I had left the United States and was back home in Lagos. One day, I got a call from Olu, my former colleague and friend at KFC.
“Oh boy”, Olu screamed. “Guess who the mysterious DC arsonist is?”
“Olu, don’t tell me you are calling from jail”, I responded, invoking a hearty laughter.
“You son of a gun”. He shot back. “Phil, this is very serious stuff. The arsonist is our former colleague at KFC?”
“What!” I blurted as my body went cold and my heart started palpitating.
“Oh boy, all of us for just die like fowl” Olu added.
My mind did a quick analysis of all my former colleagues at KFC. I ruled out all the ladies. Ladies can be responsible for an arson but certainly not a series of them. I ruled out the two Ghanaians. They were both born in Ghana and came to America fully formed, even though they tried very hard to speak “Americana”. African immigrants don’t commit such crimes on American soil. That left me with Tom Sweatt, our amiable colleague. He is African American. Traditionally, African Americans don’t do serious serial crimes and there was nothing in Tom I could remember that remotely suggested that he could be the serial arsonist.
“Olu, I can’t place my finger on anyone”
“Do you remember Tom?”, asked Olu
“of course. Tom the chicken man. Don’t tell me he is the one.”
“Na Tom o my brother.”
As Olu signed off the conversation, I felt my heart was racing more erratically and I had begun sweating.
I thought of all the moments I actually sat down with Tom during break time to share a meal and do small talks.
I went online and began to follow the story. It was explosive. Everyone else in our team had moved on to something else except Tom who was now the manager of that store. He was arrested on April 27, 2005, as he was leaving a KFC managers’ conference in Maryland.
Earlier on, Tom had been questioned following a lead from the information investigators got from several fire incidents at the Navy barrack in Maryland. He denied being an arsonist but agreed that his DNA be taken, unaware that an unidentified DNA was already sitting in a Lab waiting for a match.
Behold, Tom’s DNA matched all previously collected DNA from fires connected to him.
On the day of arrest, all Tom could say was,
“Congratulations officers, it is all over”
Tom declined a trial and entered a plea deal within two weeks of his arrest.
“The fastest we’d ever seen,”
said officer Fulkerson who took part in the investigation.
“He just wanted it over with.”
A bigger can of worms from a fine gentleman.
Part of the deal was that he would tell prosecutors and investigators all they needed to know on the condition that he would only be convicted based on what was already known by investigators and that whatever he said would never be disclosed to the public. Curious about what Tom may be carrying deep in his psychotic mind, prosecutors agreed.
America’s most psychotic arsonist.
However, shortly after Tom was sentenced to two life sentences and an additional 136 years in jail, a Washington City Paper journalist who wrote extensively about Tom’s fiery escapades sent Tom a letter requesting to find out more about his life and motives for setting fires.
Tom’s response was shocking. He disclosed that he had set over 300 fires spanning a period of twenty years and resulting in the death of at least five persons.
Investigators speculated that from available public records, Tom may be the most prolific and psychotic arsonist in America’s criminal history at that point in time.
The dude kept a very detailed account of all the fires he set in a personal “Diary of Fires”
He set fires to vacant-buildings, single family homes and apartment, stores, neighbourhood carry outs, neighbourhood laundromats and barbershops (he had a special sexual fantasy about barbers and barbershops).
Ask about his motives, Tom said many of the fires were out of a sense of powerlessness, others out of spite, some even out of love—but more than anything else, his decades-long rampage was about sexual fantasy. Tom would see an attractive young man on the street, fantasize about him, stalk him to his abode and come back in the night to set it ablaze. Did he ever follow any of us good looking young men home? That is a question I would love to ask him.
In his own words,
“There were different reasons for most of the fires. It could be because of one feeling the need to have power about something or someone…. I don’t want you driving that car so the fire becomes a weapon to destroy it. Or in case of some house fires—I might like a particular style of a house and wish one day to own it (but it’s only a dream). Fire is a tool to destroy and some house fires also becomes my phantasy of people scrambling to exit windows and sort-of feel like they need my help so I stay and watch. Then I’d masturbate over the fire while driving away from the scene.”
What Tom said in a series of letters he exchanged with the Washington City Paper journalist turned my blood into ice. Below are some of them:
- When coming and leaving that restaurant (the KFC where we worked), I put on a mask to hide the other person which took over after closing.
- When darkness falls it was the other person living inside of me.
- I have trouble explaining why I do certain things. I look for answers to many questions but only left with more question marks. Why? Why? Why? Even here (in prison) on my record it states personality disorder.
- It’s really something to think about knowing that as a child one grows up to be known as a serial arsonist. It’s such a degrading name and I don’t like to be recognized as such. But it is what it is and life goes on.
- I liked the attention from setting fires; the Blue and red lights flashing from the firetrucks and police cars, the rushing of firefighters hooking up the hoses to put out the flames and people gathered to watch.
- I burned police cruisers parked at the station and some that were at their residence. To me they seem to have power because of their badges and guns and I felt powerful thru fire when they lost their vehicles
- “I get aroused just the thought of big shoes and big pattern leather boots.…From childhood all the way up to even now. I always wondered why I like to masturbate over my uncle’s shoes, sleep with them in his bed when he’s away—my father’s shoes too.
- “I like barbershops because there were always attractive men there—crazy as it may sound, I had a fascination for barbers.”
- Some people use guns, knives, etc. as weapons—I use fire as a source of weapon—Not afraid of fire at all; for it is my friend and I miss it.”
- “those demons are still in me.”
Asked about his future as if he had any, Tom said in a grand finale
“God has been merciful and kind—I want to obey and keep His will. For, I’m no longer worried about this life but the life afterwards. There’s still hope for us all no matter where we are—This old mortal body will soon be no more but the soul will go to heaven or hell. I’m glad to know God is a forgiving God and “there is no sin so great He will not forgive.” Isn’t that a wonderful thought?”
As at 2018, investigators treating old fire files in the Washington DC region continued to link Tom to fires he did not disclose.