When Sweatt started venturing into new neighborhoods, investigators felt like they were being toyed with. Shortly before 5 one morning in November 2003, he lit a gallon jug of gasoline on fire at a house in Alexandria. Virginia officials called in members of the arson task force, who had never thought they’d need to travel west of the Potomac River in the course of the investigation. When they linked this new fire, they realized their case was now blown open in space as well as in time. They had been splurging all their manpower on one side of the District and part of Prince George’s County. “We started to think, ‘What if we we’re missing fires?’” says Daley.
There were different theories on Sweatt’s travels. Some investigators believed he changed his game because he knew they’d gotten close to him, perhaps at the Otis Street fire, where he may have spotted agents as he was fleeing. In fact, there was a psychological element to the expansion. Over time, firesetting, like sex, can grow old within its conventions. Sweatt started branching out into new counties simply because he was getting bored.
As the holiday season arrived, he went on a tear. After two fires in November 2003, he set another just days before Christmas at a home in New Carrollton. Investigators visited nearby businesses hoping to find any video recordings that might offer clues to the fire. A nearby hotel gave them a tape that dumbfounded them. In the footage, a firetruck raced to the burning home; facing the other way was someone in a stopped car, flashing his lights at the oncoming engine. “Why would somebody do that?” Fulkerson remembers asking himself. Agents did everything they could to enhance the video, even sending it off to NASA, but the license plate and make of the car were hopelessly grainy. They wouldn’t learn for another year-and-a-half that the man behind the wheel was Sweatt, gleefully taunting them.
On Feb. 6, 2004, Sweatt ventured to the Alexandria section of Fairfax County and set a fire at an apartment building. Then on Valentine’s Day, he lit one of his devices on the stairwell of an apartment building on Blair Road just over the District line in Montgomery County, where investigators had never followed him. Because the fire started between the first and second floors, it blocked residents on the upper floors from coming down the stairs. A woman and her two daughters were forced to sprint through the flames to escape. Outside, Sweatt watched as an older woman hung from an upper-floor window, apparently gasping for air.
I can still see her, he wrote.
The Blair Road fire never fully destroyed its starting device—a shopping bag, a gallon-jug, and a swatch from a pair of black slacks. These items went to the Montgomery County crime lab, where a lab technician pulled off what her new colleagues at the ATF considered a feat of forensic science. Even though the cloth from the slacks had been burned and charred, the technician was able to extract a trace amount of DNA that, for some reason, never succumbed to the heat.
The DNA from the apartment fire matched the DNA taken from the attempted fire at the boys’ house on Anacostia Avenue in D.C. At the task force headquarters there was a brief spell of euphoria. “It gives you a great feeling for 24 hours,” Daley says, “but then the next day, it’s like, ‘What’s his name? I have no idea.’” What they had was DNA—not a suspect. To underscore just how far they still were from solving the case, an agent with a comic streak put a “wanted” poster up on a wall at headquarters: In place of a suspect’s portrait was a double helix; in place of a suspect’s name was a line of genetic code.
Without a name they had nothing but theories. Some entertained the idea that the arsonist was affiliated with law enforcement, firefighting, or the military. And in the strangest way, he was.
My whole life has been a phantasy.
If Sweatt could have been anything other than a fry cook, he would have been a Marine. People who knew him casually would have laughed at the thought, but it actually made sense. He believed in old-fashioned concepts like honor and heroism; all his life he felt a desperate need to belong somewhere; and he appreciated order and cleanliness. He probably would have had the tidiest locker in the barracks.
Sweatt once tried to enlist in the Navy, in 1976, when he was 21 years old. He passed the aptitude test but failed the physical. He never forgot the rejection. At the same time, he never really accepted it.
He thought duty and courage were beautiful things, and nothing embodied those traits so crisply as a military uniform. The sight of young black men in Marine dress blues sent Sweatt into fits of lust. This happened often: The greater D.C. area offered plenty of bases and barracks for a military fetishist to visit when he needed to see the standing collar, light blue trousers, milk-white gloves, and leather shoes of a doughboy. The real world may have dismissed Sweatt as a soldier, but in his mind he made himself one.
I always wanted to wear a military uniform, he wrote.
Dave Jamieson has won the Livingston Award for "Letters from an Arsonist."