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Arson: Behavioral and Economic Aspects - Offender Types

fires arsonists set fire

Since the 1950s, studies of arsonists have generally focused on arrested, institutionalized, and paroled individuals. Six separate behavioral categories seem consistently to emerge. The works of the Columbia University psychiatrists Nolan Lewis and Helen Yarnell and numerous social and behavioral researchers have found that the offenders commit arson for purposes of revenge, vandalism, or crime concealment. Some seek to collect insurance; others set fires in search of excitement, or are impelled by an irresistible impulse (pyromaniacs).

Revenge. Revenge arsonists, the most prevalent type, are persons who, as the result of arguments or feelings of jealousy or hatred, seek revenge by fire. The victims are typically family members and relatives, employers, or lovers. Even though victims are usually associates of the arsonist, hate groups tend to start fires in places of worship and religious dwellings in which the arsonist does not typically know the victim. In retaliation for real or imaginary wrongs, revenge arsonists set ablaze their victims' property or the premises in which they reside. These arsonists appear to be the most potentially dangerous of all the types. They set occupied dwellings afire with little thought as to the safety of those within, thinking only of the revenge they must have on their specific victims. Furthermore, they are often intoxicated at the time of the offense. No elaborate incendiary devices are employed, typically only matches and gasoline. Although their crimes are premeditated, they take few steps to conceal their identities and are thus easily detected by alert investigators.

Vandalism. Vandalism arsonists include teenagers who willfully destroy property solely for purposes of fun and sport, although at times revenge motives may be partially present. As opposed to other arsonists, who work alone, vandalism arsonists usually have at least one accomplice. In terms of arrest, it is important to note that half of all persons arrested for arson are white males under the age of eighteen. They tend to set their fires at night in churches, school buildings, and vacant structures.

Crime concealment. Crime-concealment arsonists set fire to premises where they have committed other offenses. The crime is usually burglary but sometimes murder, and the arson is an attempt to cover the traces of the criminal or obliterate the proof that another crime has taken place. Such fires are usually set at night in unoccupied dwellings or places of business.

Insurance claims. Insurance-claim arsonists include insolvent property owners, small-business operators, and other individuals who, because of extreme financial pressure, incinerate their own property to collect the insurance on what has been destroyed. As a rule they do not set fire to occupied dwellings, and their offenses generally take place in the daytime.

Excitement. Excitement arsonists set buildings ablaze for the thrill connected with fires. Some like setting or watching fires, while others enjoy viewing the operations of the firefighters and fire equipment. (Occasionally a volunteer firefighter is found among them.) Their offenses take place at night, they rarely set ablaze anything but inhabited buildings, and they are usually intoxicated at the time of the offense.

Pyromaniacs. Pyromaniacs are pathological firesetters. They seem to have no practical reasons for setting the fires and receive no material profit from them. Their only motive seems to be some sort of sensual satisfaction, and the classic "irresistible impulse" is often a factor. The behavior of pyromaniacs was best described during the early 1950s by Lewis and Yarnell in their well-known study Pathological Firesetting:

The reasons for the fires are unknown; the act is so little their own that they feel no responsibility for the crime. . . . These offenders are able to give a classical description of the irresistible impulse. They describe the mounting tension; the restlessness; the urge for motion; the conversion symptoms such as headaches, palpitations, ringing in the ears, and the gradual merging of their identity into a state of unreality; then the fires are set. . . . Once they have started the fires, thrown the neighborhood into confusion, and are assured the fire engines are working, the tension subsides, and they can go home and drop into a peaceful sleep. The majority of pyromaniacs, incidentally, start fires in their own neighborhood. With some the impulse asserts itself episodically with extended periods of "normality" intervening; with others, it controls them night after night; in either instance they almost always have to set a fire when the impulse appears. Such offenders will continue, each fire being a facsimile of the first, until a more powerful force, usually embodied in the "arm of the law," steps in and commands them to stop. (p. 87)

These are the mysterious "firebugs" who terrorize neighborhoods by going on solitary fire-setting sprees, often nocturnal, during which they touch off trash fires in one building after another without regard to property or life. Many suffer from low-level mental deficiencies, are persons who derive sexual satisfaction from watching fires, or are chronic alcoholics, and they encompass the full range of ages.

Many pyromaniacs bring arrest upon themselves by making certain that the identity of the firebug will be easily found, by being conspicuously present watching all of the fires, by repeatedly contacting police or fire officials as to the whereabouts of fires or with information about the "identity" of local arsonists, or by going directly to the police and asking to be protected from their own "criminal desires." Once they are arrested the irresistible impulse ceases, and for some it never returns. The sprees of pyromaniacs last from a few days to a few months or even years, but discovery and arrest tend to put an end to each particular episode.

Clearly, pathological firesetters are not a homogeneous group. Using Sigmund Freud's psychosexual stages, oral-stage and phallic-stage firesetters appear to meet the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-IV criteria for pyromania. Oral-stage firesetters experience feelings of happiness or well-being from watching a safe fire, but have a fear of fires that are out of control. They may also exhibit other non-firesetting, oralstage behaviors, such as nail-biting, hoarding food, and vomiting when under stress to name but a few. The major indicator of phallic-stage firesetting is sexual arousal from watching fires.

These six types are those that are most familiar to criminal justice authorities, but there are other, less common, varieties. Lewis and Yarnell have identified a number of distinct arsonist types, including the "would-be hero" arsonists, who are motivated primarily by vanity. These individuals are described as "little" men with grandiose social ambitions whose natural capacities doom them to insignificance. They are basically exhibitionists who set significantly large fires, but instead of playing the role of hero by saving lives or helping to extinguish the flames, they turn in the alarms and identify themselves as those who discovered the fires. Lewis and Yarnell have also identified various categories of vagrant arsonists of all ages. These are basically wanderers who start brushfires or incinerate vacant buildings, railroad property, bridges, and farm property for the vicarious pleasure they derive from such destruction.

The arsonist-for-hire is an individual who is paid for the service of burning down property. This type of arsonist usually works alone. The arsonist-for-hire may be hired to destroy an office building, an automobile, or in rare cases, a person. Individuals who hire arsonists include mob figures, business owners, and average people seeking insurance money or revenge.

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