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05.14.09

The Town That Won't Stop Burning

Coatesville, PA, has had 50 fires in 15 months, providing a frightening case study in how arson can turn self-perpetuating. The Daily Beast reports from a city under siege.

The small, unassuming town of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, has suffered 50 fires in 15 months, making it the site of the country's worst arson epidemic in decades, and providing a frightening case study in how the crime of fire-setting can turn self-perpetuating. The Daily Beast reports from a city under siege. PLUS, watch original video of Coatesville's residents talking about living in a town terrorized by arsonists.

On a barren stretch of Stode Avenue, across the street from the boarded-up house where an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor died in a December arson, the conversation is about the fires.

“See, they ain’t got nobody gang-related,” a young man who calls himself Blue says of the arsonists terrorizing this town. Blue is 23, wears an oversize hoodie, has his hair in tight cornrows, and a hard look in his eyes. “They only pick on old people.” Three black girls are sitting with him on the porch of a two-story house listening to music, laughing. Most people don’t spend much time on porches in Coatesville these days. Officials have asked residents to remove their porch furniture, trash cans—anything that could be easily set aflame.

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Video screenshot

Coatesville residents talk about life since the arsons began

Like Blue, everyone in Coatesville seems to have a theory about the fires—even though no one knows what’s going on for sure. Since February 2008, this broken Rust Belt town in southeastern Pennsylvania, population 11,000, has been the scene of some 50 arsons, making it the site of what one Web site for firefighters called the country’s worst arson epidemic since the 1980s. Shells of burned houses are everywhere, their windows covered in plywood, or their charred structures open to the weather. One fire burned an entire city block, akin to the immolation of an entire neighborhood in a town less than two square miles in area.

But even after 50 separate incidents, no one knows who’s burning the city, or why it keeps happening. So far, the police have netted seven suspects—and zero convictions. The arsonists’ motives are unclear, and the fires follow no apparent pattern. Like the D.C. sniper shootings, the Coatesville arsons are a perfect storm of a crime problem: a series of violent acts that, while apparently related, seem indecipherably random.

Which makes them all the more terrifying for the residents of Coatesville. On the east side of town, in the living room of his modest two-story rowhouse, Michael Hardy has two couches in his living room. They’re positioned next to the front door. Like so many in Coatesville, Hardy and his girlfriend don’t sleep in their bedrooms anymore. They’ve camped out in their living room, hoping they can make a quick escape if their house begins to burn. “I’ll be sleeping, and any small noise I hear, I’ll wake up,” Hardy says. “We got to get out of the house fast because you never know what’s going on.” Life in Coatesville has become frightening enough that the Guardian Angels, who famously patrolled New York’s crime-ridden subway system in the 1970s, are opening a new chapter here.

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AP Photo

With so many fires, public officials here believe it’s not a solitary arsonist who’s responsible for the fires, but rather many arsonists working in isolation—separate individuals who may not even know each other. Which raises the chilling question: Are the arsons in Coatesville begetting more arsons?

A certain type of arson has a way of becoming self-perpetuating, says Dian Williams, founder of the Center for Arson Research in Philadelphia. She says multiple arsons can provide cover for people to commit even more of them: “If you want to commit an act of revenge, there’s nothing like a series of fires going on for you to dash in and commit your own deed, because it could get lost in the mix.” Arson is also a crime people tend to get away with—less than one-fifth of all arson cases are successfully prosecuted—and the more people get away with it, the less likely the consequences seem. “There are generally no eyewitnesses” to arsons, says Williams. “You have a very low potentiality of people confessing, and the chances you’re going to be able to identify them with very little direct physical evidence that ties them to the scene, it’s a very small chance.”

“I’ll be sleeping, and any small noise I hear, I’ll wake up,” says one resident. “We got to get out of the house fast because you never know what’s going on.”

Complicating things further, revenge-driven arsonists aren’t necessarily seeking revenge on the specific person whose property they burn. They could feel vengeful in a more abstract sense, like laid-off employees who shoot up their old offices. “Timothy McVeigh was a revenge arsonist of a certain type for very particular reasons of his own,” says Williams. (She says fire-bombers like McVeigh also qualify as arsonists.) “He had a lot of animosity toward the federal government, he was enraged by the events that took place at Waco, he was unhappy about his treatment in the U.S. military, and so he enacted revenge against the government, feeling that it needed to be taught a lesson.”

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The AP's January 25, 2009 report on the fires

One could imagine similar feelings of resentment in a town like Coatesville, which was, until relatively recently, a comfortable middle-class hamlet where much of the tight-knit community worked at the local steel mill. When the steel company was bought out in 2003 and drastically downsized, unemployment soared. People’s pensions disappeared. Today, a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and a kind of nihilism enshrouds its younger black population: A local “fight club” posts videos on YouTube, MySpace pages boast of the town’s nickname “Cook Cokeville,” aspirational graffiti marks the territory of wannabe Bloods and Crips. Coatesville's population is about 50 percent African American.

Take the sense of bitterness that can be caused by such a rapid decline in fortune, combine it with the town’s high poverty rate—an Australian study last year found a correlation between rising poverty and increased arson incidents—and you have the prime conditions to spark an arson epidemic.

But Coatesville doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the towns in surrounding Chester County harbor their own thinly veiled resentment of the small, troubled city in their midst. The county district attorney, Joseph Carroll, says that many of Chester County’s violent crimes were perpetrated by citizens of Coatesville, where gun crime has nearly doubled over the past two years. Getting Coatesville under control, Carroll said, “will be beneficial to the entire county.”

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Matt Rourke / AP Photo

In other words, Coatesville, a mostly black town surrounded by a county that’s 90 percent white, is regarded by its surrounding towns as an embarrassment at best and, at worst, a dangerous source of crime that leaks beyond its borders. The feedback sections of online reports about Coatesville’s arsons are filled with commenters from surrounding towns disparaging Coatesville’s residents, often in racist terms. And some of the people arrested for the Coatesville fires live in these surrounding towns—in February, Roger Leon Barlow, a white teenager from Downingtown, seven miles away, was charged with setting nine Coatesville fires. (He confessed before recanting his confession.)

In fact, although the arsonists have targeted Coatesville’s white and black houses in roughly equal numbers, so far all the arrested arson suspects—seven since August 2008—are white. Speaking inside Coatesville’s A Step Above barbershop, local barber Mark Kennedy says there’s a sense that the arsonists are “trying to burn the blacks out of Coatesville.” A kind of gallows humor has found its way into the city’s black community. “Black people don’t have time to run around setting people houses on fire,” a woman on Stode Avenue says with a laugh. “We just don’t fit the profile of people who do that.”

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AP Photo

“People just can't get beyond wanting to blame and punish the people of Coatesville,” observes one online commenter on a story about the arsons in Chester County’s Daily Local News. “They have to believe that the arsonist(s) is from the city, no matter what the facts are, the scenarios, the profiles, or the patterns. It is beyond them to even fathom that there would be hate groups in affluent Chester County.”

Not helping matters is the fact that the latest suspect, Robert Tracey, Jr., arrested two months ago, is not only white, but was also Coatesville’s assistant fire chief.

The most recent confirmed arson was in March, but there have been other suspicious fires since, the most recent of which destroyed the home of Coatesville High School’s principal last week. (It’s currently under investigation.) And few are getting their hopes up that the plague of arsons is in the past. “We don’t think it’s over,” says Nasiir Ali, another barber at A Step Above. “I heard fire engines yesterday. I got chills.”

Back on his porch, Blue and the three girls discuss the possibility of Tracey’s involvement.

“I don’t care if you work for the fire department,” Blue says. “I’ll hunt you down. And when I find you? It will be something.” Marquia Joseph, 19, sitting next to him, shakes her head. “It’s like everybody out for they selves out here.”

Gregory Gilderman is senior producer at The Daily Beast and a former writer for Philadelphia magazine.

Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer and social worker from Philadelphia. He blogs about his experiences on the frontlines of urban poverty at Phawker.com.