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

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The home-design buff in Sweatt would have admired the tasteful white wood siding and teal windowpanes of the Jones house. When I visited the house one sunny afternoon last August, it was still charred, partially boarded up, and uninhabitable. The gate was closed and a placard warned against trespassing.

The family never returned to the house after it burned. The only sign that someone had lived in it within the last decade was a dilapidated sidewalk memorial to “Mama Lou” Jones, marking the years she lived, 1916-2003, and the pink and white plastic flowers still sitting in clusters outside the chain-link fence. In the more than three years since the fire, no neighbor had the heart to clear them out.

While I was there I took some photographs of the property and mailed them to Sweatt, asking him to tell me the story of the fire. (The Jones family never learned why the arsonist chose their home.) He wrote back:

The pictures were so clear and bright. It must have been a beautiful day for taking them. I was not surprise to learn that Lou Edna Jones house remained the same…

Someone has been cutting the grass, some weeds have grow up. The front porch is almost completely gone. I think about this house the most because its where a death occurred and that was not my intentions (but knew that all the fires there would be risky for human life). That fire occurred about 4:30 A.M. just as people were waking up or coming to work early morning hours such as, the Delivery Man for the papers, Metro Bus driver which is right in that area. I sat there a long time trying to get my nerves together because this was a huge house and wasn’t quiet sure it would burn. Just like this house none of the fires were easy. Like the house on Anacostia Ave, I sat there so long that the occupants drove pass and saw me sitting on their porch. That was about 30n40 minutes. Way too long and way too early for a fire, 11:30 pm. What was I thinking!


But, Dave it’s hard to think that for about 3 years or more that she’s been dead and I often pray for forgiveness and ask God to help the victims families coped with their struggles.

Yesterday, my mother came to visit me here in Terre-Haute along with sisters and niece—I couldn’t help but think of what it’s like not to have a mother (no matter how old).

You’re eactly right about Lou Edna Jones having a lot of grandchildren and it was her grandson that led me back to that house later that night only because I didn’t know him personnaly but saw him get the mail out of the mailbox on the front porch and he was tall and has a muscular build and I wanted to meet him so I would live out my phantasy thru fire watching him jump out of the window for help and come running to me. I raced home to watch the news and was sadden about the fatality but was fascinated by this huge fire. Wow! I’ll always remember this house.

Jones never made it out of her bedroom above the front porch. She’d been asphyxiated by smoke, her feet burned from trying to escape.

Investigators assumed the arsonist saw his fires in the news. If he followed the story of Evarts Street, then he knew that he’d killed somebody yet continued setting fires anyway. Investigators couldn’t believe that Sweatt had set his first fire in March 2003 and then graduated to murder in June—now the timeline was blown wide open. “We started to figure we needed to go way back,” says ATF agent Tom Daley. They visited firehouses in the arsonist’s favorite neighborhoods and pored over old “run” books—desiccated logs that include a handwritten entry for every fire a truck has been called to. They looked for any suspicious-looking fires set on porches. “We were pulling log books from decades ago,” says Daley.

Even more disheartening, catching the arsonist in the act seemed nearly impossible. One October morning in 2003, someone called 911 to report a fire on the front porch of a home on Otis Street NE. Investigators had been waiting for this moment: A task force agent was staked out with his radios nearby. He actually arrived on the scene before the firetruck did—this would be just a matter of minutes after the fire started—and investigators managed to shut down the surrounding blocks and canvass the area as the fire burned. Their man had already disappeared.

How intoxicating that must have been for Sweatt, to manipulate investigators like that. Up to 55 agents were working the case at a given time. They were sent out into the streets on needle-in-the-haystack stakeouts that lasted all night long, eventually listening to as many as five different police and fire radios to cover all the jurisdictions Sweatt was hitting. Sweatt found a thrill in walking among the agents who were hunting him, his ego satisfied knowing he was always a step ahead. More than once he spotted a pair of exhausted-looking agents staked out at a 7-Eleven on Bladensburg Road NE. He walked right past their car. (Investigators have confirmed assigning agents at that location.)

I liked the attention from setting fires; the Blue + red lights flashing from the firetrucks + police cars, the rushing of firefighters hooking up the hoses to put out the flames and people gathered to watch.…They were in arms length to arrest me. I recognized them at many locations, especially the fires in N.E. and PG County.

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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