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

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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 sayWow, 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."

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.
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.

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.
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.
Hello would you mind stating which blog platform you're using? I'm planning to start my own blog soon but I'm having a difficult time choosing between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I'm looking for something unique. P.S My apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!

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