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

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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."

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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