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Firefighters who commit arson should receive no mercy from the judge at sentencing nor should they receive mercy from their communities. In fact; I believe firefighter arsonists should receive enhanced sentencing for such an act.

And I will leave Forgiveness to those who believe in such things.

Williamsfield Illinois is a small rural community of 570 inhabitants nestled into southeastern Knox County. The Spoon River is nearby.

Nicknamed “Bill Town”, it is the picture of rural, small town Americana. There are no mansions. Median home values hover around $70,000. Median household income is under $40,000. There is no crime rate; that is, until recently.

From the Register-Mail:

Firefighter Faces Arson Charges: Volunteer arrested at scene of dumpster fire. Story by Nick Ostdick.

A volunteer Williamsfield firefighter was arrested Wednesday night on charges of arson and criminal damage to property in connection with a dumpster fire earlier this week behind the Shoe Department on Volunteer Drive.

Blake T. Walsh, 24, is facing Class 2 and Class 4 felonies, respectively, for his involvement in the incident. If convicted, Walsh could face up to seven years in prison on the Class 2 charge and up to three years in the Department of Corrections on the Class 4 charge.

According to the police report, officers responded to calls of smoke coming from the dumpster behind the store, the third in a series of reports over the past few weeks.

Once on-scene, investigators spoke with witnesses who saw smoke pouring out of the dumpster. However; those witnesses were unable to identify any suspects. Additionally, officers spoke to several store employees and Walsh himself, who was in the process of putting out the fire and before police took him into custody for questioning.

Investigators also believe Walsh to be a suspect in two additional dumpster fires near the Shoe Department, along with a series of hay and brush fires near the Williamsfield area during the last several weeks. According to a press release from the Knox County Sheriff’s Department, Walsh was arrested on a $50,000 warrant in connection with the dumpster and brush fires following an investigation by several law enforcement groups, including Galesburg and Williamsfield Fire Department.

At the time of this article, the accused remained in the Knox County Jail on $300,000 bond. The investigation continues.

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time in and around Williamsfield. It is 34 miles from me now. As a kid, it was 25 miles away. I made some friends there and our son competed with and against young men on their baseball team.

The former fire chief of the Williamsfield FD is someone that I have known for many years. Had this happened under his watch, I believe the “suspect” would be wearing his butt cheeks for earmuffs!

And to say that, year after year, you can count the number of fires that they have on both hands is not an exaggeration. Small towns simply don’t have call volume and that’s a fact. To have a half dozen fires in a year in a town the size of Williamsfield would be a “busy” year, but to have that many within a few months would immediately draw suspicion…and it did.

So; are you ready to learn a little about arson?

The legal definition of “arson” is the malicious burning or exploding of a dwelling house, commercial or public building or the immediate area around it. A perpetrator’s intent adds more weight at trial than motive. It is a felony in the first, second or third degree. Arson has been committed if the intent was to injure/kill someone or defraud an entity of money.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of developing relationships via social media with some the best minds in the fire service. And I have been drawn to arson cases because of the psychological implications of the fire-setter. I don’t do this to find empathy with the arsonist; I do it to find out that exact point where their mind goes dark and their heart turns black. I don’t think THAT moment was determined from events that occurred in their childhood, unless they were juvenile fire-setters.

After reviewing several arson cases, I was able to determine that EVERY arson case has one thing in common and that is that arsonists believe that they are too smart to get caught. Despite the fact that we see a comedy of errors; in the mind of that arsonist, he is an evil genius!

A set fire is not a “cry for help”. It is not an act that is manifested in a series of complex disconnects. How many firefighter arsonists fit the FBI profile for firefighter arsonists?

1)    1)White male, age 17 – 25.

2)    2)One or both parents missing from home during childhood. If they are from an intact home, the home atmosphere was mixed and unstable.

3)    3)Dysfunctional. One of the parents left the home before the child reached age 17. Cold, distant, hostile or aggressive relationship with the natural father.

4)    4)Poor marital adjustment. If not married, still living at home with the parents.

5)    5)Lack of stable, interpersonal relationships.

6)    6)Poor occupational adjustment. Menial laborer, skilled laborer or clerical jobs.

7)    7)Interested in the fire service in the context that it provides an arena for excitement; not for the sake of public service.

8)    8)Alcoholism, childhood hyperactivity, homosexuality, depression, borderline personality disorder and suicidal tendencies.

9)    9)Mixed findings on intelligence, but most found to have average to higher intelligence, but poor academic performance.

Researchers have found that firefighter arsonists are usually relatively junior and within their first, three years of service. They tend to use available materials, such as paper or clothing, together with an accelerant and matches or cigarette lighter. They generally work alone, but have been found to work as a group. In a team setting, they may appear to be cocky, arrogant and overbearing. Younger individuals may be overly “eager” to please or to seek attention.

As a firefighter who has been betrayed by one(s) of their own; does it really matter if they were a bed-wetter, delinquent, a job hopper or raised by a single parent? Does knowing that help you to rationalize their actions?

Hell no!

The trust that exists between a community and its firefighters is every bit as strong and as binding as a doctor/patient, lawyer/client, priest/confessor, husband/wife or teacher/student. This bond, if broken, provokes a powerful, emotional response. Forgiveness, when sought, will be elusive until some act of contrition is completed. It could take weeks, months, years or NEVER!

So, at this point, you have to let the legal system do its work with the arsonist and the fire department has to begin its work of re-building the public’s trust.

I don’t think that arsonists weigh the gravity of their decision to set a fire beyond the destruction and physical pain that it causes. Collateral damage won’t be a consideration, because arsonists are too focused on the act itself and the instant gratification that it gives them. Gratification is short-lived because, in many cases, they will already be planning their next fire. I believe that to be the case with Walsh, the suspect in the Bill Town fires.

My friend, Steve Gallagher, a fire investigator for Chillicothe Ohio Fire Department sent me a great article on arson that was published in 2007.  

Letters From an Arsonist was written by David Jamieson of the Washington City Paper. It chronicles the deadly destruction of Thomas Sweatt, a serial arsonist who terrorized the state of Washington for decades. It should be required reading, if for nothing else, to reinforce your resolve to put fires out and to put arsonists away.

Grant Mishoe and I started corresponding with each other back in 2002. Grant has been a FORCE in the South Carolina fire service. He had been a firefighter for 16 years, traveled to the UK to serve with the Wiltshire and London Fire Brigades and was an instructor with the South Carolina State Fire Academy. He has had a website that remains very popular today.

Several years ago, when I was writing The Voice of Reason as Chief Reason for the IACOJ, I invited members to send me guest articles. Grant submitted a great article to me entitled Firefighter Arson…Why? I hope that it is still somewhere on the Internet. Visit his website. Contact him. He would be an excellent source for information.

If you would like to read more of my articles on arson, you can contact me at www.art.chiefreason.goodrich99@gmail.com.

I always remind my readers that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. I strongly believe in our Justice system.

Unfortunately, fire departments that have one of their’s charged with arson are not given the same consideration by their communities. The firefighter is guilty; the fire department is dirty.

Think of the immense feeling of betrayal that you felt when you first heard that Blake Walsh, one of your own, was arrested and charged with arson. Think about that as you are subjected the sideways glances, the hurtful comments and the loss of community support for your fundraising efforts.

Like it or not; your community is feeling just like you do with YOUR feelings of betrayal!

And your fire department needs to get to work re-building trust and community support.

TCSS.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author, Art Goodrich, who also writes under the name ChiefReason.  They do not reflect the views and opinions of www.fireengineering.com, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. Articles written by the author are protected by federal copyright under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella and cannot be reproduced in any form.

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