“There’s a learning curve like anything else,” says Scott Fulkerson, an agent with ATF who served as one of the lead investigators on the case. “It required some experience with fires to get to that point, where he was comfortable. There was a level of education.”
Despite its cleverness, the arsonist’s method had an inherent flaw. His firesetting was based on convenience, and when it came to finding a wick, nothing was more convenient than a swatch from his own clothes. He didn’t realize that every time he tied such an item to a jug, he ran the risk of implanting his DNA at the crime scene.
The firesetter’s carelessness gave investigators their first break. At about 3 a.m. one day in September 2003, three brothers who’d been out partying for the night returned to their home on Anacostia Avenue NE. They saw a strange man sitting on their front porch. After a brief exchange, the man played like he was lost and walked off. He left behind a plastic shopping bag; in it was a gasoline-filled juice jug that had a piece of cloth tied to the handle. Investigators were called to the scene, and in the bottom of the bag, they discovered a single strand of hair.
The lab examined the hair and performed a DNA test, determining it probably belonged to a black male. If that man was their firesetter, investigators imagined he was lonesome, anxiety-ridden, and hobbled by a deep sense of failure. As far as psychological profiling goes, they were nearly spot-on.
Almost 20 years after working the late shift at Roy Rogers, Sweatt was still toiling in the fast-food business. He worked at the KFC at the corner of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Northeast, where he’d come on board in 1993. He was known as one of the better KFC cooks in the metro area.
That fact didn’t impress many people, but it meant a lot to Sweatt. His job was his life. In an industry with an astronomical turnover rate—the average fast-food worker quits or gets fired within four months—Sweatt would devote a rather astonishing 12 years to the same KFC location, most of it spent hovering over the grill and grease fryers and struggling to keep the kitchen clean.
New employees at the KFC found a cook manning an immaculate station. Jermaine Bryant, who worked with Sweatt for more than a year, says he was serious about a career with KFC and viewed the cook as a mentor. Sweatt, he says, came off as the one guy who really had his life in order. “Everybody complains, but he didn’t,” says Bryant. “He’d be there at 6 a.m. every morning doing inventory. Everything he did was so neat—he knew where everything was.…He’d bring in coffee and doughnuts for everyone in the morning. Just the sweetest guy.” In all their hectic time together in the kitchen, Bryant recalls Sweatt raising his voice only once with a co-worker.
The sad news is that KFC at 1944 Bladensburg Rd contribute to how my life ended, Sweatt wrote. The beginning years (1993-…) were bad because I had no real reason to excel fast—I just was content where + what I was doing… People saw the good in my work and that’s how I climbed up the cooperal ladder (so to speak). So from 1993-2005) I was promoted from Cook to allstar, to Shif Supervisor, Assistant Manger, Unit manager. KFC was very stressful and I had little time for anything else. When coming and leaving that restaurant, I put on a mask to hide the other person which took over after closing.
The work was taxing. He humped long hours and holidays for an hourly wage that worked out to about $1,700 a month. When the nearby school let out in the afternoon the kids would pile through the door and tear the place up, complicating things by ordering pizzas (it was a KFCnPizza Hut hybrid). The restaurant sat along a busy yet particularly dreary stretch of highway, where there were plenty of gas stations but no semblance of a neighborhood. At some of the other restaurants in the area, workers stood behind bullet-resistant glass. Sweatt’s was the KFC you stopped at if you were getting out of town on Route 50 East.
Dave I lived one day at a time. People always (including family) said you work at a “chicken joint”—that ain’t no real job and it use to hurt my feelings because it required so much of my time.…
KFC had benefits for salaried employees only. I was 50 years old with about 15 years service. I just couldn’t see myself trying to run a fast-food joint at 60-plus. It’s too stressful + I’d have a heart attack. That has happened to a manager before. It was like, go to work (sometimes all day) come home, eat and go to sleep—wake up early hours in the a.m. and go hunting for a fire!…repeat that over + over again.
Toiling away in the cellar of the service industry affirmed what he’d believed since childhood—that he was an oddball, the lone failure in an otherwise successful clan. Ever since his early years he knew he was wired differently.
Dave Jamieson has won the Livingston Award for "Letters from an Arsonist."