In separate courtrooms at opposite ends of California, two men faced charges Wednesday, accused of being serial arsonists.
In Lake County, Damin Pashilk, 40, was charged with multiple counts of arson, including in connection with the Clayton Fire, an explosive blaze that scorched 4,000 acres, razing 175 structures and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. Prosecutors accuse Pashilk of setting a dozen fires in recent years. He has not yet entered a plea.
Meanwhile, in the so-called “Hollywood arsonist” case, Harry Burkhart, a 28-year-old German national, is standing trial in Los Angeles on charges of lighting more than 40 fires in parked cars and apartment carports, causing $3 million in damage during a three-day spree in 2011. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
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From urban alleys to forested woodlands, serial arsonists have plagued California for decades. Between 2010 and 2014, arsonists started about 910 California wildfires, about 6 percent of all wildfires, according to Cal Fire data. Those fires burned about 121,000 acres, an area almost double the size of Sacramento.
To get a picture of the mindset and motivations of arsonists, we talked with Ed Nordskog, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department arson investigator who has lectured widely and written several books on the subject, including “Torchered Minds: Case Histories of Notorious Serial Arsonists.”
Nordskog, 57, is testifying this week in the Hollywood case. He has investigated 2,000 arson cases, including 44 by serial arsonists. Here’s an excerpt of his comments:
Q: You’ve said profiles of serial arsonists are outdated. How so?
A: There’s always been this stereotype that a serial arsonist is the lone white male, 18 to 34, with sexual issues, who doesn’t get along with people. That describes everybody I know. It’s utterly useless. And it’s just not true. Serial arsonists can be any age, from 8 to 80, any race, either gender.
Q: So what are common denominators?
A: Big factors in every arson case are alcohol and drugs, especially prescription drug abuse. Childhood traumas are huge and very common in all serial arson cases. It could be abuse or fetal alcohol syndrome that causes traumatic brain injury ... (putting them) at high risk for this type of behavior.
They get upset by something or life’s not going the way they planned. They get frustrated and frustration brings about anger. If they’re mixing that anger with no parental oversight and prescription drug use, that causes aberrant behavior. They’re functioning people, but they do have some mental health issues.
Q: How do wildland arsonists differ from urban arsonists?
A: Wildland serial arsonists are a very unique breed. They’re night-and-day different than urban arsonists, like you’d see in Sacramento or Los Angeles.
The urban ones are people with a lot of mental health issues, who don’t have means to travel; they bike or walk to their fire scenes. They usually don’t have a plan or a device. Probably two-thirds are homeless.
Wildland serial arsonists are much more intelligent and functional. A lot of them have jobs and the ability to travel. They tend to be males, maybe 90 to 95 percent. Many are associated with some sort of wildland work, whether it be forestry or fire services. They have a reason to be alone in the wildlands. Maybe they’re traveling through a brushy area on their way to work or home. They have a reason to be there ... and opportunity.
When you have wildlands arson, you start looking at your firefighters. That’s a dirty little secret. About 100 U.S. firefighters each year are arrested for arson. It’s a consistent pattern.
Another huge difference is that most wildlands fires are set in the daytime, whereas most other arsonists set fires at night, when there are fewer people around to catch them. If you’re a wildlands arsonist, you don’t need to hide. ... They’ll set it in the afternoon when temperatures are high, humidity is low and winds are high, making it a better chance it’ll work. They’re aware that a wildland on a hot day is going to take off.
Q: What about the so-called “hero” arsonist?
A: The hero arsonist is a general category that includes firefighters, police, security guards or anyone who benefits from being seen as a hero for reporting or fighting a fire. There are dozens of case histories of security guards “finding” fires on their watch or fire patrol officers “discovering” fires. Most of these are events that the actual “finder” orchestrated to give themselves a sense of notoriety.
That type of offender is most often male and has significant maturity issues. About two months ago, I offered expert testimony in a case where a 19-year-old Canadian volunteer firefighter set up to 20 fires in his first year.
Q: Is it behavior a person can outgrow?
A: Some serial arsonists may stop lighting fires and go away for 10 or 15 years. Then their life starts to go sideways and they start again. If a guy is a serial arsonist at 15, he’ll still be one at age 85. He’ll be at risk to be a serial arsonist his entire life.
Q: How often do they express remorse?
A: Some say they’re sorry. I’ve looked at 900 case studies, the psychological reports and court reports. When you ask them why they’re doing it, it’s often a pressure release. “I just feel like exploding, so I light a fire.” (Urban arsonists) literally burn toilet paper on the ground or light trash cans or junk in alleys. Most of these guys could care less about how big their fire is. They don’t know their fire spread to a thousand acres or burned a building down.
It’s a little different in wildland fires. Many say they leave the scene, but they may watch the action from a distance or check on the damage in the newspaper.
Q: How often is money a motivation?
A: Fire is money. A wildland fire is employing a lot of people ... They’re setting up an entire city, providing everything from showers to food to massage services. There are a few cases where people associated with making money off fires start the fires: seasonal firefighters, contractors with dozer equipment, airplanes. It’s all money. There are case histories of setting fires for financial gain.
There’s a famous case in Mount Shasta (in 1995) where a mother admitted setting fires because her son was a seasonal firefighter and was about to be laid off.
Q: What types of incendiary devices are used?
A: The most common in California wildlands is some version of the cigarette matchbook delay device, where a burning cigarette is taped or tied to a matchbook, giving them a 10-minute delay. It’s not a sophisticated device.
Q: Can arson be prevented?
A: There’s no way to eradicate this. Arson is not a preventable crime. You can catch the people who did it, but you cannot prevent arson.
Recent wildfires attributed to arson
King Fire, El Dorado County: The 2014 fire burned almost 100,000 acres and destroyed 12 homes. Authorities arrested Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, an area resident with a criminal history that includes convictions for assault with a deadly weapon, vehicle theft and receiving stolen property. Prosecutors said Huntsman, a former inmate firefighter, sought to portray himself as a hero by taking a “selfie” video of himself surrounded by flames. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $60 million in victim restitution.
Boles Fire, Siskiyou County: Weed resident Ronald Beau Marshall, 25, pleaded guilty to reckless arson in a 2014 fire that devastated the community, destroying about 150 homes and several churches. Marshall reportedly started a fire in a rock ring east of Weed, then left after kicking some dirt and urinating on the fire, hoping it was extinguished. It wasn’t. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Clover Fire, Shasta County: The 2013 blaze scorched about 8,000 acres, destroyed nearly 70 homes and killed one person. Zane Wallace Peterson, 31, a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter, was charged with one count of murder and 70 counts of arson. He is awaiting trial.
Robbers Fire, Placer County: Started by a pyrotechnic device, the 2012 fire burned about 2,700 acres, destroyed one home, threatened another 170 residences and caused injuries to a firefighter. A grand jury indicted Byron Craig Mason, 28, on charges of arson of an inhabited dwelling and causing great bodily injury. Authorities said Mason admitted throwing an illegal firework into a remote swimming hole. His case is pending.
Bee research by Phillip Reese