INTERSTATE ARSON: CATCHING THE TRAVELING SERIAL ARSONIST

BY BRETT M. MARTINEZ

Undetected and uncontrolled arson has the potential to create tension and promote fear in our communities. A combination of vigilance, skill, and various resources and conditions must be efficiently employed to identify acts that may be arson related early enough to prevent arson from posing a serious threat to our nation. In the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, a serial arsonist ran wild for six months before an Arson Strike Force finally caught up with him. Other such examples can be found in the literature and records.

Why this delay? The answer is that you must recognize what is happening early enough to address such a potential threat. This is usually difficult to accomplish before the situation deteriorates to devastating proportions,

You may believe that you would know such a threat when you see it. That would probably be true if the arson-related activities were occurring in only one community or jurisdiction. The identification becomes much more difficult when the fire incidents occur over multiple communities or jurisdictions, which I call “interstate arson.” By the time public safety personnel realize the fire incidents are related, the arson has already escalated to the point where the general public perceives the situation as beyond the norm, allowing fear and anxiety to mount in the affected communities.

The research I have done for this article contradicts the commonly held assumptions that interstate arson does not occur frequently and that if it should surface there would be plenty of help from state and federal officials. What I have found is that these serial arson cases may be occurring more frequently than we ever will know and that most state and federal assets will not arrive to assist unless you request them to respond. And, you cannot make that request until you have identified such activity.

Not a great deal of analysis of interstate arson has been done until recently. Currently, this nation’s behavioral science specialists consider most serial arsonists to be a threat to the geographic area in which they live or work (this would usually mean one or two communities). This consideration is based on sound information and analysis. The majority of cases I studied showed that the convicted arsonists were multiple fire setters who limited their activity to specific geographic areas. The majority of multiple fire setters prefer to operate within a specific comfort zone.

But what if a serial arsonist could move from town to town, county to county, or state to state unimpeded—setting fires according to his schedule and then moving on to the next target? This was the reality in the cases of three of the deadliest convicted serial arsonists, John Orr, Paul Keller, and Jay Scott Ballinger. All traveled far from home and, in some cases, across state borders to commit their acts of destruction. All are serving long sentences for their crimes.

All three had very different backgrounds; two had what would be considered “normal” lives. But, they had at least one thing in common: They loved to set fires. Combined, they set an estimated 300 fires (this is considered to be a conservative estimate) from the West Coast to the Midwest to the Southeast.

With all the death and destruction they caused, you would think that many police and fire service professionals would know who these people are. Their names should be listed among other infamous criminals in North American history such as Lee Harvey Oswald, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz (the “Son of Sam” killer), and Charles Manson. Unfortunately, most public service professionals have not even heard of these three serial arsonists. In fact, most people are not even aware of the ongoing serial arson case that has plagued the Washington, D.C. area. The attacks covered two states and the District of Columbia and were first noted in June 2003. More than 33 arson fires have been involved up to the time this article was written. The arsonist(s) is still at large.

WHY BE CONCERNED?

Why should we be concerned about arson? In most of the cases cited here, the arsonists were captured. Moreover, when you average the incidents out over the entire nation, the worst thing that may have happened was that one act of fire setting may have occurred in your community. More than likely, that one fire would have been an anomaly or a random act that does not warrant the investment of time, personnel, and money needed for investigation. Right? Wrong!

Unfortunately, many serial arsonists (especially those who have become prolific) tend to escalate in their level of violence. This escalation sometimes culminates in murder.

The three serial arsonists mentioned above and the individuals(s) involved in the current D.C. incidents all committed arson homicide. In fact, many serial killers have arson in their background. Bundy, Manson, and Berkowitz all set fires early in their criminal careers. Berkowitz admitted to setting hundreds of fires and to even more incidents of reporting false alarms in New York City. The interesting fact was that Berkowitz did not live or work in that city; he traveled there often. Berkowitz did this long before he became a serial killer and referred to himself as “the Phantom of the Bronx.” In fact, Berkowitz had a plan for his grand finale that would employ his early tactics. Before he was captured, he was planning to travel from his home in Yonkers, New York (approximately 100 miles) east to the Hamptons, out on Long Island. He planned to go out in a blaze of glory, shooting up nightclubs packed with patrons. This example only highlights one of the many serial murderers who have had arson in their background.

You might ask, Why have we not been aware of the problem if the issue is that serious? The answer is, before you can combat your enemy, you must identify him.

If we were to define the interstate arsonist, we could consider the young Berkowitz as the poster boy for this category—setting fires and calling in false alarms throughout the boroughs of the Bronx and parts of Manhattan. He was able to elude capture during the entire period until he eventually joined the military and departed the area. His ability to travel about unnoticed, almost invisible, served him well in his future criminal career.

DEFINING THE SERIAL ARSONIST

Using a limited “standard definition” of a serial arsonist, it would be an individual who has started three or more fire events, with a cooling-down period between each event. An event could be one or more intentionally set fires at a time during a specific time frame—for example, two wildland fires set at least 100 to 500 feet apart and within a few minutes or one hour of each other. These two fires would be considered one event. Each event would usually involve similar types of fires—for example, three car fires or two rubbish fires followed by a cooling-off period and then another event, such as one structure fire.

Usually, the level of violence escalates in each phase of the arsonist’s experiences. This escalation might be evident in the number of fires set or the amount of destruction each fire produces. As the arsonist becomes more proficient in setting fires and seeks a greater thrill, he enters a different phase of fire setting. The change usually becomes apparent with each event.

Modifying this definition for the interstate arsonist, the set fires would be some distance from each other and the arsonist would not be limited with regard to the types of fires set. This would imply that although the fires escalate in violence (bigger and better), the arsonist would not necessarily be moving on to larger targets. For example, the arsonist might set a small wildland fire and follow it up with a rubbish container fire and then move on to abandoned buildings. After a cooling-off period, the arsonist might revert to wildland fires with an emphasis on setting bigger fires, such as using geographic and climatic conditions to produce a larger fire. If the targeted geographic area has greater potential for larger wildland fires and the next area is better suited for abandoned structure fires, the arsonist might choose the best targets for that area—in other words, targets of opportunity.

It is almost always about power and control. If arsonists have the power to set a large fire, they will choose the target they think would best ensure success. By choosing and setting the fire, the arsonist (in his mind) is in control. This is about as basic a definition as we can use; it is not an all-encompassing universal standard.

GENERIC ARSONIST PROFILES

Some common factors have been identified in most arsonist profiles. They, however, are generic traits arrived at through inductive reasoning, not the deductive reasoning that a criminal investigator would use. Having stated that disclaimer, I find that many serial arsonists appear to be white males between the ages of 18 and 49 with limited social skills. The interstate arsonist tends to be highly mobile and would not be limited to one community that is determined by personal or employment commitments. Information related to arsonists’ behavior is so vague that it could be applied to one-fourth of the nation’s population. In assessing these traits, you must evaluate information such as a specific set of incidents, geographic locations, signature traits, and a specific manner of operation.

Arsonists are as unique as all humans when it comes to motives, mental state, and actions. There may, however, be some common denominators. Most have limited funds even though they remain highly mobile. They tend to be quiet individuals with ordinary faces, which allows them to blend into the crowd and go undetected.

ERRONEOUS ASSUMPTIONS

Another issue that sometimes works against identifying interstate arsonists is the assumption held by many who hunt them (behavioral scientists and profilers). Many believe that the majority of these arsonists are “losers.” In some cases, this is true (these offenders cannot find anything better to do with their time). But just because they are losers does not mean they do not get around. Whether it be by private transport, company vehicle, or public transport, they are able to travel interstate frequently.

The D.C. sniper suspects, for example, probably fit the definition of losers—no jobs, money, or family and living in a car with no plans for the future except for their immediate goal to extort money by means of violence. Even with all this going against them, John Lee Malvo and John Mohammed were still able to cross the country and keep federal and local law enforcement agencies in five states at bay for weeks.

Factor in here that the offenders on whom we are focusing have the largest target-rich environment (entire communities) to attack. Compound that with the facts that they do not have to bring a weapon (such as a gun or an improvised explosive device) to the scene and that they rarely leave DNA or other trace evidence behind, and it is easy to see how these offenders can be missed.

LIMITED RESOURCES

We do not readily recognize serial arson as quickly as desirable because most communities have limited resources to dedicate to fire investigation in general. Also, the varying shifts of the personnel who investigate arson make it more difficult to recognize fire patterns. The same problem applies to public safety agencies that employ volunteers. Fire and police personnel rotate constantly and rarely work the same shift or time frame that coincides with the suspected activity. Unless the outgoing shift advises the oncoming shift of the activity that occurred on the last shift, the odds of spotting consistencies in a timely manner are diminished. Unless someone collects the incident information and places it into a database where you can search for patterns, most cases of serial activity will go unnoted. Without data analysis, related serial events may not be recognized for months or years.

COORDINATION AND COMMUNICATION

In the case of a traveling serial arsonist, where multiple jurisdictions would be involved, it is easy to see how this type of offender could go unnoticed. A recent example involving multijurisdictional investigations is the 2002 Washington, D.C., sniper case. The suspects were caught after numerous victims were shot, not because of a lack of effort by law enforcement or because the suspects avoided trying to contact law enforcement. In fact, the snipers had attempted to contact law enforcement and arrange for a ransom twice early during the attacks. Unfortunately, investigators involved in the case did not always receive the information promptly. Not until the Fairfax County Police took the lead and established a joint command did information get to all the agencies involved. Even after joint command was established and all the information was disseminated, not all the jurisdictions were onboard. Some surrounding agencies were not sure if the attacks would occur in their jurisdictions.

Without coordination, you are forced to be reactive and to rely on luck. This was the situation in the Ballinger interstate serial arson case. Ballinger was only noticed through pure luck. Were it not for some very sharp EMS personnel and an off-duty police supervisor who listened to his radio frequency, Ballinger likely would not have been taken into custody at that time.

Ballinger had been burned in a large fire he had set. He was transported by ambulance to the hospital, where attending medics asked some general questions. When the medics realized something was not right about Ballinger, they requested that a police officer meet them at the emergency room. The officer did not know of Ballinger’s fire-setting activity and was not exactly clear on what to do. Fortunately, a police supervisor was at home listening to all the radio communications that had transpired. He contacted the officer at the scene and told him to hold the subject after treatment and to contact the fire investigators. Things snowballed after that. Ballinger eventually admitted to setting 60 fires and killing a firefighter.

A unified coordinated effort will always make the difference in a serial arson case. There must be an agreement among all the institutions (fire and police) and the jurisdictions involved. Establishing strike forces that will work within a task force or a unified command or joint operation center will help to bring all the players together. The individual coordinating need not necessarily be the person in charge or the leader on the unfolding case. The coordinator could be a firefighter or a police officer who notes the activity while conducting some research and then sends it up the chain of command. It could also be as simple as reaching out to fellow firefighters and police officers in other jurisdictions to have them research incidents or note certain activities. They simply gather and coordinate the information so that when investigators take on the case the process will proceed faster.

In my jurisdiction, two volunteer fire chiefs coordinated two separate serial arson investigations in which I participated. The chiefs put the time and effort into plotting and documenting all the incidents they believed were related. Once they had established their facts, they presented the findings to local law enforcement, and the ball started rolling. A joint effort means that all the agencies involved have to share. This could be a hard sell to some. Complete sharing of information with those who need to know is critical. We can talk about this until we are blue in the face, but unless those involved are willing to share, the process will not work efficiently and solving the case will take longer or may not happen at all.

Consider using maps and wall calendars to help visualize the data. Provide a point of contact to direct the information, and continue to broadcast the request so that all agencies concerned and their staffs are notified. Use all forms of secure communication—written, oral, and electronic (radio and e-mail).

Some professionals investigating serial arson cases may think that the more people who know about the case, the greater the chance of leaks or tipping off the offender. The best way to alleviate these concerns is to have the agencies’ representatives meet weekly or monthly to confirm that all parties understand the goals of each agency and what must be done to accomplish them. The meetings also will help to ensure that all are working toward the same goal of protecting the public. Executive staff members and supervisors who command the front-line troops should attend the meetings. This would help prevent miscommunications, losing information, and—most importantly—having information leaked. Also, agency members will get to know each other and each agency’s capabilities.

Public safety officials who work steady shifts are most efficient at collecting and receiving information. They know what occurs in the targeted jurisdiction and, to some extent, in neighboring jurisdictions. With fire incidents, unless it involves a plane crash, the majority of cases start small. Usually, multiple incidents escalate to more extensive fires. Arsonists generally do not expand the area of attack during the initial phase of fire setting.

At some point, the interstate arsonist will become comfortable with moving around and will conduct the fire setting activity over a much wider area. When a public safety officer notes the clustering of activity and a dramatic dropoff or end to the activity, he should ask why this has happened: Has the offender been caught in another jurisdiction or on unrelated charges? Was the offender scared off? Did he lose the desire to set fires? (This is unlikely.) When the activity stops, the public safety officer must then inquire into other areas and other jurisdictions to see if similar activity has occurred.

The individual on the local beat makes the first inquiries. The work of the local professional will determine if the findings are sufficient to justify assigning personnel to investigate further. Some things the local professional would look for include the following: car fires related to traffic conditions, automatic fire alarms related to school activity, and gang or vandal activity related to community activity. Arsonists also generally are the sole occupants in their privately owned or company cars at the time of an offense and sometimes set the fires in locations that are close to highway or interchange exits, which offer quick access to and egress from the crime site.

Other information that may help to identify arson activity (and sometimes the arsonist’s profile) include the following patterns: relationship to season (some interstate arsonists are more mobile during the warmer months), a correlation between a specific type of arson and specific months or seasons, the time of day, the day of the week, and the location.

Once patterns have been identified, inquire about suspicious fires with similar traits that may have occurred outside your jurisdiction—fires that occur in similar settings, during the same time frame, on the same weekday, or on a weekend, for example.

Some Information to Withhold

Information related to time, day, and location is general and common knowledge to some extent. Do not be afraid to share this information with other professionals. Share information pertaining to target types, not only to alert public safety personnel but also to see if they are familiar with past incidents that might be related to the arsonist. Include in your inquiries also details related to weather conditions, traffic, general population, and information on the geographic area (residential, industrial, rural, or wilderness, for example). Were these targeted areas populated during the time of the offenses? Would certain groups of people or individuals be unusual or out of place in the victimized area? Are the areas known for any particular type of gatherings or criminal activity? Encourage other public safety professionals to research prior incidents that may have occurred in similar areas under similar conditions.

On the other hand, information related to the type of ignition sources used and the method of ignition should be given limited access or possibly be kept secret. Information that could affect responders’ safety should be shared. For example, if the still-at-large arsonist has used multiple delay devices to set fires, this information should be shared with all public safety personnel. However, you do not have to divulge the type and design of the devices.

Other details such as DNA evidence and signature methods specific to the arsonist should be shared only with other investigators, as should letters and messages.

Consider using maps and wall calendars to help visualize the data. Provide a point of contact to direct the information, and continue to broadcast the request so that all agencies concerned and their staffs are notified.

MEDIA INVOLVEMENT

The D.C. sniper case also highlighted the issue of media presence. The case was one of the largest media stories of 2002 and garnered local, state, national, and international attention. A serial arson case in your jurisdiction, hopefully, would not draw a quarter of the attention this case did. Some may prefer that no attention at all be focused on a serial arson case. The lack of attention, however, may show a lack of commitment to solve the crimes. Investigators and fire personnel must be willing to step up and coordinate the case, or the chances for successfully solving it would be limited.

Sometimes, the media can be helpful, such as in an effort to have the public (relatives) identify the suspect. Approach them professionally, and remember that they also have a job to do. The reporters/correspondents’ job may conflict with that of public safety officials, but sometimes limited compromise can help both achieve their goals.

TECHNOLOGY

Documentation is crucial. Whether the information is gathered from preexisting electronic data files or handwritten field reports, some form of data collection and sorting must occur. You cannot present a formal case without offering a report, at the very least a map or log that plots out the incident activity. For recommendations on design and format, speak with your local or state crime analysts or crime-mapping personnel. Use a report format that is not too complex and that best suits the functional requirements of the agencies you wish to inform.

Local, regional, and statewide data are available on the Internet. At present, you would have to analyze all this information. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Department of Justice are working toward developing the technology that would help with this task.

ATF’s Bomb and Arson Tracking System (BATS) for law enforcement agencies is funded and maintained through the Arson and Explosives National Repository, which maintains all information related to explosive and arson incidents. State, local, and other federal agencies can access information in the library, input new incidents, and exchange information with others. Information such as types of incidents; targets; dates; location by city, town, county, and zip code; area of origin; types of devices; device components and their placement at the scene; fire patterns; indicators; collateral crimes; and possible weapons of mass destruction is available. BATS also uses geographic information system (GIS) technology, which allows for mapping and relational data to be plotted and visually represented. You can obtain this information by working with your local law enforcement agency. If there is no access to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), use another institution that has access to the program, or contact your local ATF office.

The Arson Crime Linkage Analysis System (ACLAS) would incorporate two systems developed in Canada. Fire investigators on the computerized network would have access to the Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS), developed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for addressing serial homicide and serial sexual assault, and Geographic Profiling and Rigel software developed by Dr. Kim Rossmo.

A “visualizer” would allow users to see the progression of fire activity, the probability of likely targets, and the most probable location in which to search for the arsonist. Although the technology and knowledge are available, so far lack of funding has prevented the program from moving from the drawing board to implementation.

As public safety officials become more capable and competent in the hunting of interstate arsonists, chances that the interstate arsonists will go unnoticed will diminish.

Resources

Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science

http://www.jdi.ucl.ac.uk/

Mapping and Analysis for Public Safety (MAPS)

http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/maps/

Crime Mapping and Analysis Program (CMAP)

http://www.nlectc.org/cmap/

CrimeMap Tutorial

http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/NACJD/cmtutorial.html

International Association of Crime Analysts (IACA)

Welcome to IACA

International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts (IALEIA)

http://www.ialeia.org

Martinez, Brett. Multiple Fire Setters: The Process of Tracking and Identification. Fire Engineering, 2002.

Professional Certificate in Crime Mapping and Analysis, http://ocpe.gmu.edu/certificate_programs/crimemapping.html, http://www.policefoundation.org/.

BRETT M. MARTINEZ, a veteran of the fire service since 1983, is a fire marshal for the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Rescue and Emergency Services. He has served in various departments as a dispatcher, a structural firefighter, and an instructor. He is a State of New York-certified level II fire investigator and peace officer and ATF certified to train and deploy Suffolk County’s Accelerant Detection Canine. He has an associate’s degree in fire science from Suffolk County Community College and is the author of Multiple Fire Setters: The Process of Tracking and Identification (Fire Engineering, 2002).


TECHNIQUES FOR DEVELOPING AN ARSON TRACKING ALERT BULLETIN

There are various designs available for serial arson alerts. Below are some resources that can help. Consider the following key items when creating an alert bulletin:

  • Who developed the bulletin?
  • Date of deployment.
  • Agencies notified.
  • Areas of concern.
  • Types of offenses.
  • Specific time frames (if any).
  • Specific day or days (if any).
  • Specific months or seasons.
  • Any available suspect information.
  • Points of contact for additional information and to report additional incidents.
  • Maps of the affected areas.

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