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.
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."