About a year and a half ago, I sent a letter to Sweatt at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. I told him that I was a reporter who had written about his fires in early 2004, when he was still at large, and that I wanted to learn about his life as a firesetter. A few days later I received a brief, cordial note, in careful handwriting, that began, I was pleased to get your letter and hope this could be the beginning of something good. Apparently adjusted to his new confines, he signed it, Inmate “Tom,” #38792037.
Sweatt and I went on to trade letters for more than a year, often on a daily basis. He wrote thoughtfully about his large, supportive family and his faith in God, each note filled with the same soft-spoken kindness he’d shown to co-workers as well as to the agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) who’d captured him. Still, as much as he loved small talk, nothing brought out Sweatt’s storytelling skills quite like the tale of an old fire.
I kept up with all the news reports about my fires + others that they did not know about; I have a “diary of fires” that I put away elsewhere, for; I knew someday the ATF would ask for it. I still believe in my mind that the Lord God Almighty brought them (the ATF) people to me because it was time for all this to stop. 30 years of fires—it was like Come get me, I’m tired. Jail cant be any worst than the life I had then and believe it or not life is pretty much the same, it just I’m not free to go wherever I want to.
The investigators who debriefed Sweatt after his arrest were floored by his recall of years-old blazes, which almost invariably squared with official reports and witness accounts. Indeed, the fire accounts in Sweatt’s letters could run on for pages in detail, until they ended abruptly with something like, OK, my thoughts are running wild again so I’ll stop here. Each fire had been important to him, and telling its story was one way for him to relive its excitement.
As he wrote more, he started to discuss his motives and share with me, as he put it, the mind of an arsonist. In his letters, Sweatt confessed to a number of fires for which he has never been held accountable, including the one that killed Duncan. (Under Sweatt’s proffer with the government, investigators have been gagged from publicly discussing Sweatt’s motives or certain fires he may have admitted to during questioning. Anything dealing with motive in this story comes directly from Sweatt’s letters.)
For Sweatt, different fires grew out of different feelings—many out of a sense of powerlessness, others out of spite, some even out of love—but more than anything else, his decades-long rampage was about sexual fantasy:
Why did I set the fires when I set them? That’s an all too familiar question that can not be understood if you don’t know the story. There were different reasons for most of the fires. It could be because of one feeling the need to have power about something or someone….I don’t want you driving that car so the fire becomes a weapon to destroy it. Or in case of some house fires—I might like a particular style of a house and wish one day to own it (but it’s only a dream). Fire is a tool to destroy and some house fires also becomes my phantasy of people scrambling to exit windows and sort-of feel like they need my help so I stay and watch. Then I’d masterbate over the fire while driving away from the schene.
Southeast wasn’t a bad place for a firebug to live. Sweatt had boarded in cheap rooms all over town before he settled there in 1992. For a few hundred bucks a month he rented an apartment in a two-story brick house on Lebaum Street SE, in a relatively poor neighborhood close to the gritty strip of liquor stores and check-cashing operations along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
He was civic-minded but hardly sociable. He wasn’t the type to knock on a neighbor’s door or start up a sidewalk conversation; instead, he enjoyed tending to his building’s property, mowing the front lawn and clearing trash from the alley and sidewalk. When local drunks or homeless offered to pitch in, Sweatt would gladly accept the offer and reward them with a drink or a cigarette.
He was proud of his flair for interior design. People would visit and say “Wow, this is a huge aptment and nicely decorated. I liked that, but no matter what good, nice things people said I never felt better. That depress feeling wouldn’t go away. Instead, it’d make me want to go out and do evil stuff like setting something afire…
On days off from work he would read do-it-yourself books. He and his sister sidelined in home renovation.
Then we both became masters of the trade and renovated apartments as well as houses. On my off days I would work at the apts. I did kitchens completely including floors, walls, cabinets and molding—we saved a lot of money too. And at the same time my thoughts would wonder a lot about the tenats only knew that I was the person responsible for many fires and that it was easy for them to have become a victims.
Dave Jamieson has won the Livingston Award for "Letters from an Arsonist."