firesetting (pyromaniac) (Vol. 2). NY: Cooporidge Foundation.
Macht, L. & Mack, J. (1968). "The firesetter syndrome." Psychiatry 31: 277-88.
Midkiff, C. (1982). "Arson and Explosion Investigation" in R. Saferstein (ed.) Forensic Science Handbook, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Moenssens, Starrs, Henderson & F. Inbau. (1995). Scientific Evidence in Civil and Criminal Cases. Westbury, NY: Foundation Press.
Orr, J. (1989). "Profiles in arson: The vanity firesetter."  American Fire Journal, July: 24-27.
Parenteau, R. (2012). "Serial arson." Pp. 124-144 in K. Borgeson & K. Kuehnle (eds.) Serial Offenders. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
Putnam, C. & Kirkpatrick, J. (2005). "Juvenile firesetting: A research overview." OJJDP Bulletin [pdf available online]
Rider, A. (1980). "The firesetter: A psychological profile." FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 49: 7-17.
Sapp, A., Huff, T., Gary, G. and Icove, D. (1994). "A motive-based offender analysis of serial arsonists." Interfire website.
Slavkin, M. (2000). "Enuresis, firesetting, and cruelty to animals: Does the ego triad show predictive validity?" Adolescence 36(143): 461-66.

Last updated: Mar. 05, 2012
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
Citation: O'Connor, T.  (2012). "Arsonists and Firesetters,"  MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/4050/4050lect04a.htm.