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."