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Fire-plagued town becomes case study in arson

Coatesville Arsons
Broken windows and stains from smoke are seen Jan. 26 in the aftermath of a fire that damaged or destroyed a row of 15 homes, in Coatesville, Pa.Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Back in August, a volunteer firefighter was charged in connection with a string of fires just outside this distressed former steel town — in what turned out to be a false cause for hope that the worst was over.

In the seven months since, dozens more blazes have been set and six more arrests have been made, leaving residents unable to put the nightmare behind them and turning this community into a case study in the many motives of arsonists.

"Coatesville will become like the poster child for this crime going forward," said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia.

What has arson experts most horrified, and intrigued: the sheer number of suspects, most with apparently no connection to one another; the long stretch of time over which the crimes have occurred; the mysterious lack of a pattern.

"It could be that for some of them it's the excitement motive; some of them it's pathology," Farley said.

Scores of fires remain unsolved
Nearly 50 fires have been set in Coatesville since February 2008, and 20 nearby. Dozens of homes have been damaged and one life has been lost. Even with the arrests, scores of fires remain unsolved.

The fires have cast a spotlight on at least one kind of arsonist who regularly generates headlines across America: the firefighter-turned-firebug.

Volunteer firefighter Ronald B. Tribbett, 25, was the first to be charged. Three days after the most recent arson last month, volunteer-turned-paid firefighter Robert Tracey, 37, became the seventh person arrested. Another suspect had been rejected by a fire department.

Among the other suspects, at least two have histories of mental illness and at least two knew each other.

"It really is very bewildering," said Dian Williams, a forensic profiler who studies arson and terrorism with the Center for Arson Research near Philadelphia. "They have had so many arrests of people who are not connected to one another."

Experts say that common motives for arsonists include thrill-seeking, mental illness, profit through insurance fraud, a hero complex and imitation, and that a number appeared to be at work in Coatesville.

A task force led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is trying to figure out whether any of the suspects are connected to more fires or could have been working together.

"Nothing is off the table," said Thomas Ost-Prisco, an assistant district attorney for Chester County.

Possible thrill-seeking motive?
Authorities investigated the possibility of a gang initiation rite, but that no longer seems to fit. Insurance fraud also does not appear to have been a factor.

The thrill-seeking motive may explain some of the cases, Farley said.

Experts have known that the same kind of thrill-seeking that draws some people to fire service also draws people to arson. But little research has been done into the phenomenon of firefighters who commit arson.

Thomas Aurnhammer, deputy chief of the Los Pinos Fire District in Ignacio, Colo., said that for many years, the topic of firefighter arson has been taboo in some firefighting circles.

"A lot of chiefs won't talk about it. It's been a dirty secret for a long time," said Aurnhammer, a veteran arson investigator. "Nobody keeps stats on the occupation of an arsonist. Do we know how many plumbers set fires?"

'Hero' or 'vanity' arsonist
Dr. Kenneth Fineman, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Huntington Beach, Calif., who has studied firefighter arson, said the typical profile of a firefighter who commits arson is a relatively young person with self-esteem problems who has a strong need for attention. This leads to what is commonly referred to as the "hero" or "vanity" arsonist, who starts a fire and then is among the first on the scene to save the day.

In Long Island, N.Y., authorities say that exact scenario played out when a 19-year-old probationary member of a volunteer department allegedly set a fire with gasoline in the stairway of a two-story building in Lawrence on Feb. 19. A mother and three of her children were killed.

Detectives say Caleb Lacey was one of the first responders. He has been charged with four counts of murder and arson. His attorney said that a confession was coerced and that Lacey is innocent.

Tracey, the firefighter who was the last person arrested in the Coatesville fires, was charged in two trash blazes; his wife has said he did not set them. Authorities are still trying to determine if he could be responsible for other blazes.

And a teenager charged in a restaurant fire near Coatesville had been turned down for a fire department job. An indictment against Mark Gilliam, 19, was released Thursday.

Copycat fire crimes?
At his home, police found accelerants, firefighting equipment and a newspaper article about the arsons. Investigators said he had driven a a car illegally equipped with strobe lights to make it appear he was a firefighter.

The second suspect arrested in the Coatesville fires was a 23-year-old man who said in court that he had been hearing voices and had thoughts of suicide. One fire he allegedly set killed an 83-year-old survivor of the Nazis.

Another defendant also reported suffering from mental illness.

Attorneys for all of the Coatesville suspects either declined to comment in detail or did not return calls from The Associated Press.

Farley said the publicity about the fires may have generated copycat crimes by people who wouldn't have otherwise committed arson.

"There's been so many of them in the same location, that might foment imitation," he said. "It's like a fire that they keep restarting."