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

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Sweatt signed a secret guilty plea within two weeks of his arrest. “The fastest we’d ever seen,” says Fulkerson. “He just wanted it over with.” With Sweatt’s help investigators closed out 353 fires—apparently all he could remember—stretching back into the ’80s. Never before had a detective questioned Sweatt about any of them.

After sentencing, Sweatt was quickly sent to the United States Penitentiary at Terre Haute, the famously rough prison where Timothy McVeigh was put to death. Barring a transfer, Sweatt will spend the rest of his life there.

He still thinks often of fire, and his mind tends to drift back to old blazes, stirring feelings of exhilaration and shame. Of course I see Evart St each and every night, he wrote, in reference to the fire that killed Jones. His fantasies now are the same as they were on the outside, the only difference being that fire now lies beyond his reach. For that he seems thankful:

My sister in Ohio sent pictures of her house (I never seen) and her yard is beautiful. She has real grass that looks like carpet and flowers are really pretty. Her neighborhood reminded me of the Birtchwood Community off Livingston Rd in Oxxon Hill Md. My mind started to think of evil thing to do in that neighborhood. That’s so sad.

Those demons are still in me.

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For more than two decades, the survivors of the fire at Quincy Place never knew that Sweatt was responsible for it. Sweatt admitted to setting that fire and killing Bessie Mae Duncan in a letter to me late last year. His account took some time to verify; the only victim’s name he offered in the letter, I later realized, was spelled phonetically: “Roy Peacock.” Aside from the misspelled name, the details in the Post report matched perfectly with Sweatt’s telling: An early-­morning fire in the winter of 1984n85, a rowhouse just off Florida Avenue NW, a 30-something man in his underwear on the front porch, a young man shouting from the basement, and a wife who never made it outside.

(I hoped to clarify the name misspelling with Sweatt, but our correspondence was cut off this past winter, when prison administrators began returning my letters with notices stating that the inmate was on “restricted correspondence.” Sweatt declined through a prison official to meet with me in person.)

I was unable to locate a Roy Picott, but I found a Rodney Picott, 40, and his sister, Cheryl Legros (formerly Cheryl Picott), 41, living near Nyack, N.Y.

Both of them had been in the house during the fire.

When I spoke on the phone with Rodney, he seemed unsettled by the fact that a reporter had questions about a 22-year-old fire. And yet it was clear he had never managed to answer his own questions. “I wasn’t really pleased with that report,” he said, almost immediately, in reference to the carelessly dropped cigarette. “It’s amazing that I remember that phrase.…It’s etched in my memory.” That report suggested recklessness on the Picotts’ part, which never sat well with Rodney. I agreed to meet with him and Cheryl the following afternoon at a coffee shop in the bustling Palisades Mall in Nyack.

The life of the Picott family had just two chapters: Before the fire and after. When I shook Cheryl’s hand, I realized she couldn’t have forgotten it if she tried—she still bore the burn marks on her forearms. “You know girls when they’re 19—on top of the world,” she said. “It was rough. But I got through it.” She said she still keeps the withered Post report that detailed the blaze. “I think that was all I ever talked about for years. That’s not the way that fire started. They put that in the paper and just dropped the investigation. That was the end of it.”

The official fire report on the Picott blaze was dubious on its face. It’s dated the same day as the fire, even though much of the house was destroyed. What could possibly be determined with confidence in a gutted house in a matter of just a few hours? The Picott children told me there’s an even simpler reason they considered the official line nonsense: Nobody in the house smoked cigarettes.

“We couldn’t figure out where it started,” Cheryl said. “We kept running over and over in our head, ‘What could have happened?’”

About a year ago, a D.C.-area detective had reached out to Rodney. The detective told him that they’d locked up a man who was responsible for a number of fires in D.C. in the mid-’80s, and that they believed this man had set the Quincy Place fire. That was all Rodney knew—the detective never told him the full story. (If the detective was elliptical with Rodney, perhaps it was because he had to be. Investigators have not been allowed to discuss Sweatt or the Quincy Place fire publicly, because Sweatt apparently confessed to it after he’d arranged a proffer.)

I told Rodney and Cheryl about Sweatt and my pen-pal relationship with him, then showed them the letter with Sweatt’s account of the “Roy Peacock” fire. The more Rodney read, the more assured he was that Sweatt was the man the detective had told him about. “He’s right about too much,” Rodney said—like the fact that the house remained a shell for years. (Rodney knew this as well as Sweatt did, since he visited the vacant house whenever he was in D.C.) And there was another detail that Sweatt offered independent of the Post report—the funeral for Bessie Mae Duncan, which Sweatt claimed was at McGuire Funeral Service on Georgia Avenue, near the Maryland line. Rodney couldn’t remember the name of the home, so he made some calls to family members.

After he hung up, he said, “It was at [McGuire’s].”

Rodney said he took comfort in knowing Sweatt was serving a double life sentence. “It’s not like he’s walking around,” he said. “I don’t want to know why he did it, because I could care less.”

I gave them a copy of the letter and left. Cheryl took some time to digest the news. She later said, “Now when I look at my body, I see it differently. It wasn’t an accident. There’s no more guessing. [There’s no cigarette] left burning. Some lunatic did it.”

The cause of the fire may have been settled, but the letter held a separate mystery. In it Sweatt wrote that he went to the funeral for Bessie Mae Duncan. He never explained why. Was it just another voyeuristic impulse he was acting on? Was it the hope of seeing Roy Picott again? Or was it the guilt of a young man, then just 30, who had to know he’d cause more heartache before the fires stopped? No matter—he never went inside McGuire’s. He just stood outside, alone in the rain, missing his chance to pay his respects to the dead.

There was only 1 death, he wrote, so I left it at that.

Sweatt may have followed the aftermath of his fires diligently, but in that last matter he was mistaken. The newspaper account of the fire revealed that Roy Picott was in critical condition, having sustained burns over 60 percent of his body. Unbeknownst to Sweatt, Picott underwent a series of surgeries at Washington Hospital Center in a vain effort to save him. He died on March 5, 1985, less than two months after his wife.

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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