6 Infamous Arsonists and How They Got Caught

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iStock

Over 50 fires gutted cars in Los Angeles this past weekend. While most of the damage was limited to vehicles, some of the flames caused destruction to adjacent property, including to a home that once belonged to Jim Morrison. LA has not experienced this many fires since the 1992 riots. On Monday police detained a person of interest, 24-year-old German national Harry Burkhart, who was seen on security footage near one of the fires.

While some people start fires for insurance money or to cover up crimes, arsonists set fires to feel control—and, in many cases, sexual excitement. Profilers say arsonists have few close relationships; they start blazes to feel important. Many only have a high school education, but some of the most prolific showed a surprisingly high degree of intelligence.

Below are 6 of the most notable arsonists. Most are infamous because of the damage they inflicted, but others are remarkable because of their sociopathic behavior.

1. Julio Gonzalez

Number of Fires: One
People Killed: 87

Story:

After immigrating to New York City during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, Julio Gonzalez was working as a warehouse employee when he met Lydia Feliciano, who became his girlfriend. A decade later, after losing his job and getting dumped, a drunk Gonzalez visited Feliciano while she was at work as a coat-check girl at the Happy Land Social Club, an illegal bar in the Bronx. Feliciano begged him to leave, and Gonzalez shouted threats while being thrown out by the bouncer.

After purchasing a dollar's worth of gasoline at a nearby gas station, he returned to the club, where he poured the gas over the stairs (the only exit) and threw a match on it. The fire burned so rapidly that patrons didn't have time to stop what they were doing and flee. Fire investigators found the dead stopped mid-life. Feliciano was one of the six survivors.

Capture: Gonzalez watched the firefighters battle the blaze, then went home to nap. When police interviewed the survivors, Feliciano told them about her fight with Gonzalez. Gonzalez admitted to setting the fire. He didn't even get rid of the evidence—his gas-soaked clothes were still in his apartment. He was found guilty of 174 charges of murder (two for each person who died) and was sentenced to 25 years for each count, for a total of 4,350 years. The punishment is mostly symbolic, because he will serve the sentences concurrently.

2. John "Pillow Pyro" Orr

Number of Fires: About 2,000
People Killed: Four
Cost: Tens of millions of dollars of property damage

Story: John Orr hoped to be a Los Angeles police officer, but didn't make the cut. Instead, he joined the Glendale Fire Department as an arson investigator. His coworkers thought Orr was strange—he chased down shoplifters and burglars in his fire truck. But they admired his dedication and his uncanny ability to be the first firefighter on the scene. He always knew where the hydrants were, the best way to put out each fire, and how to find the cause of the fire. His colleagues never suspected that Orr was the man they had dubbed the "Pillow Pyro."

Orr used the same incendiary device for all his blazes: a cigarette attached to a book of matches wrapped in paper with cotton and bedding (hence the nickname), secured with a rubber band. The cigarette would burn down, and the matches would ignite the paper and bedding. In 1984, a fire at a local hardware store killed four people—including a 2-year-old child—and destroyed the building and nearby establishments.

Capture: During an arson investigators conference in Bakersfield, Calif., in January 1987, several suspicious fires broke out. At one of the fires, investigators found a single fingerprint on a piece of notebook paper. Two years later, during another fire investigators conference in Pacific Grove, an outbreak of small fires occurred. Bakersfield's arson investigator compared the participants at both conferences and found 10 people attended both. By 1991, the investigators formed the Pillow Pyro task force and published a profile, noting the suspect was most likely an arson investigator from the greater Los Angeles area. The fingerprint found at the first conference was compared to those of the 10 attendees of both conferences; it matched Orr's fingerprint. When he was arrested in November 1991, police found cigarettes, rubber bands, and binoculars.

His literary aspirations contributed to his downfall. He wrote a manuscript, called Point of Origin, describing a fireman who was an arsonist, which became damning evidence. He wrote: "To Aaron, the smoke was beautiful, causing his heart rate to quicken and his breath to come in shallow gasps. He was trying to control his outward appearance and look normal to anyone around him. ... He relaxed and partially stroked his erection, watching the fire." Orr is serving life plus 20 years for arson and the four murders.

3. Raymond Lee Oyler

Number of Fires: 24
People Killed: Five
Cost: The fire destroyed over 40,000 acres, amounting to more than $9 million in damages

Story: Raymond Lee Oyler was a 36-year-old dim-witted mechanic in Riverdale, Calif. (His own lawyer characterized him as dopey.) He trained for three months to become a volunteer firefighter, but quit. Yet his love affair continued. He began starting small fires, but minor blazes weren't enough—he became obsessed with lighting a mountain on fire. He started more and more fires by attaching a Marlboro cigarette to a pack of matches, placing it in the brush, and lighting the cigarette. After bragging to his girlfriend about his fires, she threatened to leave him if he didn't stop, so he quit — for six months, before starting again.

In October 2006, investigators say Oyler placed his trademark incendiary device in a gully near Esperanza Avenue in Cabazon. The Santa Ana winds fed the fire and it spread at speeds up to 40 mph, with flames leaping more than 100 feet into the air. The 1,300-degree fire melted guardrails along Highway 243. A truck driver testified that he saw Oyler at a gas station in Banning watching the fire. He claims Oyler said, "[the fire] is happening just the way I thought it would." A wave of fire rolled over five firefighters as they tried to save a house from the blaze; all five died.

Capture: A $500,000 reward was offered for any information related to the Esperanza blaze. Arson investigators were already looking at Oyler for two smaller fires set in early summer. Both of the cigarettes used to light the flames had Oyler's DNA on them. Police officers first arrested him for the two smaller blazes and then later charged him for the Esperanza fire. While there was no DNA on the device that started the Esperanza blaze, it was identical to those with Oyler's DNA on them. After a guilty verdict, a judge sentenced Oyler to death.

4. David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz

Number of Fires: 1,411
People Killed / Cost: Unknown

Story: The adopted son of Pearl and Nat Berkowitz spent most of his childhood alone. If he didn't play baseball, he bullied the other kids. He was large and awkward. When Berkowitz tired of torturing Pearl's parakeet, he started fires in buildings across New York and kept detailed diaries of each one. Berkowitz always felt everyone was out to get him; starting fires gave him a feeling of control.

Capture: Officials weren't looking for Berkowitz for his fire-starting habits; they were too busy searching for the Son of Sam, who was terrorizing New York City. But it was Berkowitz's love of that fires contributed to his capture. A few days prior to his arrest, Berkowitz started a fire outside his neighbor Craig Glassman's door. The Son of Sam had alleged in a letter that Glassman belonged to a cult, which made Berkowitz kill six people and injure seven others. Berkowitz placed .22 bullets near the door in the hope of causing an explosion, but the fire didn't burn hot enough to ignite the ammo. Glassman believed his odd neighbor Berkowitz set the fire, and he gave the police threatening notes that Berkowitz had sent him. Based on notes and an eyewitness description of Berkowitz, police arrested him, and he admitted to the six murders.

5. Peter Dinsdale, a.k.a. Bruce George Peter Lee

Number of Fires: More than 30
People Killed: 26 people died in 11 fires

Story: When Peter Dinsdale was just 12-years-old, he went to the house of a classmate, 6-year-old Richard Ellerington, in Hull, England. Arriving before 7 a.m., Dinsdale poured paraffin in a window and tossed a match into the house. The Elleringtons woke and rushed five of their six children from the burning row house. Richard—who was physically handicapped—didn't make it out.

The Ellerington fire was one of many fatal fires that Dinsdale set from 1973 to 1979. Dinsdale was a pathetic case; his mother worked as a prostitute and neglected him because she disliked his freakish appearance and epileptic fits. Children made fun of him for his limp and deformed appearance, and adults called him "Daft Peter." He wandered the poor neighborhoods of Hull at night, burning down houses. At 9, he burned down a lumberyard and a shopping district. He claimed to have started a fire in a nursing home that killed 11 men, but it was later deemed accidental. He watched a man stumble around his home ablaze after Dinsdale set the man on fire for clipping his ear. He squirted paraffin in the mail slot of a home, killing a mother and her three sons.

Capture: On December 4, 1979, Dinsdale doused the porch of the Hastie house with paraffin and lit it on fire. The four Hastie boys and their mother were inside; only one boy survived. The Hasties had bullied, stolen from, and threatened their neighbors, so it seemed everyone was a suspect. Charlie Hastie had allegedly forced Dinsdale to participate in homosexual acts and had blackmailed him. Dinsdale—who had changed his name to Bruce George Peter Lee in honor of martial arts legend Bruce Lee—had left spent matches and a can of paraffin outside the house, so authorities began an arson investigation. An anonymous caller claimed to have seen a car outside the house prior to the fire. Even though police didn't suspect the driver of setting the fire, they had few leads and trailed the car. Eventually, Dinsdale admitted he set fire to the Hastie house. He said he didn't want to kill them, only to scare Charlie. Then Dinsdale coolly admitted to 10 more fatal fires and showed investigators the location of each. Dinsdale pled guilty to 26 counts of manslaughter and remains in a psychiatric hospital.

6. Thomas Sweatt

Number of Fires: More than 350
People Killed: Two confirmed dead, but as many as five
Cost: Millions of dollars worth of damage

Story: When Thomas Sweatt saw an attractive man, he would follow him home, but instead of talking to the object of his affection, Sweatt would set fire to the man's house or car. For more than 30 years, Sweatt set hundreds of fires in the metro Washington, DC, area. Sweatt often tossed incendiary devices into police cars and then watched them burn. Each time he set a fire, he used a similar gadget—he would fill a milk jug with gasoline and plug the opening with a piece of clothing that served as a wick. The wick burned plastic for more than 20 minutes and after the fire consumed the container, gas fumes escaped and caught fire. In two different fires, elderly women were unable to escape and later died.

Capture: At the scene of a fire in Arlington, Va., in December 2004, officials found a pair of pants from a Marine dress uniform. They retrieved DNA from the pants, which matched mystery DNA that investigators had obtained from a strand of hair and wicks from three incendiary devices found at other fires. (Sweatt often used his own clothing as wicks.) When investigators visited a Marine base in southeast Washington, Naval Criminal Investigation Services mentioned that a car often sat outside the base while the driver stared at the Marines. NCIS felt this man was responsible for several car fires on base, but they didn't have proof, and the fires had suddenly stopped. For weeks, the police tailed Sweatt before asking him for a DNA sample, which he voluntarily gave. Police matched his DNA to the dress pants and the DNA found at three fires. Sweatt pled guilty to fires in DC, Virginia, and Maryland and is serving a life sentence in a federal prison.

In 2007, friend of mental_floss Dave Jamieson wrote an incredibly detailed (and just incredible) story on the letters he exchanged with Thomas Sweatt for the Washington City Paper. Go read it right now.

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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