Man Arrested In D.C. Area's Arson Wave

Federal agents escort Thomas A. Sweatt after his arrest in Prince George's County. Sweatt was charged with 11 federal offenses stemming from four fires and an attempted arson in Maryland and the District.
Federal agents escort Thomas A. Sweatt after his arrest in Prince George's County. Sweatt was charged with 11 federal offenses stemming from four fires and an attempted arson in Maryland and the District. (Wrc-tv)

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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005

A man suspected of setting fires to 46 houses and apartments in the Washington area was arrested yesterday, ending a two-year campaign of terror that left an elderly woman dead and put many communities on edge in the hours before dawn, authorities said.

Thomas A. Sweatt, who helped manage a fast-food restaurant near a half-dozen of the fires, was arrested about 9 a.m. in Prince George's County after leaving a work-related meeting in District Heights, authorities said. He lived in an apartment in Southeast Washington that was near several other fires, they said.

Law enforcement officials said they tied Sweatt to the crimes through DNA taken from items found at several crime scenes, including cloth from a pair of pants left near a house fire in Arlington in December and a sock that apparently was used as a wick in a September house fire in Northeast Washington.

Under questioning yesterday, Sweatt, 50, implicated himself in the fires, investigators said. No motive has emerged for the random attacks, although one law enforcement official said Sweatt spoke of demons and voices.

Prosecutors charged Sweatt with 11 federal offenses stemming from four fires and an attempted arson in Maryland and the District. He was ordered held without bond after appearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. A follow-up hearing was scheduled for tomorrow.

The fires began in March 2003 and affected many neighborhoods. The fires were set by lighting plastic jugs filled with gasoline, often on porches or just outside doors. Authorities believe it took up to 25 minutes before the fire bombs exploded, enabling the arsonist to escape unnoticed.

"In a sense, all of us were victims of the serial arsonist," said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) during a news conference to announce the arrest. "All of us were on edge, not knowing when this person would strike next."

The worst blaze occurred in June 2003 and killed 86-year-old Lou Edna Jones, who had lived for a half-century in her home in Northeast Washington. Her body was found in an upstairs bedroom. More than a dozen people were injured or suffered smoke inhalation in the other fires, which caused millions of dollars in damage.

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and other authorities said they felt fortunate that more people weren't killed or hurt. Many of those driven from their homes were elderly people or young children.

The victims told of being awakened by flames flickering through windows or the faint crackle and hiss of fire. Some fought the fires with garden hoses until firefighters arrived. Several have described enduring constant fear since the attacks.

A few months after the fires started, local police, firefighters and federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives established a task force to investigate and track the blazes.

Despite offering a $100,000 reward, canvassing neighborhoods repeatedly and publishing composite drawings and a psychological profile, investigators were stymied and resorted to making public appeals for the arsonist to contact them. In early 2004, investigators arrested a Riverdale Heights man who some thought might be the arsonist. He was quickly ruled out.


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