In 1989 a motorist found a VHS tape on the side of the ride near Stockton, CA, that offered a window into the mind of two teenage arsonists who’d been working in the area for awhile. On the tape, a house burns while an unseen voice narrates the destruction in haunting tones.
After the tape was discovered, investigators sent it to Unsolved Mysteries, leading to one of the many times the TV show helped solve a crime. The tips that came in helped officials find the two young men, whose decision to capture their crime on tape turned out to be their downfall.
Finding the Stockton arsonists based on very few crime facts was definitely a long shot. The footage didn't show any visible landmarks, and unlike most crimes caught on camera the video didn't include any visible evidence of a perpetrator. But although creepy stories of arson often go unsolved, this time the culprits didn't get away with their burning crime.
In 1989, after a series of fires rocked Northern California, a family whose car had broken down found a VHS tape thrown out by the arsonists. According to Unsolved Mysteries, the tape was wrapped in a military jacket along with a mortar and pestle, some herbs, and a fake human skull.
Because the tape was found near Interstate 205, which feeds into several major California highways, police were concerned that the arsonists might have thrown the tape out while traveling to somewhere outside of their jurisdiction.
When investigators watched the VHS cassette they were shocked to see footage of an arson likely narrated by the arsonist. The narrator speaks in a low whisper, which adds to the surreal horror of the video. His narration includes the following eerie comments:
Ancient spirit of evil. Look at it. The fire department is trying to put it out. What a laugh.
He also makes multiple references to someone named "Omar."
After watching the tape, investigators weren't sure of the burning home's location. They did conclude it was a one-story ranch house near enough to an inhabited area for someone to call 911 (a fire truck appears in the video). Commercials elsewhere on the tape dated its filming to 1988.
Investigators didn't learn much from the tape beyond the fact that a house had been set on fire and the arsonists watched as it burned. The arsonists never mention themselves by name or say what town they're in. What seemed like a major break in the case was actually a major dead end.
With nowhere else to go, the police in Redwood City, CA, turned to Unsolved Mysteries, the long-running show that discusses ongoing cold cases and encourages viewers to call in for information. After Unsolved Mysteries aired the video in 1990, many viewers identified the neighborhood where the arson took place.
The discussion about whether a pyromaniac derives sexual pleasure from setting a fire dates back to the 18th century, when German doctors believed that most fires were set by teenage girls seeking orgasmic release. Experts including Sigmund Freud have reinterpreted this theory in the years since, and psychologists still believe there's a link between sexuality and pyromania.
One expert who watched the tape of the Redwood City arson noted that the breathing exhibited by the narrator suggested the person received some kind of thrill:
These people are absolutely fixated on how powerful fire is, how it destroys things, how it smells, how it looks. Every aspect of this is the equivalent of a sexual turn-on.