The remnants of a fire set days later let them piece together the entire line: “MADE IN CHINA FOR CORNELIUS SHOPPING BAG COMPANY,” a bag outfit in Richmond. The company supplied their black bags to just two shops in the D.C. area. They were Circle 7 convenience stores: One on Kenilworth Avenue NE, the other on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, just a short walk from the old Kenny & Paul’s Barber Shop. Investigators put cameras in both stores and started what they called the “Black Bag Operation.” The idea was to preemptively put damning evidence into the arsonist’s hands.
“There was no model for this,” Daley says. “It came about by slamming your head against the wall wondering what the hell do we do next.”
With the cooperation of the owner of the two Circle 7 stores, agents affixed thumbnail-size stainless steel chips to the bottom of every bag in both stores. Each chip was marked according to alphanumeric code, going in order through the stack. If one of the bags were to be involved in a fire, the chip would survive. And because agents went to the stores daily to track which bags had been used, they would be able to go to the video to see which customer had purchased the bag from the fire.
On Dec. 5, 2004, a strange clue turned up a block away from the scene of an Arlington house fire: a Marine Corps cap and dress pants. The lab determined that DNA from the pants matched the DNA found at the other fire scenes. Investigators started to think their arsonist was a jarhead. Agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) couldn’t offer them DNA profiles of current Marines, but they did have a couple of leads on old barracks-related car fires. A car captured on video leaving the scene of a fire had been traced back to a man who lived right around the corner from the Circle 7 store on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. His name was Thomas Anthony Sweatt.
Investigators started surveillance on Sweatt. He appeared to be an average working schlub, a loyal KFC employee with only minor, long-ago brushes with the law. And yet something seemed off about him—his meticulousness. As Fulkerson staked him out at the KFC one day, he watched from his unmarked car as Sweatt walked outside the restaurant, got down on his knees, and started scraping stale gum from the cracks in the sidewalk.
After not seeing any activity that would tie Sweatt to the fires, Fulkerson and a D.C. detective walked into the KFC to interview him. Fulkerson told the cook he was looking for help in the serial arson case. He wanted to know if Sweatt had seen anything. Finally, he asked him point blank: “Did you set the fires?”
Sweatt answered with a question of his own: “Why would I set those beautiful homes on fire when I’m trying to become a homeowner myself?”
Fulkerson asked Sweatt to submit to a DNA test, and he agreed.
When Sweatt went home he destroyed his diary of fires. The swab of saliva went off to the lab, and days later the crime tech had her results. She called Fulkerson and gave him what he’d been waiting nearly two years for—a name.
“It’s Thomas Sweatt,” she said.
God has been merciful and kind—I want to obey and keep His will. For, I’m no longer worried about this life but the life afterwards. There’s still hope for us all no matter where we are—This old mortal body will soon be no more but the soul will go to heaven or hail. I’m glad to know God is a forgiven God and “there is no sin so great He will not forgive.” Isn’t that a wonderful thought?
Sweatt was arrested the morning of April 27, 2005, as he left a regional meeting for KFC employees held in District Heights.
He maintained his innocence for an hour-and-a-half of questioning before breaking down and admitting to the fires. As a stipulation of any plea agreement that might be offered, the government insisted that investigators be able to interview Sweatt about his motives. They wanted to seize the rare opportunity to profile the mind of an extraordinary firesetter. “It was his time to finally be honest with himself and recognize who he was,” says Fulkerson. “He’d been living this separate life for 30 years. He was absolutely exhausted. You’d think we were exhausted, but he looked worse.”
At times Sweatt choked up and cried. He admitted to killing not only Lou Edna Jones but another elderly woman named Annie Brown, 89, who’d died of smoke inhalation in a February 2002 fire in Northeast. Sweatt hadn’t been considered a suspect in that fire until investigators discovered a news clip about the blaze in his apartment.
One of Sweatt’s only requests was to meet Blackwell, the task force spokesman who had addressed Sweatt through the media. Sweatt told Blackwell he was “sorry for all the headaches.” Blackwell told him it was OK—the whole thing was over now. A shackled Sweatt shook his hand.
Fulkerson and Luckett spent an additional four days driving Sweatt around to old D.C. fire scenes and listening to his stories. In the car Fulkerson and Luckett noticed something odd about Sweatt’s demeanor. Usually, the post-arrest ride-along engenders shame in a perp; it’s a plea condition to be endured. Instead, Sweatt appeared to relish the ride-along, as if a weight was being lifted. He was finally in the company of men who knew his secrets and, in their capacity as fire investigators, perhaps even understood them. In his letters to me from prison, Sweatt often would ask how “Scott” and “Bob” were doing, expressing nothing but respect and gratitude toward the investigators who had put him away.
Dave Jamieson has won the Livingston Award for "Letters from an Arsonist."