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

Page 7 of 11

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."

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!

Leave a Comment

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