Fire Bugs Part 4 – Motive

I’m doing a series from the book The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. The topic today is the motive of arsonists.

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In a previous post, I gave the definition of a nuisance arsonist: one who sets fires in trash cans, garbage heaps, and empty buildings. They aren’t looking to hurt anyone, they just want to see emergency workers jump to his commands. The author has more to say about this type of arsonist: “The inadequate, nuisance-type arsonist would correlate to what we classify as the power-reassurance rapist, a sexually and socially inadequate offender who rapes to convince himself of his own power and self-worth and often feel guilty about the assault immediately afterward. he may even apologize to his victim before leaving the scene.” If you have this type of arsonist in your novel, he’s going to be motivated by his extreme selfishness. He feels he’s not a worthy person as he is, so he seeks to magnify his worth in his own eyes by manipulating others. Sometimes nuisance arsonists escalate to killers due to added emotional stress, but it’s also believable if he finds all his satisfaction in non-life-threatening fires.

If, however, your arsonist is motivated by revenge or seeking power, he’ll act completely different from the nuisance arsonist. “The arsonist who sets fire to a populated apartment house and takes pleasure and satisfaction in watching people jumping out of windows and fleeing for their lives would correspond to the power-assertive rapist, who, as the term suggests, assaults because he enjoys the power and control over other people. He would be a very violent rapist who would enjoy watching his victim cry and suffer.”

The details of the arson always lead to motive, and that will lead to a profile. The authors take a quick break here to identify the terms “motive” and “intent.” “Intent refers simply to the deliberateness of the act–consciously choosing to commit the crime. Motive is the offender’s reason for setting the fire, and there are seven basic arson motives…fraud; pyromania; crime concealment; vanity; spite or revenge; civil disorder; political or revolutionary activity; and the simple mischief of juveniles and adolescents playing with fire.”

1) Fraud: This is committed by someone who makes a living by creating fires that are supposed to appear accidental. He’s a professional. Most of the time, these fires are to collect insurance, and the motive is money. Other motives include elimination of competition and running intimidation/protection rackets. Sometimes this arsonist will try to make the fire look like a juvenile nuisance arson to draw attention away from the real culprits and motives. Detectives, when faced with this type of fire, need to quickly identify who benefits monetarily from the fire in order to catch the arsonist.

2) Pyromania: This is the uncontrollable impulse to start fires. Unlike most other arsonists, this one could be male or female. Males will go away from his comfort zone, and his crimes will show a pattern. Females will set smaller fires in or near her home, and she’ll set them during daylight hours. Neither the male nor female pyromaniac will show signs of aggression. When caught, they may feel a need to confess.

This is getting long, so I’ll finish the seven basic arson motives in my next post.


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