D.C.-area serial arsonist is sentenced to life term

Sweatt set more than 45 fires, killing two

September 13, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

GREENBELT - A law enforcement task force secretly labored for years from a warren of empty laboratories at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, chasing more than a thousand dead-end leads trying to catch a serial arsonist before he killed again.

In the end, it was a combination of sheer doggedness, a serendipitous meeting with military officials about DNA evidence from a pair of Marine dress-blues left behind at a fire scene, and an unusually cooperative suspect that cracked the case.

Yesterday, Thomas A. Sweatt, 50, the once-elusive "firebug" responsible for setting more than 45 fires in Maryland, Virginia and Washington that killed two people, was sentenced in federal court to serve the rest of his life in prison.

"It's a relief," said Scott Fulkerson, a special agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Baltimore field office who was co-leader of the task force that operated for nearly two years.

Sweatt, a former fast-food restaurant manager in Washington who reportedly told authorities he was driven by demons, kept Fulkerson, his co-leader Tom Daley and dozens of investigators from across the state and country puzzled for years.

When he was arrested in April and pleaded guilty in June, he gave it all up. The man who had evaded authorities for months didn't balk when they asked him for a voluntary DNA sample at the KFC restaurant he managed.

He also quickly admitted to a seemingly random set of residential fires that hop-scotched across the Washington region from 2002 until earlier this year.

His attorney described Sweatt as a classic Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, calling him a good person and victim of an unspecified mental illness.

"Hopefully, he will get the attention and treatment he desperately needs," said Assistant Public Defender John C. Chamble.

But even today, Sweatt's motive remains a mystery.

He walked into court yesterday, his gait unsteady, his eyes hidden behind slightly darkened glasses.

When Sweatt stood to address the court before U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow sentenced him to life plus roughly 136 years in prison, he spoke clearly in an almost falsetto voice.

"To the victims and the victims' families, I'm very sorry for all of the harm I have caused," he said, leaning toward the microphone.

Sweatt rarely looked at the weeping families, including his own, assembled behind him.

His fires damaged and destroyed homes, displaced residents and killed 89-year-old Annie Brown and 86-year-old Lou Edna Jones, both of Northeast Washington.

"She befriended the lonely and comforted the broken hearted," Jones' daughter Carolyn said of her mother, who died in June 2003. "He is a vicious murderer who single-handedly terrorized Washington."

Like the 2002 Washington-area sniper attacks, the jarring unpredictability of the fires filled residents with fear and frustrated investigators who initially didn't link the blazes.

The fires were set in almost identical ways - with homemade bombs of plastic one-gallon jugs filled with gasoline, topped with a piece of cloth used as a wick and wrapped in a plastic bag for easy transport.

Investigators described the arsons as diabolical, saying the incendiary devices were often left outside exits to the home.

A fire at a Silver Spring apartment building in 2004 was set in the building's only stairwell and forced some occupants to jump from second- and third-story windows. Most of the fires were set in the middle of the night as people slept.

Sweatt knew his victims were home, once waiting for 15 minutes on a porch before lighting his Molotov cocktail, investigators said.

The fires, which included several in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, spawned an arson task force that began its work in the summer of 2003.

Investigators believed they had found the arsonist's DNA on a hair recovered from the scene of one fire. They matched it to DNA found at other fires. But the team of federal agents and local detectives did not know who it belonged to.

More than 1,000 leads were logged in black binders, checked out through interviews and then, when exhausted, filed on bookshelves in the red-brick Building 308 at the agricultural center.

Evidence found at a fire in Prince George's County included a black plastic bag that had been part of the makeshift Molotov cocktail used to set the blaze. Most of the other bags had been melted down as a result of the arsons.

The lettering read, in part, "MADE IN CHINA FOR CORNELIUS SHOP."

"We only had part of the lettering at first, so we thought it was from a shop in London," Fulkerson said. "The Secret Service tracked down that lead for us before we knew we were wrong."

Instead, they discovered Cornelius Shopping Bags were used by two convenience stores in Washington - one of the stores they later learned was a block from Sweatt's Lebaum Street home.

So they enlisted the store owners' help. They installed video cameras and taped dime-sized, numbered tags to each one of the store's bags.

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