San Jose Mercury News
SAN JOSE -- A man suspected of torching eight structures in four days was arrested late Wednesday, police said.
Police released few details about the suspect, who was taken in for questioning at 8:10 p.m. by SJPD's Covert Response Unit, Sgt. Albert Morales said. Investigators were still conducting follow-up interviews and planned to reveal more details at a news conference Thursday morning.
Sources said police had the suspect under surveillance for at least a day.
The suspect will be booked into the Santa Clara County jail.
Working in the wee hours of the night, the arsonist set the eight fires in only four days, destroying the house of a low-income couple in their 60s who barely escaped alive. The firebug's targets have appeared to be random -- a church storage trailer, old houses, a warehouse. Some fires erupted hours apart. Then they stopped.
As San Jose police and fire investigators scrambled earlier Wednesday to identify the culprit captured in neighborhood surveillance video, arson experts offered their assessment of the suspect's likely personality and motives based on their experience with other cases.
"If he's mentally disabled, he's not that mentally disabled," says Mark Mooney, a licensed fire investigator and former captain of the San Jose Fire Department's arson investigation who visited the downtown neighborhood this week.
Authorities have said little about the investigation that included an orchestrated manhunt. Newspapers, television stations and online blogs have featured blurry videos of the suspect, described as a tall, slender light-skinned man captured by neighborhood surveillance cameras setting fires. Vigilant neighbors have gone door to door, looking for witnesses and passing out suspect sketches.
Looking back almost three decades in the Bay Area, more than a few arsonists have specialized in their methods and targets. One went after large apartment complexes, another hit only medical offices and yet another favored Kmart and other big box stores. One liked to throw flaming trash bags out of his pickup truck.
The San Jose arsonist's territory appears to have been a 5-mile radius north of downtown in working to middle-class neighborhoods. Mooney visited a torched house on South 17th Street on assignment for an insurance company. The former arson captain said the suspect showed some tendencies: Targets have been older structures made of wood on streets with poor lighting. The fires start from the outside -- on porches or fences.
Investigators believe the suspect lives in the area and traveled on foot or bicycle. They said he may be driven by emotional problems to lights fires for gratification or to let off steam, but he doesn't see how his actions could kill, maim or destroy property and lifelong belongings.
"I don't think he's out to harm anyone," said Leonard Donk, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Cupertino. "I think he's out to just start fires. All arsonists are angry at something and set fires as a way to get rid of tension. Very seldom are arsonists psychotic. They know what they're doing."
The arson fire that destroyed the home of Vince and Sharon La Vigna started on the back porch, crept up the side of the wooden house and devoured the roof, which then collapsed. Neighbors rescued the retired couple, who in their 60s do not have the savings or insurance to rebuild or replace the house they had lived in for 47 years.
"It's hard to know if he did this for a cheap thrill or to kill somebody," said their son, James La Vigna. "He should turn himself in a get some help."
Speaking before the suspect's arrest Wednesday, experts had feared the pattern of the arsonist's activities indicated they might escalate from small structures to bigger buildings, from minor fires to deadly ones. John De Haan, a Vallejo-based criminologist, forensic fire scientist and textbook author, said the San Jose arsons remind him of Paul Keller, a Washington state man whose reign of terror started with small, victimless fires but escalated to the torching of a nursing home and the deaths of three elderly residents. First arrested in 1992, Keller is serving a life sentence.
"Basically, it's going to be everybody watching over their own places and watching their neighbors until this guy is caught," De Haan said.
Mooney said the San Jose arsons do not appear to be motivated by burglary, robbery or personal revenge. The randomness of the suspect's targets and large number of fires set in quick order -- he torched a church trailer at least twice -- suggest that the arsonist is driven by one or more emotional problems and that setting fires gives him a sense of gratification.
"This one is a loner who probably doesn't have many friends," Mooney says.
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 and follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.
To make a donation for Vince and Sharon La Vigna, a couple in their 60s who lost their San Jose home in a fire set by a serial arsonist, go to www.youcaring.com/help-a-neighbor/la-vigna-family-fire-recovery-fund/126155