Torched: Diving into the mind of the Kingman area arsonist

When only 20 percent of arson cases result in an arrest, what do we really know about the local firebug?

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About this story

The Kingman Daily Miner reporter analyzed, contacted and interviewed several sources for this story, including:

• Local law enforcement and fire department agencies, only hearing word back from KFD and NACFD. MCSO did reply saying there was no one to discuss the issue.

• Academic articles ranging from the 1980s until 2012. The one referenced in the article was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Vol. 40, No. 3, published in 2012 and written by Paul Burton, Dale McNiel and Renee Binder.

• FBI crime statistics dating from 2009-2011 and published by the U.S. Department of Justice.

• A phone interview with a psychologist from the University of Arizona Medical School and member of the American Board of Forensic Psychology.

• University professors of criminology, criminal justice and psychology from Arizona, Nevada and Idaho were unable to provide any further information as there has been little study.

• Mental health agencies and health practitioners were also contacted, but could provide no further information.

• The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, field offices in Phoenix were also contacted, but they did not provide further information or respond to subsequent emails.

By The Numbers

$13,196 average dollar amount of damages per arson fire nationally

80 percent of all U.S. arson cases do not result in arrest

18.2 arson offenses per 100,000 people

100 plus fires suspected in the local area

4 plus years active in the Kingman area

Fire is a beautiful, destructive force. In a manner of minutes, an entire forest can be aflame or an abandoned house could be engulfed. Some fires are accidents, some are not.

The Kingman area is certainly acquainted with the latter.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines arson as “any willful or malicious burning or attempting to burn ... property.” While the intent can be to defraud, it does not have to be in order to be labelled arson. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting, there are over 50,000 arsons committed annually in the U.S., with nearly $1 billion in losses per year.

Psychology

Joel Dvoskin, member of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, said not much is known about the mind of an arsonist. About 80 percent of arson cases never result in an arrest, which makes it hard to construct any kind of generalization for arsonists, Dvoskin said.

“The only thing consistent has been anger,” Dvoskin said. “(Arsonists) have less of an ability to deal with anger in an appropriate way. For those who are angry without a way to express it … fire is a primal way to express anger.”

There are other similarities among those who have been arrested, though due to the lack of arrests, there is a limitation placed on generalizing.

Most arsonists are male, although, according to the article “Firesetting, Arson, Pyromania, and the Forensic Mental Health Expert,” the number of female arsonists has been increasing. Arson offenders are often unmarried, poorly educated, living alone and unemployed. Those who are employed tend to be unskilled laborers, the article reads. Arsonists tend to be more socially isolated – having difficulty forming a social network – and introverted.

Substance abuse disorders, particularly involving alcohol, are among the most frequently cited conditions associated with arson. Acute alcohol intoxication has been found to be associated with 20 to 86 percent of arsons, in prison and forensic hospital studies.

The vast majority of profiled arsonists have a below-normal IQ, typically between 70 and 90. About one in four are in the below-70 IQ range, which qualifies them as “mentally retarded.”

Dvoskin does not like to “profile” arsonists because the profile tends to be based on arsonists that have been apprehended by the authorities – and most aren’t.

“It could be the smarter people get away with it, and less smart people are more likely to get caught,” Dvoskin said.

However, there are some red flags of a possible arsonist-in-the-works such as children who start playing with matches or fire as early as age 3, engaging in “daredevil” behavior – especially near fire, mixing chemicals or engaging in “secret” fire setting in which the fire-setter tries different mixtures and those who are noticeably excited while watching fires.

“The main message is how little we actually know about arsonists,” Dvoskin said.

Kingman Area Firebug

Investigation into the local firebug is currently ongoing, so some information was unable to be shared about the profile Kingman Fire Department has drafted, said Mac Nelson, KFD fire prevention specialist.

“We have built a profile based on (Ed) Nordskog, but it’s very general,” Nelson said.

When confronted with the idea that the arsonist could be a firefighter, Nelson said it wasn’t a focus of their investigation.

“But we haven’t eliminated it either,” Nelson said. “Sometimes these cases can involve persons close to firefighters as well.”

There have been vegetation fires, dumpster fires and structural fires in the area, which are all being investigated as “suspicious fires.” These suspicious fires have been happening for over four years, Nelson said, and there are well over 100 fires that have occurred in that time span. Wayne Eder, Fire Chief of Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire District No. 1, said there have been “too many to count.”

Nelson said, based on the same modus operandi, or mode of operation (MO), the investigation team believes the vegetation and dumpster fires have been started by the same person.

“Nuisance fires (such as the vegetation and dumpster fires) can build up to empty buildings,” Nelson said. “What we’re seeing may be a progression, but it might also be an ‘oops.’”

Eder said there are different motivations to consider when working an arson investigation. Vandalism, excitement, revenge, profit, extremists or terrorists and crime concealment tend to be the biggest arson motivators, Eder said. However, he has eliminated several motivations during the course of the investigation. Eder said there have been patterns among the fires he has seen, which lead him to believe these fires have been committed by the same person or group of people.

“We have interviewed suspects, but haven’t been able to hold them,” Eder said. “We are doing everything we can.”

Both Nelson and Eder said that the public is key to the arson investigation. If there is something that seems out of the ordinary, or someone sees a person throw something out the window while driving, Nelson said to make note of it.

“If you see something, say something,” Dvoskin said.

Kingman Police Department, NACFD, Mohave County Sheriff’s Office and KFD, along with other local agencies, have formed a task force to investigate the rash of fires. Agencies are asking for community assistance to help identify the suspect or suspects involved with the intentional burning of brush and structures.

As of July 11, the task force is offering a reward of up to $13,000 for information leading to the identity and arrest of those involved.

Anyone with information is urged to contact any of the task force agencies or report anonymously to Mohave Silent Witness by calling 928-753-1234. Report tips online by going to www.kingmanpolice.com and clicking on “Give a Tip.”

“We need the community’s help,” Nelson said. “We don’t have cameras or officers on every corner. This investigation is 10 percent hard work and 90 percent luck, which involves the community. We are counting on the community.”