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

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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.

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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."

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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