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.
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."