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Forensic psychologist: Arsonist may hold grudge

'Maybe they want to strike right at the heart of the church'

Forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill talks on CNN Thursday.


CNN Access
Baptist Church

Authorities are scrambling to find out who set churches on fire in rural Alabama. Nine fires appear to be linked: Investigators ruled five Baptist churchs near Birmingham found burning on Friday were deliberately set, and four Baptist church blazes on Tuesday were suspiciously similar to those.

CNN anchor Zain Verjee talked to forensic psychologist N. G. Berrill, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, about the psychology of arsonists.

VERJEE: Forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill joins us now to talk a little bit about potential motives. Dr. Berrill, what do you think they could be?

BERRILL: Well, you know, two ideas emerge. One is that arsonists, perhaps in general, just love fire. They love the power, the theater associated with fire. However, given the fact that these fires are directed specifically at Baptist churches, one has to consider the possibility that the arsonist has a specific and direct relationship, perhaps, even with the Baptist faith.

VERJEE: What kind of clues would investigators be searching for that could point to this sort of psychological profile of an arsonist?

BERRILL: Well, they're going to look at how the fires are started. They're going to look for any communications that might be left specifically, consciously or inadvertently at the scenes of the crime.

VERJEE: Authorities say that several of the fires were started in the center of the church or in the pulpit area. Is that of significance to you? How do you think that plays psychologically?

BERRILL: Well, it might. For example, if we go with the idea of the hypothesis that this is someone who's very angry at the church. Someone who perhaps . . .

VERJEE: Or a group of people.

BERRILL: A group of people, maybe in the past year, year-and-a-half, suffered some type of tragedy, felt that their religion let them down, maybe they want to strike right at the heart of the church, right in the center where the sermons are being issued, right on the pulpit.

VERJEE: Because, you know, a church is so symbolic of a community.


VERJEE: And, you know, psychologically, one could argue that directing their anger, or whoever the perpetrators, may be toward a symbol of a community, sort of lashing out that way.

BERRILL: Well, yes, it's a very loud communication. I mean if it's rage, if it's pain, if it's grief in some perverse way, right in the center of the church, right where you hear the gospel, I think it may have significance.

VERJEE: What about copycats? Is there a danger of that?

BERRILL: There always is a bit, but I suspect in this case that this is probably the work of one person and one person with an agenda.

VERJEE: Arsonists who have been captured, what have we been able to learn from them? What have they said about what their motives have been? How could that inform this case?

BERRILL: Well, I mean quite often, if there's not a specific agenda, that is to say a political statement is being made or a racial statement, it's a love -- it's a perverse love of fire. It's the drama, the majesty, the excitement. [But] it's difficult, given the fact pattern of this case, at least, to imagine that that's exactly what's going on here. One suspects it's something else.

VERJEE: Would that perverse enjoyment translate into an arsonist wanting to stay around, stick around and watch the fire? You know we've had so many reports among which, you know, two white men in a dark SUV and various other things. But would an arsonist want to watch?

BERRILL: Many arsonists do. I mean if it's not a political or personal agenda, it's indeed the issue of the fire itself. Yes, you know, there are a lot of cases where the person has an intimate involvement with fire.

They know about fire. Firefighting sometimes. And they like to watch the whole thing unravel. They love the commotion, the trucks arriving, all the sounds and, as I said, the theater of the thing.

VERJEE: In cases like this, how successful is psychological profiling in ultimately capturing an arsonist?

BERRILL: Well, I think they're going to deal with material evidence first. But then, as they get closer and closer and they have a few people in mind, they're going to have to look at the backgrounds of these individuals, look at prior arrests for fire and, if the hypothesis is correct, someone who may have suffered a tragic loss, perhaps a Baptist himself. They're going to have to work that profile up and see if this is really sort of a personal statement about loss.

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