Inside The Mind of an Arsonist

The psychology of a fire starter.

ByABC News
January 2, 2012, 2:43 PM

Jan. 2, 2012— -- Authorities in Los Angeles are reporting they have a suspect in connection with the 55 fires that have been set in the city over the last four days. Upon his detention, the suspect told authorities "I hate America," according to ABC News sources directly involved in the case, a statement that experts say demonstrates the sort of anger typical of a serial arsonist.

"Anger is associated with any form of destructive arson." according to Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a member of the American Board of Forensic Psychology.

ABC News consultant and former FBI Agent Brad Garrett described the typical arsonist as a "white male from mid-teens to 25 to 30 years old."

According to Garrett, "They tend to be undereducated, many of them have not graduated from high school and have average to below average IQs, but the common theme in all of them is that all of them are troubled... they feel isolated."

"They feel outside of the world, they're angry at the world. They want to take revenge sometimes and that is one of the motives of arsonists is revenge. They're just angry in general and so they take off and light fires."

This would seem to fit with the story of the primary suspect, who sources say may have been motivated by a deportation hearing against his mother that took place in LA County about a week and a half ago.

Another motive can be a desire for attention, Garrett said. "It's an exciting thing to do and it's a dangerous thing to do and it does draw attention to them. Maybe not directly, personally to them, but it draws attention to their behavior. I do think that is a component to every serial arsonist, the thrill of setting the fire and the power it gives them as a result of killing people, torching property it's like look, look what I have done, it's like a product for them."

Garrett speculated that this may be a contributing factor to the most recent string of arsons: "It would appear that primary motive may not be killing people, the primary motive may be attention because he is setting fires to vehicles that are not apparently occupied."

For the roughly one third of arsonists who return to the scene of the crime, the primary attraction can be a desire for control and power. When they return to watch firemen fight the blaze, an arsonist may be thinking, "I created this scene, I'm actually controlling what they're doing because I started the fire," Garrett said. "That's a very powerful statement." He added "it becomes a thrill, something that gives them purpose every day."

However, in this case, that may not be the motivation, according to Robert Rowe the CEO of Pyrocop, Inc. "I don't believe that this particular individual is sticking around to watch his work," he said, adding that he thinks the culprit's aim is most likely to "create as much damage and wreak as much havoc as possible."

In rare cases, blazes can even be set by firefighters as part of a sort of hero impulse. "There are a number of cases each year where firefighters start fires," according to Garrett, especially in scenarios where there are occupants the firefighter is provided with people to rescue. This was the case with one of the most famous serial arsonists in Los Angeles history, John Leonard Orr. Orr, a former fire captain is believed to be responsible for nearly 2,000 fires in the Los Angeles area between 1984 and 1991. Orr is currently serving a life sentence in connection with the fires.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said today that he believed officers apprehended the sole arsonist.

"I feel very good that we've got the right guy. [The suspect] had the right stuff in his van, and we are very confident we found our man," Beck said.

For now the people of Los Angeles can only wait, hoping that the fires will stop and the man in police custody is the real arsonist.

With reporting by ABC News' Richard Esposito