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

Page 4 of 11

“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.

advertisement

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."

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.
VERY GOOD WORK SO MANY UNANSWER QUESTION
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.

Thanks.
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.
I KNOW THE D.C. ARSONIST FAMILY MEMBER OF MINE HE WAS SUCH A SWEET KIND MAN AND I WOULD OF NEVER THOUGHT OR KNOWN THAT HE WOULD HAVE OR EVER DONE ANYTHING LIKE THIS I FEEL HORRIBLE FOR THE FAMILIES AND IT HAS MADE ME SEE THAT KNOW MATTER WHO SOMEONE IS OR HOW MUCH YOU THINK YOU KNOW THEM DO'NT LOOK OVER ANY ONE FAMILY OR NOT!!!
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.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...