The use of arson by gangs

CarolinaFireJournal - By Doug Ross
By Doug Ross
01/11/2012 -

The following is a subject discussed in an article I wrote in the Carolina Fire Rescue EMS Journal in January 2010.

Have you ever wondered if suspected arson fires were committed by organized gangs? Crime trends continually change. The use of fire as a criminal tool of retribution is one of the trends law enforcement and the fire service are noting with regularity over the past decade.


Some years ago a mother of two young children argued with another woman who was friends with a gang member. Later that evening a Molotov cocktail was tossed into the woman’s apartment killing the two children. This story has unfortunately been repeated in Los Angeles where 10 died when a gang retaliated for a perceived wrong and tossed a fire bomb into a crowded apartment complex.

A Texas man has pleaded guilty to hate-crime charges stemming from a series of racially motivated arson crimes, including the burning of a historic African-American church to the murder of a wheelchair- bound disabled man. The arsonist was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. The arson to the black church was part of a series of racially motivated crimes the arsonist perpetrated to gain status with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and prosecuted under the Federal Hate Crime statutes.

This same arsonist set fire to an area gym because it served Mexican-American members and the Caucasian owner was married to a Mexican woman.

Just this past August, drug cartel gang members charged into the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico and doused gasoline throughout and set it on fire. Fifty-three innocent people died because the owners of the casino refused to buckle to the demands of the gang for “protection.”

In Bristol, Virginia, gang activity made headlines in 2009 when two teenage girls (13 and 17) walked into a grocery store and made it to the hairspray aisle and set it on fire. Weeks after the blaze, police announced that the arson is believed to be part of a gang initiation.

Without a doubt, fire is definitely being used as a weapon. It is the responsibility of the fire/arson investigator to consider this during the initial investigation. Does a gang initiated arson look any different than other arsons? Probably not. But with the intelligence resources of law enforcement, gang activity is tracked more efficiently than ever before.

Reach out to the local or state gang investigation unit. Look for signs of “tagging,” or graffiti incidents in the neighborhood. There is extensive photographic interpretation of graffiti in the Carolinas that tell so much about local gang activity. It’s a language all its own.

So what are our resources? As mentioned earlier, the intelligence concerning all types of gangs is vast. Special gang units develop current data that can be very helpful to the fire investigator. This information is shared through special training sessions that prove to be very valuable. My suggestion is that the fire/arson investigator attend one of these offerings. Many internet resources are available that offer basic information on gangs and their formations and activities. This is a great place to develop an understanding of the complexities of gang life.

One thing is evident: gang initiations often require the prospective member to “prove” his worth to the gang. One way of showing their mettle is to commit an act of arson. Little thought is given to the target selection and the outcome matters not!

Just what is a gang? The South Carolina Gang Definition defines a criminal gang as a:

  • “Formal or informal ongoing organization, association or group that consists of five or more persons who form for the purpose of committing criminal activity and who knowingly and actively participate in a pattern of criminal gang activity.”
  • “A pattern of gang activity” is defined as the commission, attempted commission or conspiracy to commit four or more certain offenses — mainly violent, theft and drug offenses — within a two-year period, at least three of those offenses occurring after July 1, 2007

The criminal laws passed in South Carolina are effective. But the determination of gangs is stout and the laws are not likely a deterrent. But, this law is a good start and highlights the impact gangs are having on our society. Reaction must be swift!

South Carolina Gang Law

Under the new law signed by Gov. Mark Sanford:

  • The state grand jury would have the authority to investigate gang crimes.
  • Gang members who use violence or threats to coerce someone to join a gang or prevent someone from leaving face maximum prison sentences of two years for a first offense and five years for subsequent offenses. If a firearm was used, the offender faces 10 more years.
  • Gang members who threaten witnesses face maximum 10-year prison sentences.
  • Victims of coercion or threats can sue gang members for three times the amount of actual damages, plus punitive damages.
  • Authorities can use civil court forfeiture proceedings to seize property acquired by gangs.

A report to the North Carolina General Assembly commissioned in 2010 reported only two gang-related arsons in the state during the study period. Really? Could the low number be a result of not properly identifying the motives behind the crimes?

Keep the gang motive in mind if you have arson incidents in your jurisdiction that may fit this mode. I’ll keep an eye on the new data and report it in future articles.

Stay safe! See you in 2012!

Doug Ross is a retired law enforcement officer with 31 years experience, 27 of those dedicated to the investigation of arson. He has served as an instructor in the Fire Science Associate Degree program at Greenville (SC) Technical College and currently offers up to date training on fire and arson related topics for fire and police departments and those in the insurance industry. He can be reached by visiting his website or by e-mail at [email protected].
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