Fire Bugs Part 5 – More Motives

In my last post, I listed seven basic motives for arson. They were fraud, pyromania, crime concealment, vanity, spite or revenge, civil disorder, political or revolutionary activity, and the mischief of juveniles. I gave a brief description of the first two. Today I’ll finish off those seven motives. My information comes from the book The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, and I’m digging into these mysteries in the hopes that I’ll be able to use the information to build a more believable antagonist.

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3) Arson to Conceal Other Acts: “Arson can be used to distract immediate attention from other criminal activities.” Jailbreaks, destruction of bookkeeping records, concealment of burglary, even the cover up of a murder and the evidence of said murder are all reasons why someone would set a fire. 

4) Vanity: profit vanity is a form of indirect fraud, where the perpetrator sets a blaze in hopes of monetary gain (a raise, better hours, etc). An example is a watchman who wants a pay raise, so he sets a fire to prove that his job is dangerous and therefore worthy of higher wages. Hero vanity is related to forms of pyromania. The arsonist wants to appear heroic, so he sets the blaze then steps in to “save” someone or the property from further damage. A babysitter sets fire to the house and saves the children. 

5) Arson for Spite or Revenge: This “is initiated by hatred, jealousy, or other uncontrolled emotions.” It may be the deadliest of all the arson motives. It usually takes place during darkness and usually has large property and life losses. “Love and/or sex often appear as motivating factors, to keep a lover from running around or to get even with an ex-lover. The target is often a place of public assembly, such as a bar, tavern, lounge, or disco.” The authors point out that large numbers of these arsons are committed by women and gays because “they are less prone to settling scores using a knife or a gun.” They let fire do the work for them. “Other motives for spite/revenge arsons include labor disputes, religious or ethnic antagonisms, and racial bigotry.”

6) Civil Disorder and Political Arson: This could be an individual offender or a mob reacting to the heat and pressure of the moment. Destruction of property is a huge issue with this as it is used as a weapon of social protest. “Race riots, ghetto riots, war protest marches, and anarchist activities all fall under this heading.” Usually these people are already prone to suggestion and in a near-violent state. One instigator can bring the entire crowd to a violent frenzy. Sometimes this type of arson is used to mask a spite/revenge killing, looting, or vandalism. These crimes are difficult to solve because of the number of people involved.

7) Arson by Juveniles or Adolescents: Children are naturally curious about fire. “The younger the fire setter, the more likely the fire results from this curiosity, rather than malevolent or criminal intent.” Curiosity fires are usually set in “bedroom closets, under beds, in basement or attic crawl spaces, under porches, in alleys–in other words, not places intended to create a public scene.” Sometimes, these fires are a result of boredom. Older fire starters could be much more serious and could include other motives, such as revenge, fraud, or concealment of other crimes. The sophistication of the crime and the behavior pattern of the suspect helps detectives figure out who they’re looking for.

There’s a lot more information in the book about arson, so come back next time for a look at organized vs. disorganized arsonists.


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