A few weeks ago, I read an interesting book about arson, entitled The Arsonist Profiles, written by an American specialist named Ed Nordskog. As a blogger in the true crime/dark history genre, I decided to share this interesting, if morbid aspect of our world with my readers by asking Mr. Nordskog if he might be interested in doing an interview with me. Luckily for me (and you), he agreed.
Thank you, Ed, for taking the time to talk to ForenSeek!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am a recently retired police detective/profiler in Los Angeles, where I spent 34 years with the Los Angeles Sheriffs Dept, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world. I was a Detective for the last 30 years of my career and worked a variety of assignments including several years as an undercover specialist in narcotics and major crimes (kidnappings, robberies, murder, etc), auto theft, and finally the last 21 years as an investigator and bomb technician on the Arson/Bomb Squad.
Over my career I personally investigated 2,100 arson cases and arrested, interviewed and prosecuted over 350 persons for arson related offenses. I have testified as an expert on arson/bomb cases on over 112 occasions.
I have personally been involved in 65 serial arson investigations, and led the largest serial arson task force in US history. I have assisted other agencies on an additional 40 serial arson cases. I have conducted case reviews or studies of over 900 serial arson offenders.
I have written 5 books on the subject of arson, arsonists, serial arsonists, incendiary devices, profiling, and fire death investigations. I am a regular expert in court cases concerning serial arson. I am in the middle of my 6th book which will be on Wildland Serial Arsonists.
I advise attorneys and police agencies on high level arson cases, cold case arson murders, and am currently involved in multiple projects in the television/media world. Nine of my cases have been featured in the past or have been the basis of stories on several television shows.
I also travel North America and other countries speaking and lecturing about arsonists, arson murder, cold case investigations, etc.
I am one of the very few arson/bomb profilers in the world who was actually an arson scene investigator as well.
How did you end up specializing in arson investigation?
I had no interest whatsoever in the Arson/Bomb world, and had intended on spending the last two decades as a Homicide Investigator. However, due to family issues and scheduling, I opted for the Arson/Bomb unit. The unit is one of the senior detective jobs on the entire department and there is significant pay bonuses for the dangers of working with bombs, explosives and at fire scenes. So, I would have to say that I had no interest in the job at first, other than it was a very high paying job and I could stay as a Detective… which is the only skill in the world that I am good at.
It ended up being the perfect career choice for me as we worked with little supervision and could investigate all of our cases without interference from administrators. Plus, our unit was the largest, busiest arson/bomb unit in the world, so we had plenty of interesting cases every single day. If you couldn’t solve a case today, don’t worry, there will be 10 more tomorrow.
What are the most common motivations behind cases of arson? In other words: why does somebody end up burning a place to the ground on purpose?
Arson motives are fairly well defined. In most cases, arsonists set fires for a specific goal. I call them goal oriented arson attacks. The typical motives in goal oriented arsons are:
Spite/Revenge – that is when someone is really, really pissed off at someone else; it is very personal in nature. Fire is merely the weapon used.
Financial Gain – that is when someone uses fire to make money in the form of insurance fraud, etc- In these cases, fire is merely a tool. Those two motives make up over 80% of all arsons and are quite easy to figure out. The victim of the attack almost always knows the suspect.
Crime Concealment – another motive where fire again is just a tool to conceal evidence. This occurs during murders, and during internal thefts.
Vandalism – This is often related to juvenile set fires. In this case fire again is just a tool for a prank, fun, etc.
Extremism – This motive is related to deep, personal religious, and ideological causes. Again, fire is just the tool or weapon to accomplish this. Fire has been a favored weapon for decades for people involved in anarchy, animal rights/earth rights protests, and abortion issues.
All of these make up the vast majority of arson attacks (over 95%), and the use of fire is merely as a weapon or tool. These are the arson attacks most easy to understand.
Thrillseeking/Excitement/Mental Health – These are the arson events we understand the least, are fairly rare in occurrence, yet receive the most media attention and have been portrayed in Hollywood and the media as the “norm” for arsonists. These are the real weirdos, freaks, fiends, etc who fascinate us. Within this motive are the Serial Arsonists of every type (and there are at least 15 sub-types), Firefighter Arsonists, Mommy Arsonists, and Wildland Arsonists.
This last set of motives is something we call emotionally based firesetting, with very little reason for it. I make my living on cases like these, and I love talking to these freaks.
A warning when discussing arson motives. We have found that most arsonists of any type tend to have a blend of two or more motives within their fires. So it isn’t always easy to identify the exact motive.
Is there a kind of general psychological “profile” of an arsonist?
There is no singular profile. There are many sub-types of the serial firesetter and each has their own unique traits and habits. However, in very general terms I can tell you this: Gender, Race, and Age are not major factors in serial arson. Our arsonists come from every walk of life, every lifestyle, every social class, and span ages from 6 years old to 90 years old. If someone is a serial arsonist they will remain so for the rest of their life, and go through periods of inactivity for weeks, months or years, then start lighting fires again.
Similar traits associated with many (but not all) serial arsonists include: obsessive/compulsive personalities, traumatic brain injuries (either by birth, drug use, or injury) reliance on drugs/alcohol, reliance on prescription meds, small or weak in stature, visible physical oddities, sexual identity issues; Munchausen’s Syndrome, a history of theft, prowling, peeping and/or “sneaky” crimes, overly litigious, sees themselves as a victim, history of reporting crimes/fires excessively, a lengthy history of mental health issues and periods of institutionalization.
What do movies and TV shows get most wrong about arsonists?
Everything; they get virtually nothing correct and it is very difficult dealing with Hollywood Producers who want to portray something “realistic” and then come up with the standard old cliches. I work with them and it is very frustrating. Hollywood has never, ever produced an accurate or interesting movie/show about this incredibly fascinating crime. The Backdraft movie, which is very famous and entertaining, is mere “fireman porn”, and not very realistic as to the arson aspect. The DeNiro character as an arson investigator was portrayed pretty well, though. However, its main story line was based a bit on real arson events.
Every time I speak or present a case at a lecture , or even in court, I am told’ “you should have your own TV show” or “These are incredible stories, why hasn’t Hollywood picked them up”. The answer lies with Hollywood. They do things their way and aren’t gonna let the facts slow them down. Meanwhile it is sad to see them recycle a million of the same murder and terror plots over and over, and ignore thousands of incredible arson stories. I live near Hollywood and it is difficult to deal with the entire industry.
What are some of the more memorable cases of arson you have investigated during your career? Tell us a few “war stories”!
It would take me weeks to tell the good war stories…. I’m not being flippant, but it’s easier to buy the books. I have worked and have received awards for two of the largest arson cases every prosecuted in the US. One is a massive serial arson case involving 400 investigators, and the second is a massive fraud scheme involving 88 burned properties. I arrested 41 persons for that one crime spree. I have worked on several mass casualty events. I have worked multiple, intense cases where mothers murdered their children with fire. I have worked multiple arson suicides. Still, there are many serial arson cases that are more interesting, and a few Innocence Project cases I have been involved with. I love doing “cold case” arson murders from the 1970’s and ’80’s. So, I have too many to talk about in this forum.
How is a case of arson investigated? How do you go about finding, for example, the “point of origin” of a fire?
Arson or fire scene investigations are the most technically difficult cases to work in all of criminal justice. Homicide and bombing cases are usually quite a bit easier than working an arson case. Fire investigation is just a slow, tedious, deliberate process that begins the moment you arrive on scene.
Here is the general flow of actions:
1. Ensure the scene is safe
2. Interview the first caller, the firefighters, and any witnesses
3. Begin taking photos, and don’t stop until you leave the scene-several hundred photos is common on any structure fire.
4. Using science and skills learned in the field, follow fire patterns from the areas of least burn, to the area of most damage.
5. Identify a room of fire origin by following patterns backwards.
6. Within that room, slowly excavate the scene like an archaeological dig. Locate a point of origin if possible.
7. At the origin, try to identify the ignition source and the very first fuel or item it ignited.
8. If a crime, link a suspect to the event through interviews, forensics, etc.
9. Arrest, interview and prosecute the arsonist.
10. Put the arsonist in prison for as long as possible.
11. Do it all over again tomorrow…
Do you come across cases of arson with an intent to murder? Who are the most common perpetrators in such cases?
I have been involved in 60 fire death scene investigations, including several mass casualty events. Most were accidental, but about 15% were either murder or suicides. Most of my private consulting work is involved in fire death cases and cold case arson murders. I have looked about roughly 30 of those for other agencies or attorneys.
Persons who use fire to commit murder are quite rare, as fire is a very slow moving weapon that you cannot aim. So, most murder attempts by fire actually fail. The typical victim of an arson murder may be an unintended victim.
An example is a firefighter dies fighting an arson fire, or an arsonist sets fire to his rivals home, they escape, but an elderly person living at the scene dies instead. Most arson murders are due to Spite/Revenge arsons, so the suspects are just about anybody.
In your book, you mention that there are some organisations that use arson as a kind of political tool. What are such groups like?
I’m not sure which book you read, but, I hope it was The Arsonist Profiles, as that is the best overall for understanding arsonists. As mentioned above, political arsons are a semi-common motive. They occur more in Europe than the US these days in the form of protests, rallies, anarchist activity, etc. ALF groups and the IRA set thousands of fires in the UK during the 1970’s-’90’s. Historically, arson was the chief weapon of the ALF/ELF groups who ended up being the most skilled arsonists in US history. Abortion related arsons were very common 25 years ago, but not so much now. In the Gaza strip of Israel, the use of “incendiary kites” has caused hundreds of cropland fires.
Although not always used as a weapon by international terrorists, arson can be an incredible weapon if used correctly. The most successful terror attack in recent history, the World Trade Center attack on 9-11, was in fact an incendiary attack. It was not a ‘bombing’, but the jets were actually used as piloted incendiary devices. It worked perfectly for the terrorists, and changed the way skyscrapers are constructed today.
Investigating arsons sounds like a pretty grim job. How do you balance your life in a psychologically sustainable and healthy way?
I do it the old fashioned way….I drink a lot. That’s just my sarcasm and dark humor-which is probably my coping mechanism.
Actually, that is a danger in my business. However, the complexity of the fire scene and the limited time we have to complete a very difficult task make one’s focus crystal clear when working. Most of us do not even contemplate the horror we view on a daily basis and the sorrow of the victims, until much later. We are way too focused on the task at hand. It comes back to us months later when we review photos before a court proceeding or re-contact the survivors. Visual stimulus like that makes us smell the scene again and can give a nightmare or two.
What is really dangerous to the health of any investigator is the horrific hours and unpredictable schedule we work, the shitty food we eat while at scenes, the toxic chemicals that are present at every fire scene, which are made worse during the dig out operations, and finally the utter stress and frustration encountered in the courts and criminal justice system.
Most true detectives I know would work cases and investigations until they put us in a grave. That is what we were born to do. However, meddling administrators, and a horribly run legal/criminal justice system absolutely wears us out. Most criminals get away with their crimes and most victims suffer forever. That bothers us… a lot.
Where can people keep up with you?
As you can guess by my years of service, I am not a Millennial, and am not as digitally connected as I possibly should be when writing books or pushing TV shows. But the people that need and pay for my expertise are generally older than 45 years of age, and are not that connected either.
You found me via my books and website. The website is arsonprofiler.com. My contact info is on there. I typically reply to just about everybody, including the weirdos and freaks out there. I have actually been contacted by a couple serial arsonists in the past. For some reason Conspiracy Theorists love reaching out to me, too.
Where can people get your books?
The following books are available through Amazon:
This last book is a bit more graphic and is designed for Homicide Detectives and Coroner/ME investigators:
Fire Death Scene Investigation. It is available at one website only, firedeathbook.com
Anything you’d like to add that I forgot to ask about?
I do case consultations for investigators all the time. I have done several in Scandinavia. I also speak at conventions, training, or even writer’s groups all the time about the realities of the arson world. I am usually asked quite a bit about serial arsonists.
Lastly, I’m working on a project about the profiles of Serial Bombers and other Criminal Bombers (not terrorists).
And, finally, my reqular questions for all my interviewees:
Your top 3 movies?
Movies from fairly recent years:
No Country for Old Men, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Big Lebowski
Your top 3 books?
I constantly read historical books, or books related to my work for research purposes. But I will list some influential books that stood out over the years
1. Any book by the legendary police writer Joseph Wambaugh. Probably the New Centurions (from early ’70’s); those books are why I became a cop in L.A.
2. Roughing It, by Mark Twain
3. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
Your top 3 albums?
1. Darkness on the Edge of Town – Bruce Springsteen
2. Hotel California – Eagles
3. Joshua Tree – U2
Yeah, I know, I’m stuck in a time warp.