Variety of factors fuel arson, one of California’s most destructive crimes

 Variety of factors fuel arson, one of California’s most destructive crimes

21 August 2016

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USA —  What could possibly drive someone to set fire to a tinder-dry field of tall grass?

The question is being asked following the arrest of a Clearlake man charged with starting 12 fires in Lake County over the past year, including the Clayton fire that has consumed nearly 4,000 acres and destroyed about 300 structures.

The answer, according to investigators on past arson fires, is varied.

Experts say fire-setters can be fueled by a wide range of factors, from fascination with flames to revenge or fraud — or something else entirely. They do not all follow the same criminal path.

Anger and frustration are common motivations for serial arsonists, according to Detective Edward Nordskog, an arson investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“Most (arsonists) have a grudge to settle,” Nordskog said. “They’re upset with something or somebody.”

Authorities have not revealed the suspected motive for Damin Pashilk, the 40-year-old self-employed handyman charged with setting the Clayton fire and 11 other blazes. Nor have they revealed the evidence collected against Pashilk during a yearlong investigation into the series of Lake County fires authorities say were intentionally set.

While that picture remains hazy, previous cases offer a window into the calamitous and wide-reaching crime of arson.

Arson fires are not uncommon in California: they accounted for 213 wildland fires in 2014 alone, burning more than 98,200 acres, according to Cal Fire.

Some of the state’s most high-profile fires have involved serial arsonists, and while such cases are rare, Pashilk would not be the first convicted of such a crime if he is found guilty.

Seven years ago, serial arsonist Raymond Lee Oyler was sentenced to death for causing the Esperanza fire, a 2006 blaze that burned more than 41,000 acres, killed five firefighters and consumed 34 homes in the San Jacinto foothills west of Palm Springs. The Esperanza fire marked a rare instance in which an arsonist was convicted and given the death penalty for his crime.

The case also shed light on the mindset of Oyler, a mechanic from Riverside County who was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Michael Hestrin was the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, and he recalled coming to understand Oyler’s mania with fire.

“He was obsessed with fire and had just a fascination with starting a fire and watching it burn,” said Hestrin, now the district attorney of Riverside County.

“He wanted to burn down a mountain — that’s how he put it.”

Motive became important to Hestrin’s case, he said, because the prosecution team showed Oyler was studying how to be a more effective arsonist. His motivation was key to “tying it all together,” Hestrin said.

Sonoma County has had several cases involving serial arsonists. Cyndi Foreman, a fire prevention specialist with the Central Fire Authority of Sonoma County, recalled a case from a several years ago when county authorities kept encountering seemingly random brush fires at night.

Investigators searched the home of a suspected arsonist and made a surprising find.

“He had a picture of himself in a firefighter uniform on his mother’s mantle, and he was not affiliated with any fire department at all,” Foreman said.

The suspect was later convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

It was a prime example of a certain kind of arson case.

Eric Hoffman, a former Cal Fire unit chief for Sonoma, Napa and other nearby counties, termed it “that excitement, hero-worship, vanity thing.”

But many arsonists are one-time offenders, and they are generally motivated by different factors than those who set fires repeatedly.

Take fraud, for instance. Nordskog of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who has also authored multiple books on arsonists, used a hypothetical example of a man who lights his car on fire in order to collect insurance money.

“He’s actually committing fraud, he just uses fire as a tool,” Nordskog said. The detective said he does not consider one-time fire-setters to be true arsonists.

Arsonists are also commonly motivated by spite or revenge, experts say. Foreman said it is not uncommon to see an arson fire occur as part of a domestic issue, when one partner might burn the property of the other in a fit of rage.

Juveniles also turn up as arsonists, with motives ranging from curiosity to vandalism and worse. Nordskog said about half of arson fires in the United States are set by juveniles.

A recent example was the 2014 Cocos fire, a nearly 2,000-acre blaze in San Diego County for which a 14-year old girl was convicted last year.

N.G. Berrill, executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science, said some arsonists spark fires for “totally bizarre” reasons indicative of “profound mental illness.”

As with any fire, blazes started by arsonists can kill.

But Berrill said he did not think that was the aim of arsonists, who he believed were generally more likely to be obsessed with starting the fire and observing the aftermath.

“It’s almost like a sporting event, where they watch with keen interest, they’re very excited and, mind you, there’s a lot of power associated with it. They know they put this thing in motion and they caused this massively destructive force,” Berrill said. “I think all of it is very exciting to them. The killing part, I think, is inadvertent.”

Nordskog, however, cautioned that excitement is not a unique criminal element.

“If you ask a guy who robbed a bank, ‘Were you excited at the time?’ He’ll say yeah, because it’s naughty; it’s dangerous,” he said.

Though rare, when arson fires are fatal, juries have been persuaded to convict arsonists of murder.

Hestrin, the Riverside district attorney who won a murder conviction against Oyler, used the analogy of a man who blows up a dam in order to start a flood — an act that inevitably imperils a town downstream.

“It’s not a very good defense to say, ‘Well, I only wanted to flood, I didn’t intend to kill,’ ” Hestrin said. “At some point, you’re going to be responsible for what you do, assuming you know what the results of those actions are.”

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