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."