Letters From an Arsonist Thomas Sweatt torched Washington for decades. He killed more people than we thought.

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Illustration by Greg Houston

In the early morning hours of Jan. 11, 1985, Thomas Sweatt, a 30-year-old fry cook, finished his late shift at a Roy Rogers and stepped out onto Florida Avenue NE. A light snow dusted the streets. Sweatt, a bachelor, started his regular walk home alone in the cold after the restaurant closed. It was one of those moments that reminded Sweatt how oppressive wintertime in the city could be.

On the sidewalk, he spotted a stranger walking in the opposite direction. The man spoke as he passed, and Sweatt nodded hello back to him. The man looked to be in his 30s and attractive. Sweatt liked him immediately. As the man continued walking northwest on the thoroughfare, Sweatt turned and followed him. He wanted to meet him.

He tailed the stranger beneath the train overpass, over New York Avenue and North Capitol Street, and up to a brick rowhouse on Quincy Place NW, where it abuts Florida Avenue. Sweatt watched the man walk inside the house, presumably to his family. Again he was alone on the street.

Sweatt turned to renew his walk home, which was even longer now. Still, he wanted to meet the stranger. He found himself walking faster and faster toward home, excited, telling himself he’d see the man at least one more time.

But the only way would be thru fire, Sweatt would later write.

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At home Sweatt stripped off his Roy Rogers uniform and threw on casual clothes. He borrowed his sister’s car and headed back toward the house at Florida and Quincy. There was just one stop to make—at the gas station, where he topped off an empty 2-liter soda bottle with gasoline, then threw it into his bag along with a towel.

He parked near Quincy Place and got out of the car with his bag. On the front porch, he poured the gasoline beneath the front door, held it there with the towel, and struck a match. The vapors ignited in the front hallway, and smoke started pouring out beneath the door. Sweatt hopped back into his sister’s car as the terror began to unfold inside.

On the second floor of the house, a man woke to find his bedroom in flames. On the same floor were his wife, his daughter, and his stepdaughter, and in the basement were his son and stepson.

Sweatt circled the block in his car and came back to the house. On the front porch the man stood in nothing but his underwear.

I was glad to see him again and wanted to help but the firetrucks were coming, Sweatt would write.

The man had escaped through a window—but not before suffering asphyxia from the smoke as well as first-, second-, and third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body. He must have been too panicked to register his injuries: He was screaming that his wife was still inside. From the street Sweatt could hear one of the boys hollering for help at a basement window. He briefly considered getting out of his car to save the boy, but the fire engine was already barreling toward the blaze. He fled the scene.

It took 85 firefighters more than 45 minutes to get the fire under control, according to an article in the Washington Post. The boys escaped unharmed. The two girls emerged from the back of the house, each badly burned. The mother was nowhere to be found. Neighbors gathered in front of the house as officials sorted the wreckage, and they broke into sobs when the body was found inside the house around dawn. The medical examiner on the scene determined she’d died of burns and asphyxia.

In the official fire report, an investigator assigned a cause: “The fire started as a result of a carelessly dropped cigarette in the bedding of 2nd floor bedroom.” It appeared to be just another sad, needless fire in a city that was accustomed to seeing thousands each year. When he saw the fire in the news, Sweatt learned the name of the man he’d just made a widower: Roy Picott. He also learned the name of the deceased: Bessie Mae Duncan.

Sweatt was saddened to learn of Duncan’s death, but in his mind she was simply the collateral damage he had to incur in service to his fantasies. He would go on to torch Washington steadily for another 20 years, and he would claim more lives than Duncan’s before his arrest in April 2005. A federal judge would eventually sentence him to two lifetimes plus 136 years for his crimes. Considering how long he got away with setting so many treacherous fires, investigators would come to place Sweatt among the most prolific and dangerous arsonists in American memory. His motivations fascinated them. “I still have a million questions for him,” says Bob Luckett, a fire investigator who spent several days with Sweatt after his arrest. “My only regret is that I came across him when I was in my 50s, as opposed to my 20s. He was that unique to the world.”

Dave Jamieson has won the Livingston Award for "Letters from an Arsonist."

Our Readers Say

Great work Dave. Have you purchased the movie rights? Seriously, I thought you did a great job. It was very interesting and sad to read the serial arsonist thoughts and motivations behind his action that affected so many people.
VERY GOOD WORK SO MANY UNANSWER QUESTION
amazing story - after so many years of open-ended news reports, it's a riveting account from the source himself. thank you
this is an incredible piece of journalism. very harrowing. excellent work.
Awesome article! For one who has responded to some of the fires that were set it is intriguing to try and understand what the motives behind such actions are and what makes a person go this route. We very seldom get a look inside the brain, so to speak, of someone that creates such devestation, injury and death. I think it would make for an excellent movie or more "documentary" to profile the thoughts and background of an Arsonist.
Yes. Very well written and constructed however it is truly sickening. This man is absolutely sickening. It is amazing how he evaded attention for so many years. This reminds me of the story of the crackhead who would break into downtown offices, breaking through the drywall. It took a while for him to get caught too.

May God Have Mercy on this sick, sick man's soul.

Poetic Justice would be that he burns in hell.
I think that the article was written very well. It gave me a look into the mind of a serial arsonist.
Astonishing! This is what makes The City Paper valuable and intriguing. A sad, sad scenario on a lost, demented individual & the dilemma of authorities trying to catch him.
Great article, fascinating and riveting in it's detail. But now I feel like throwing up. That guy is disgusting. And this all leaves me considering that the reason this fella got away with what he doing for so long was because he afflicted the less well endowed and darker side of D.C. with his sick perversions. In other words, perhaps the individual victims didn't have enough clout to warrant a thorough investigation.
All of this is disgusting. Sometimes I can barely believe this shit is real, and then I think about the history of the world and it's not so hard to believe. Either way I'm waiting for the day we (humans) stop glorifying these sick individuals.
A stunning piece of journalism. Your style is so real and personal. It was wonderful to find this among all the sensationalist, ratings-grabbing items out there today. Thank you for your hard work and research.
Stunning story. Great details. I took two weeks to get thru this--too sickening to take in one shot. But I think you should put it in for a Pulitzer. Good job, City Paper.
I am sad to say that I was a victim of one of the fires that was set by this individual. It was in March of 03. I lived on Jasper Street in DC with my grandmother. I'm still wondering why my house was targeted. I was suffering from allergies at the time and I took Benadryl that night. If it wasn't for my grandmother hearing the glass breaking at the front of the house we could have died. I do not know this man. I sure don't recall any encounters with him at all. I had to climb down glassy steps because the glass and the flames were coming into the house. I dont know how I didn't cut me feet. I had my then 7 year old son wrapped around me for dear life. I had to make sure my 73 yr old grandmother was able to get to the basement so we could get out of the house thru the back door. When my grandmother yelled to me that the house was on fire, all i could do was grab my son and my purse because I knew my keys were in there. We made it down the stairs and to the basement to wake up my uncle. He was able to put the fire out with the hose on the house. He grabbed the phone on the way out the door to call the fire dept. My son had nightmares from the fire. He's struggling in school and he's all of a sudden a troubled child because of this. It took along time before we felt safe in our own home. My grandmother slept in the living room for months after the fire trying to protect her home incase we had another fire. To sit here and read this article turns my stomach because of the mental sickness this man. I'm glad he was caught and is behind bars. Now I can sleep better at night. I'm just puzzled to know how could he just randomly choose houses and people and then carry on a normal day.
I thought you did an excellent job on the story. It only makes you conscious
of who you may be dealing with. One never knows whats on another person
mind or what they actually do.
Dave this is a great story. My husband is now the owner of Kenny & Paul's Barbershop...My husband also used to work there back in the 90's and remembers cutting Sweatt's hair on numerous occassions. I still can't believe he got away with it for so long. Thanks for covering this story Dave - You did a wonderful job!
This was an amazing story!! It was so well writing that it took me days to finish because I didn't want it to end. Each day I would read a page or so on my metro ride to work. I finally decided to put it to rest one night before before going to bed and I actually found myself sadden to learn that indeed a second person (Mr. Picott) had died in the fire. You couldn't have done a better job at capturing the information. Every Thursday morning I look forward to getting my City Paper, and this was by far one of the better weeks.

Thanks.
It is an incredibly sad story. I cannot even imagine the suffering, and anguish this pyromaniac caused. It is even more incredible that he was allowed to live. It will cost a fortune to keep this monster alive until he dies. The authorities should give all that money to the victims instead. But, of course he will live till death in a very happy environment with psychiatrists, and opologists trying to determine what made thid evil man tick. Who the hell cares???
Please write a book about this! And the screenplay. You are an amazing author. This article was riveting. I spent the entire week reading it on my metro commute to and from work, savoring the details because you're writing is just that engaging. Too bad the article is not fiction....it's really sad that this is an actual human being that never got the help he needed to overcome his illness.
Hello! Good Site! Thanks you! caytnbamll
This is truly an award winning piece of journalism! Great insights and breakdown of events.
This is the best piece of journalism I can remember reading in the City Paper. Well done. The cultivation of the source, the writing, the research--the highest compliment I can give is that it's on par with the writing in Texas Monthly.
Amazing account of an extremely disturbed person. It's a tragic story in almost every way, surely there must be something positive that comes from all this. And what a horrible burden to live as this man did.
I hardly ever watch tv so just saw the tru-tv account of the serial arsonist. Storms in area and lost my satellite signal. Wanted to know why anybody would set those fires so I found your story. It really was an amazing exposee of a a sick mind. In a way Sweatt was like that doctor, Swango, I believe his name was, who killed those patients for the thrill of getting away with something. I guess one has to be overly wrapped up with achievement to care what others think so much. Of course Sweatt is 100 times more complicated than Dr. Poison. But he did have that same misplaced false meglomania (Deep down he feels rejection.) More importantly someone like Sweatt makes you realize there's nothing "normal" out there. It's unfortunate, but there's a lot of reason to distrust people you don't know super well. We just have totally no clue about most people.
I KNOW THE D.C. ARSONIST FAMILY MEMBER OF MINE HE WAS SUCH A SWEET KIND MAN AND I WOULD OF NEVER THOUGHT OR KNOWN THAT HE WOULD HAVE OR EVER DONE ANYTHING LIKE THIS I FEEL HORRIBLE FOR THE FAMILIES AND IT HAS MADE ME SEE THAT KNOW MATTER WHO SOMEONE IS OR HOW MUCH YOU THINK YOU KNOW THEM DO'NT LOOK OVER ANY ONE FAMILY OR NOT!!!
Wow, unbelievable story, also found this Site via the Tru-TV show the Forensic Files, unbelievable reading. Amazing how the Bags and some DNA caused all this to finally end. Great writing, maybe a movie someday. They should "fry" this person who did all of these fires.
I really don't understand why more arsonists are not given the death penalty. It makes no sense why they are not treated as common murderers, since this is what they are.
Fantastic reporting and writing. I agree with an early comment: as long as we continue to be fascinated and entertained by extreme mental illness (I am guilty, too), we partially encourage those afflicted.

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