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

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In his time off from KFC, he would drive out of the city to military recruiter stations. He’d get there before the officers and watch them as they went into work. Sometimes he would film them from his car and later masturbate to the videos. If they left any military-issued cars unlocked in the lot, he’d come back at night and collect whatever pieces of regalia they left behind until he’d assembled a complete uniform. Then he would order the matching leather shoes to go with it. At home he’d dress as a Marine and putter around the apartment, playing the role for no audience but himself. He never wore the uniform outside.

I kinda like the old recruiter station in Silver Springs, Md because in the back of the office was a bathroom window where I could actually see inside the place, he wrote. That place was distroyed by fire and they move a few block down across the street from a fire station. Sometimes, a recruiter or recruiters would leave the company cars unlocked at night and I come back and sit inside and take a lot of stuff (papers, ID cards, uniforms and wear the jackets home).…The new station had a good view also—for I use to park on the parking lot during business hours and watch the traffic in and out—including video taping the recruiters going + coming. And then I drive across the street to the Fire Station and tape them also—mostly close-up (Not fat or out of shape workers, but built muscular and nice feet) this you can’t understand because these are some of the phantasy.

He set fire to recruiter stations as far away as Richmond. His fantasies encompassed all kinds of civil servants who wore uniforms: Police officers, firefighters, even bus drivers. He reported false fires on his block just to bring the engines out. He sometimes lingered at the scenes of fires he’d set himself, capturing footage with his camera. He became addicted to his homemade pornography.

Sweatt felt deeply conflicted over cops. He was physically attracted to them but resented their authority. That feeling may have stemmed from the minor brushes he’d had with them in the past. (In 1984, he was arrested for stealing some $2,500 in jewelry out of the home of a man he’d picked up at a party, according to court records. After he agreed to complete a court-ordered diversion program, the government dropped its case). Or maybe he just never forgot the D.C. officers who mocked his soft voice when he took their orders at KFC.

Whatever it was that he loved and despised in cops, he saw it in their squad cars. Physical objects themselves had a way of stirring his feelings, sometimes more than people. The sight of a cruiser could make him feel powerless and slighted, so he torched them around town.

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I burned police cruisers parked at the station and some that were at their residence. To me they seem to have power because of their badge + gun and I felt powerful thru fire when they lost their vehicles. Some of the burned cars would remain at the spot for many days and I’d drive back that night and just stare and smell the smoke. One of the station was on Penn. Ave + Minnesota Ave. SE; one of the police residence was Wheeler Rd + Miss. Ave. SE. Some people use guns, knives, etc. as weapons—I use fire as a source of weapon—Not afraid of fire at all; for it is my friend and I miss it. You mentioned small + safe fires. Well, that’s correct about the small leading to big fires and I just needed more satisfaction and excitement…

I must have masturbated a hundred times a day!! That’s all I wanted to do was make tapes and come home and watched them.

He was aroused by the snug blue uniforms and caps of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. He would hang around the city bus depots and watch the drivers as they started their routes. At the Metro yard on Bladensburg Road NE, just past the railroad overpass, he could park on the side street beside the buses and shoot video of the workers. Many of the drivers parked their personal cars across the street in the parking lot outside a liquor store. Sweatt would arrive there before 7 a.m., when the operators were reporting for duty, and after they’d made their way to the buses on foot he would set his devices beneath their car undercarriages and light them. He would have made up his mind the previous day which cars he’d be torching. The sexier the car, the better for his fantasy.

It was a 2004 Mustang (white) 5.0 that had been on the list of cars to burn for a long time. That morning it parked right beside me and the operater look at me, shut his door and walked away, (not knowing that’s the last time he’d drive that pretty sorta hot rod like ride. I must have waited about 20 minutes for the lot to fill up with other cars so that no one would come back to mess up the plan. His car was destroyed along another sexy cars parked beside it as well as the top of the wall of the liquor store.

That Mustang belonged to Wade Powell, a Metro instructor who still works out of the bus depot. “I know four other guys who had their cars burned,” Powell says of his Metro colleagues. Gulzar Singh, the owner of the liquor store, Syd’s Drive-In, says he often arrived to work only to find the smoldering carcasses of automobiles in his parking lot. “Sometimes when we opened up in the morning, the fire department would already be here,” Singh says.

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.
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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