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

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With the exception of home improvement, Sweatt’s firesetting and voyeurism were the only activities that brought him any happiness. The diary and videotapes helped him preserve the fantasy of each fire, and he clipped relevant stories from the newspaper. As the manhunt unfolded he felt the excitement of seeing his story on television every week. He had emotional reactions to the newscasts, lashing out at residents who told reporters offhandedly that the arsonist needed mental help. (Fair warning to the man on the street who insults a serial arsonist on camera: It’s too bad I don’t know where you live, Sweatt told me he thought at such moments, for you’d surly be on the list.)

Sweatt knew well the faces of the fire and police departments, especially Ronald Blackwell, the task force spokesman, and then D.C. Fire Chief Adrian Thompson. It was an additional thrill when men like these donned their caps and medals, called a press conference, and announced that yet another fire was being added to the arsonist’s list. What the officials didn’t know at the time was that they stood before the cameras expressly because an admirer had summoned them.

During our correspondence, I sent Sweatt an envelope containing a series of photos I’d shot of some homes he’d burned in Northeast and Northwest. I’d visited dozens of buildings he’d torched during the course of the manhunt, and I wanted to understand what made him choose one home over another. On the surface there appeared to be no rationale at all, which is partly why his case was so difficult to break. Some homes were rowhouses, others were detached; most bore aluminum siding, but others were brick; a few were large apartment buildings, others single-family. The victims didn’t know one another.

The package I sent included photos of a two-story wood-paneled house on Randolph Street NE; a two-story brick rental on North Capitol Street NW, where Sweatt had set fire to the rear porch; a one-story white house with a brick-and-aluminum exterior on 30th Street NE; and a white house on Otis Street NE with aluminum siding and a front porch.


There was, in fact, a method to his choosing, albeit one as odd and idiosyncratic as Sweatt himself.

I’ll give my thoughts briefly about the ones you sent.

First, 2505 Randolph St NE. I regret this fire because it was an elder man reside there. But there was a bike on the porch that attracted me to that house, plus the location, very quiet and trees on the other side so it was easy to escape—the media had this one all wrong—there was no man riding a bike past—for my car was only 3 houses down. And you’re right Dave why would they paint that house purple!?

Second, 4920 N Capitol St NW. it looks the very same front + back—the fire was set at the back on the second level. That particular early morning I was desperate to set a fire and search most of morning looking for a place where it was safe to get a way fast. I kind a like the alley and how I was able to walk up on the back porch and sit at the wooden door (for I knew it was the kitchen) and it would burned. This was a good fire because the guy who lived there was handsome and a college student. I wanted to meet him (but that would only happen thru fire. The owners must not had insurance for this building remains the same.

I preferred aluminum sidings over brick because it burn faster—a brick house was only if its was convience or other…

3rd, the house 2804 30th St NE. I kind a like the side of house and the old model cars that seem to have racing car tires and that appeal to me that a mechanic or a real man who needed a helping hand from someone and perhaps lived with His mother or relative. Sort of like the same feeling at Evarts St. I parked exactly in front of this house and watched—when firetrucks came I moved around and just watched afar off. So you see, it doesn’t always had to be the type of house but the cars + trucks parked in the driveway can become a phantasy. This was a good fire and still see the funky old cars parked on the side.

Lastly, the house 1315 Otis St N.E. This fire was on the side of house and burned a little. I was glad no one got hurt for this was not a good fire—the Lady + her child were safe. As you noticed it was again aluminum…

Well Dave, I hope I’ve tickal your mind a little! But, it’s like I’m feeling really upbeat and excited to write about the past (for there is no future)! And, glad to hear these stories are of interest to you.

Investigators knew from the bags left behind at the fire scenes that the arsonist shopped at convenience stores. There were dozens of 7-Elevens and scores of other corner stores in the area, but a spate of four fires within a week of one another in late 2004 helped them narrow it down considerably. From the wreckage of a Northeast car fire investigators pulled the remnants of a black plastic bag. It read: “MADE IN CHINA FOR CORNELIUS SHOP—.” The rest of the letters had been destroyed in the fire.

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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