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Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, March 23, 1960

March 23, 2010 |  2:12 pm

 March 23, 1960, Mirror Cover

Police Problems in Hunting Arsonist

Paul Coates    You're a cop and, maybe, he's a pyromaniac.
    A special kind of criminal.
    His weapon isn't a gun or a knife.  Shake him down and you learn nothing.
    He's got a book of matches in his shirt pocket, next to a pack of cigarettes.
    You don't book a man for that.
    It's almost midnight, and he's alone, walking.
    Talk to him.  Interrogate him.
    "I take walks," he says.  "It helps me relax, I can think."
    You ask him if he'd mind being detained a few minutes.
    He says no, not at all.
    You radio the station.  Run a "make."



   Mrch 23, 1960, Bombing
    Then you talk some more.
    He hands his wallet to you.  Identification.  Plenty of it.
    Maybe he's a college freshman, nervous about impending exams.
    Maybe he's a family man, with too many bills.
    Maybe his marriage is still in the unsettled stage, and there was this argument.
    Whatever his story, he's articulate.
    He's no gangster.
    He's got a steady job, and he's got friends.  He's established in the community.
    If the community is Santa Monica or West Covina or Newport Beach, you wait for the voice on the police radio to say, "No record, no want," and you send him on his way.
    Nobody's even setting fires there, and the thought doesn't occur to you that he's a firebug.
    But if you're an Indio cop, your suspicions don't dissolve quite so easily.
    A million dollars worth of property has already been leveled to the ground.  There's a declared state of emergency.
    A lumber yard, a date packing shed and the Aladdin Theater have already been reduced to ashes.  In six days, three fantastic fires.
    The fire investigators' verdict:  arson.
    Somebody in the sandy miniature metropolis is responsible.
    Before you went on patrol, the chief warned you that the arsonist is a unique kind of criminal.
    The chief told you: "He could be a bookkeeper, an honor student, a migrant date picker."
    You think about those words.
    You think about the theater -- how everybody, fortunately, made it to the exits.
    You think that maybe next time it might be a hotel, somebody's house.  And the people inside might not get out.
    But you don't like to embarrass respectable citizens by dragging them down to the jailhouse.
    The stroller's story is logical enough.  But the chief warned you that his story would be logical.
    The firebug is a weak man.  Outwardly, he's a conformist.  The urge, the passion, is inside.  It swells up and explodes.
    To catch him, you've got to be there at the right time. 
    By now, the suspect is indignant.
    The novelty of being interrogated has worn off.
    He's embarrassed, he says.  He's got a good reputation, he tells you.  Can't a man walk down the street in his own town without being rousted?  And he mentions the words, "False arrest."
What Now, Officer? 
    You ponder.  You stall.  You make more conversation, hoping he'll slip. 
    All the while, you're thinking about how locked doors and locked windows don't protect the people of your town from a pyromaniac.  He doesn't need to enter a building to kill its occupants. 
    The psychiatrists say it's an unconscious sexual urge.  It stemmed, probably, from something that happened in childhood.
    The suspect's impatience is intensified.  He wants to be on his way.
    To where, you wonder? Home? Or to find an oily rag and to ignite it with a match from his shirt pocket?
    If you're a cop, what do you do?