I felt like that was my world, he wrote of Lebaum Street. The people were friendly, not a lot of money in the neighbor hood but everybody “happy-go-lucky” if you know what I mean. But that was the good part of “Tom” that people saw and only knew. Then when darkness fall it was the other person living inside of me…
Once Sweatt moved to Lebaum Street, the neighborhood started burning. Vacant-building fires, home fires, store fires. He burned the garage that stood behind his apartment. He burned the neighborhood carryout and the neighborhood laundromat. When he was on the receiving end of a bad haircut at Kenny & Paul’s Barber Shop, he came back later and torched the place. The barbershop rebounded, but when Sweatt tired of the addicts who took to hanging on the block, he torched it again.
There were lots of barbershops and carryouts as well as Gas stations. I like barbershops because there were always attractive men there—crazy as it may sound, I had a fascination for barbers.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Sweatt lit scores of fires throughout the eastern side of the city. He never heard a knock on his door from a detective, probably because he rarely strayed from the city’s poorer corners. Though his unchecked terror doesn’t speak well for D.C.’s arson investigators, they had their hands full. The city was classifying more than 200 fires per year as acts of arson as far back as the early ’90s, compared with about a third of that number today.
After he bought a used Toyota in 2001, Sweatt started to venture beyond Southeast. He now had access to all the streets of Northeast, where he worked, as well as the cozy, tree-lined middle-class neighborhoods of Prince George’s County, which became favorite stomping grounds.
There was one fire at Southview Dr Md. side (a whole complex under construction) which damaged net 1 million dollars because a pipeline explosion. That was a huge fire that could be seen + heard mile away—It was amazing to watch. This was one of the fires I was never connected to…
After doing for so long it just became easier and easier but the fear of getting caught was always there. Each fire was like doing the first time and I’d always take deep breaths and ask the Lord to forgive me for what I’m about to do…
Each one was special in its own way.…
In the spring of 2003, Sweatt paid a price for his jurisdiction-hopping. A couple of fire officials from D.C. and Prince George’s County were swapping notes at a promotional exam when they realized that a rash of suspicious fires had been set along their shared border. The fires had a number of features in common: The homes were mostly detached and single-family; the fires were set on porches or near doorways; and they were set in the early morning hours.
Forensic tests at an ATF lab determined that each fire was set with the same kind of device: some sort of plastic jug, perhaps a milk or juice container, that had been filled with gasoline and carried to the scene inside a plastic bag. The lab work linked four of the fires for certain, and another 15 recent fires were deemed similar-looking.
Victims appeared to have nothing to do with one another. Investigators created a floor-to-ceiling map showing the locations of all the arsonists’ fires—a process known as geographic profiling—hoping the configuration might suggest something about the arsonist’s daily life. (A linear pattern, for instance, would tell you to look into local deliverymen with criminal pasts.) But the D.C. arsonist’s fires were scattered; their locations suggested that the firesetter liked greenery near the homes he burned and that he preferred low-income and working-class neighborhoods. Most of the fires had been set near exits. The arsonist apparently hoped to kill or at least terrify the people inside.
By mid-July 2003, investigators were looking at about two dozen recent fires, including one that killed an 86-year-old Washington woman. The ATF and local law enforcement launched what would become an exhausting, nearly two-year manhunt for the arsonist.
To learn more about how these fires unfolded, agents re-created models of the arsonist’s device with plastic jugs and cloth wicks, performing staged burns at the lab and out in the field on a home slated for demolition. They were surprised by what they found. When the wick was lit, a gallon jug filled with gasoline didn’t ignite as one might suspect. Gasoline itself doesn’t burn—its vapors do. The narrow opening at the top of a jug allowed only so many vapors to escape at a time. The gasoline itself acted as a coolant, letting the device burn as slow and steady as a kerosene lamp. It could be 21 minutes before the jug’s plastic melted, allowing the gasoline and its accompanying vapors to spread across the porch. Once it did, the fire would reach the wood or aluminum siding.
Dave Jamieson has won the Livingston Award for "Letters from an Arsonist."