What’s Driving L.A. Serial Arsonist to Set Fires?

The firebug behind more than 40 fires could be motivated by revenge, power, sex, or politics, reports Christine Pelisek.

As Los Angeles firefighters scramble to put out new fires, arson investigators are trying to figure out the motive behind the historic string of arson-related blazes that have ripped through Hollywood and other residential neighborhoods. Is the culprit setting the fires for revenge? Is he making a political statement? Or is he getting a sexual thrill out of it?

“It can be about revenge, power, vandalism, or for profit,” said Dr. Steven Pitt, a renowned forensic psychiatrist based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It can be someone trying to conceal a crime. It can be politically motivated. Some people do it because they get excitement out of it.

“The biggest mistake people make is to glean from their most recent CSI episode, which is that one size fits all,” he added. “It is just not that way…. The question is, why now? It is not as if the fire-setter woke up and said, ‘Today will be the day to light up carports.’ He has either done the offenses in the past and no one has linked them yet, or he has just started. What has pushed this person over the edge?”

So far, little is known about the elusive arsonist who is believed to have set more than 40 fires over a four-day period during the New Year’s holiday weekend. Most of the fires have begun in cars sitting in open-air garages beneath residential units. However, in several instances the flames have spread to nearby apartment buildings or single-family homes, many of which were built as far back as the 1920s. One of the fires damaged the former Hollywood Hills home of Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison, who wrote the song “Love Street” about the house he lived in with girlfriend Pam Courson back in the 1960s.

Investigators believe the fires on Friday and Saturday mornings are similar in nature, and are interviewing victims and people in the neighborhood to try to identify a pattern. Local media has reported that the suspected arsonist is using some kind of Molotov cocktail to smash through the cars’ windows. But fire department officials are not saying what they suspect the arsonist is using to ignite the fires.

Last night, the Los Angeles Police Department passed out DVDs showing a heavy-set man dressed in all black coming from an underground parking structure on Hollywood Boulevard. The grainy black-and-white video is the first reported sighting of the suspected arsonist. The man, who has a distinct gait in the video, looks to be in his late 20s to early 30s, and has a receding hairline and dark hair worn in a ponytail. Police believe he is 5 feet 8 inches to 6 feet 2 inches tall. The same man allegedly was seen at the site of at least two other fires, including one in the garage of the Hollywood and Highland complex, the home of the Academy Awards.

Whoever is responsible, he is very dangerous, said Robert Rowe, a Long Beach-based fire investigator. “When you set a fire in a carport in a vehicle that is filled with highly combustible material you are not doing it with the intent of confining it to the car. This is much more serious than that. There are definitely some issues with this individual. He definitely means business whoever he is…. It could be anybody. It is anyone’s guess.”

Rowe said he believes the firebug is a combination of a spree and serial arsonist, and is most likely motivated by the act of vandalism and the thrill of being one step ahead of law enforcement. “Attention seeking pops out in my mind,” he said. “We are in the end of the New Year and someone is trying to make a statement. There are a lot of weird people out on the street and a lot of weird minds.”

Convicted serial arsonist and former Glendale Fire Department captain John Orr also was seeking attention, and sought praise from his peers. “He got caught by his arrogance,” said Rowe. “He would set fires and show up at them and figure them out. He got caught in his own web.”

Orr finally was arrested in the late 1980s after his colleagues found a half-charred piece of yellow paper smudged with a print from his left ring finger at one of the crime scenes. Before he got caught, Orr wrote a 418-page manuscript about a fictional firefighter who “felt fright but it excited him” when he set fires.

Other experts, like ATF Special Agent Jim Parker, say some serial arsonists are motivated by revenge. Last year, Daniel McAllister and Jason Borque, both in their 20s, were convicted of a series of arson-related fires in East Texas. McAllister told law enforcement officials that he participated in the 10 small church fires because he blamed God for his mother’s death after a painful bout with cancer. “He didn’t understand why God betrayed his mom,” said Parker.

Borque, a business major at the University of Texas and captain of his debate team, allegedly hated churches because a girl he met at one dumped him. Borque claimed he was high on the drugs Chantix, Prozac, and marijuana when he helped set the fires.

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Parker said true serial arsonists are relatively rare, and that most arson crimes are for financial gain or fraud. It is also unusual to have a team of two arsonists working together. “It is a very singular crime,” he said. “Mainly it is a behavioral issue if it is not for profit such as being angry with God, or angry with society, or the individual feels like he has been mistreated somehow. “

Another motivation is sex, says Parker, who investigated a case where a 22-year-old firefighter ignited 12 hay bales to gratify his lusty urges. “He was starting the fires to get sexually aroused and he would sit back and watch the fires,” he said. “Others get sexually aroused from watching the fire trucks.”

The release of the DVD comes on the same day that a team of 25 ATF National Response Team investigators joined the city’s 18 arson investigators, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s bomb squad, and the LAPD’s major-crimes task force and homicide detectives to track down the elusive pyromaniac. The team, which is made up of fire-sniffing dogs, investigators, engineers and forensic chemists, was deployed during the 2001 Pentagon terrorist attacks, the Birmingham abortion clinic bombing in 1998, the Atlanta Georgia Olympics bombing in 1996, and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

“A fire scene of this magnitude is an economic drain for state and local agencies,” said ATF Special Agent Christian Hoffman. “We are able to deploy our national team to help reduce the cost and personnel used up in these type of investigations…. It is just a matter of time before the perpetrator is apprehended and brought to justice.”