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6 Infamous Arsonists and How They Got Caught

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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.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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