Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is Southbridge Arson-Prone?

Ken O’Brien

The recent spate of arson fires in Southbridge has unsettled many residents, especially those living in the closely circumscribed area affected.

While many recall the cluster of fires in 2011, it begs the question as to whether Southbridge is particularly prone to this kind of crime. 

In an article titled “Investigators warn that someone has been setting fires in town”, The Worcester Telegram reported on June 2, 2011, “Investigators are examining as many as seven fires that were set, including one yesterday morning at 38 Foster St.
Firefighter Jeffrey Langevin declined to give a reporter any information about the fire, including when it was reported.
Police Chief Daniel R. Charette said there appear to have been up to seven in recent weeks, including two within the last week at occupied buildings.
The series began with two car fires and a garage fire May 14.”

Attempting to make a determination of Southbridge’s particular vulnerability to arson is complicated by the unreliability of the statistical data. 

Take for instance the following data for the years 2005 through 2012:


The source of actual data on this Southbridge, Massachusetts crime rate report is the FBI Report of Offenses Known to Law Enforcement for the corresponding years.

Compare that to the arson data as reported by the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System for the same years:

As the FBI notes in issuing its Annual Uniform Crime Reports, “Arson numbers are reported inconsistently.” In fact, neither of these sources comport with Chief Charette’s assessment of up to seven such incidents before June of 2011 as quoted above.

Given the unreliability of the data at all levels makes any meaningful attempt at comparing incidents of arson in Southbridge to that in other jurisdictions virtually impossible.

Another possible means of determining whether the community may be a breeding ground for this kind of offense relates to psychological profiling of a typical arsonist.

An article in Fire Engineering Newsletter titled “PROFILING ARSONISTS AND THEIR MOTIVES:AN UPDATE”, reported: “A few factors seem to apply to most firesetters. They are almost always male, are usually young, are often of below-average intelligence, come from broken homes, tend to be Caucasian, have prior criminal histories, and have difficulty in establishing normal social relationships. In ‘the demographic profile developed by the FBI...the typical arsonist is a white male in his teens to early 20s, 35 percent [of arsonists] are under the age of 15, and 76 percent are white.’"

However, a March 3, 2012 article in the Pasadena Star News summarized the view of most experts in the field.
Ed Nordskog has spent 21 years as a detective, 16 of them investigating arson. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Arson-Explosives Detail detective has personally investigated 24 serial arson cases.
He has solved all but two.
And after interviewing 22 serial arsonists, Nordskog's summary: "They always say something you didn't expect."
The seasoned arson investigator and recent author invited guests to tour the darker side of the human psyche, along with the Los Angeles Regional Crime Lab at Cal State Los Angeles, during a recent seminar probing the motives and mind-set behind the phenomenon of serial arson.
True serial arsonists are a rare breed, Nordskog began. Fewer than five percent of all arsons investigated by law enforcement can be categorized as serial arsons. The vast majority are singular incidents motivated by personal disputes or financial gain.

The bottom line is that, despite a few surface descriptors, there really is no profile of a “typical” arsonist.

In doing my research, I was struck by one set of facts. That was the incidence of multiple family dwellings in Southbridge struck by arson in the March to May period at three year intervals in 2005, 2008, 2011 and this year. Whether there is anything more than coincidence at work I leave to the professionals to determine.

One final indication that Southbridge may have a proclivity toward generating an environment conducive to the kind of youth inclined to be fire setters is more in the nature of casual empiricism.

This relates to observations made by then Fire Lieutenant Richard Ciesla speaking to the Worcester Telegram in 2003. “The Southern Worcester County Juvenile Fire Setters Intervention Program was started seven years ago because of the frustration that Fire Lt. Richard Ciesla, the department's investigator, felt in dealing with children who start fires….The program is for children ages 3 to 16. Children as young as 5 have taken the classes, although most are 8 to 12 years old.
Children over age 7 can face charges in Juvenile Court, and the state Department of Social Services becomes involved if abuse is suspected, according to both Lt. Ciesla and Ms. [Laurie J.] Dunleavy. The children come to the program - one class a week for eight weeks - after being referred by parents, teachers, social service and mental health providers or the courts…. According to information provided by the program, fires started by juveniles also are the second-leading cause of severe burns in homes; are the No. 1 crime committed by juveniles; have a clear correlation with sexual abuse; affect children as young as 3 and cross all socioeconomic barriers. Without intervention, 81 percent of the children will set fires again.”

This raises the question whether the circumstances that gave rise to Lt. Ciesla initiating the program as far back as 1996 have changed and how active the program is today.

The fact is that there is no conclusive answer to the question as to whether Southbridge is more prone to arson than other communities. At present the only intelligent response to recent events is a heightened diligence and a willingness to report any reasonable suspicions to the proper authorities.


  1. The 2005 incident was reported by the Telegram as follows:
    Police probing cause of Southbridge fire
    Published on April 6, 2005

    SOUTHBRIDGE - Local and state fire investigators yesterday interviewed people in the area of Monday's fire at Hamilton and Oliver streets, in an attempt to find out who started the blaze that left nine people homeless and sent two people to the hospital.

    The 2008 incident was reported by the Telegram as follows:
    Cliff Street fire was set on purpose
    Published on March 14, 2008

    SOUTHBRIDGE - The fire that ravaged a three-family house at 87 Cliff St. early Wednesday morning was caused by arson.

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  3. It baffles me that there were no suspects or arrests made. How can someone set 5 fires in 2 days and no one saw anything? No cameras picked up anything? I don't know but as someone who just moved to the area and has already had 2 incidents (both within about a month) at our home it is quite unsettling!!! Should have taken more into consideration when moving to this hole of a town... I mean just a drive through downtown should be enough of a reason but what can I say? We loved the house and neighborhood and thought we were far enough outside the section 8 district to avoid all the b.s. This town needs the batman!!!


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