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Report of Essential Findings From a Study of Serial Arsonists

NCJ Number
A D Sapp; T G Huff; G P Gary; D J Icove; P Horbert
Date Published
112 pages
This study was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) to assess the extent of serial arson in the United States.
Serial arson was defined as an offense committed by firesetters who set three or more fires with a significant cooling-off period between fires. Data were obtained on attributes, characteristics, motives, and life history patterns of 83 serial arsonists who agreed to participate in the study. A sample of 42 subjects representing one eastern and one western State was interviewed during the 1978-1980 period, while a second sample of 41 subjects in several different State correctional systems was interviewed during the 1990-1992 period. Records of nearly 1,000 incarcerated arsonists were also reviewed. Findings revealed that most serial arsonists were young white males; 58.7 percent of fires were set by offenders before 18 years of age, and 79.7 percent were set before 29 years of age. Overall marital adjustment and life histories of serial arsonists were poor, suggesting that they lacked stability in interpersonal relationships. The average educational level of serial arsonists was 10th grade, 71 percent reported prior felony arrests, and over half reported significant medical histories. Only about one-third had regular occupations, and none were employed in professional positions. The family situation for most serial arsonists was either comfortable or at least self-sufficient. Serial arsonists noted that relationships with their mothers and fathers were often cold, distant, hostile, or aggressive. No discernible patterns were observed in the overall target selection of serial arsonists, accomplices were involved in 20.3 percent of arson cases, nearly all serial arsonists used unsophisticated methods to set fires, and about one-third remained at the scene after setting the fire. The majority of serial arsonists set only one fire in a location. Nearly half the sample used alcohol before setting fires. The most common motive for setting fires was revenge, followed by excitement, vandalism, profit, and other crime concealment.