From 1985 to 2000, Thomas Sweatt terrorized the Washington, DC, metro area. He was a serial arsonist, and his crimes claimed the lives of three people and caused injuries to many more. When authorities arrested him in 2005 after a two-year manhunt, they charged him with more than 40 fires. However, he has since confessed to 309 additional fires, making Sweatt one of America's most prolific arsonists. A jury sentenced Sweatt to life in prison, plus 136 years.
Sweatt did not face charges for his entire catalog of fires. The judge said at sentencing the charges were "in no way a complete articulation of the crimes that were committed, nor the extent of the harm." Deemed a sociopath by some, Sweatt seemed eager to brag about his crimes, which is why the public knows the true extent of the fires. Allegedly, the fires provided a sense of sexual gratification and power for Sweatt. He corresponded with a reporter from the Washington City Paper, discussing his crimes and motives in detail.
On a chilly January night in 1985, Sweatt was walking home through the streets of Washington, DC, from his shift at a Roy Rogers store. When he passed an attractive man, Sweatt decided to follow him home in an attempt to meet him. Sweatt kept his distance and watched the man walk inside his home. He wanted to see him again, but under one condition.
"The only way would be [through] fire," Sweatt wrote in his letter to Dave Jamieson, a Washington City Paper journalist.
Sweatt changed clothes at home and drove his sister's car to a gas station. He filled a two-liter soda bottle with gas, went back to the man's home, and set it ablaze. The man ended up on the porch in his underwear running from the fire, just as Sweatt wanted. He suffered third-degree burns on over 60% of his body. His daughter and stepdaughter also sustained burns, and his wife passed in the fire.
In another case, Sweatt became friends with Tyrone, a boxer whom he had met while cruising on Georgia Avenue. They used to watch Dynasty together, but Sweatt eventually became obsessed with Tyrone. Sweatt lit a fire at Tyrone's home where he lived with his aunt. Before starting the fire, Sweatt broke into the basement and stole his clothes and shoes. Sweatt also had a sexual fixation on shoes and slept with Tyrone's shoes at night to smell them.
When Sweatt began telling Dave Jamieson, a reporter for Washington City Paper, about his crimes, a recurring theme emerged. He felt sexually attracted to many of his victims and enjoyed seeing them climb frantically out of windows - it made Sweatt feel like they needed his help.
Sweatt told Jamieson that the fires were partly about power. He said he sometimes set fires because he didn't want his victim to drive a specific car or felt the desire to own the victim's house, "so the fire [became] a weapon to destroy it." He would pleasure himself as he left the scene.
Sweatt also set fire to businesses. He frequented barbershops "because there were always attractive men there." He admitted barbers fascinated him. In one instance, Sweatt got a bad haircut at a barbershop, so he came back that evening to set the building ablaze.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) led a thorough and long-lived investigation into the arson. After finding part of a black plastic bag at one of the fires, investigators discerned that it had read: "Made in China for Cornelius Shopping Bag Company."
They found the two particular stores in the area that used this brand of bags. The ATF affixed fireproof stainless steel chips to the bags, and an agent drove to each store daily to track used bags. Via the store security camera, they could trace the chip to the person who obtained the bag on any given day. After a fire, the chip would remain, and investigators could generate a lead.
On September 14, 2003, investigators got another big break in the arson case. A mother called the police after her sons told her about a man who had left a gasoline-filled jug at their home. The boys said that when they were coming home from a nightclub, they saw a man sitting on their front porch who had claimed he was looking for a friend. After the boys said they didn't know the alleged friend, the man left.
The boys' gut instinct kicked in and they went around the block to see what the mysterious stranger was doing. When they returned home, they found the DC arsonist's signature setup: a plastic jug, gasoline, and cloth soaked in gasoline. The boys stayed awake until morning fearing the man would return, and their mother promptly contacted police when she went home in the morning. The boys were able to describe the man to investigators, leading to the first sketch of the suspect.
They had multiple other interviews, including an instance in 2005 when a forensic doctor allegedly hypnotized the two of them.