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Why Is Someone Burning Homeless Men in San Diego?

Anger and hate fuel the use of fire as a murder weapon, used with permission
Source:, used with permission

In the past 11 days, 4 homeless men in San Diego have been attacked by an unknown serial killer; three have died as a result of these injuries. What struck me most about this news was not the fact that a transient had been attacked or even that a serial killer was on the loose; sadly, homicide is a daily occurrence and serial killers aren't all that uncommon.

What I could not get my arms around was the fact that three of these men had been set on fire while they were sleeping. I can't imagine a worse thing to do to a person or a worse way to die. What could possibly motive someone to do such a thing?

The Link Between Fire and Murder

Most of us, I imagine, assume the link between fire-setting and murder is the use of the former to cover up the latter; someone murders someone else and sets the house/fire/person on fire to keep law enforcement in the dark. Fire is used to conceal a crime rather than commit one.

On the other hand, there is the rare, albeit horrific, use of fire as a weapon itself. This may involve knowingly setting a fire with potential victims trapped inside, wounding a victim and then dousing a structure that is sheltering a physically disabled and unable to escape or, even rarer occasions, directly lighting the victim on fire.

Fortunately, fire is rarely used to murder. Less than one percent of homicide victims in the United States between 2009 and 2013 involved fire. However, a five year study in Australia has found that, while homicide trends over this period have declined, the proportion of fire-associated homicides has increased significantly; a trend which has also been observed in the United States.

Vulnerable to Hate

While I couldn't find statistics specifically on the number of homicide victims who had been deliberately set on fire, two victim patterns seem to emerge when looking at the available news reports. The first target appears to have been the homeless. Here are just a few of the many headlines you can find in a matter of seconds:

In fact, according to a June 2014 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless, there have been over 1400 acts of violence and over 375 homicides against homeless individuals in the U.S. since 1999. Seventy-two percent of the victims were men over the age of 40, and 48 percent of the perpetrators were males under the age of 20. In fact, homeless homicides have been greater in number than all other deadly hate crimes combined in 14 out of the last 15 years. While many convicted perpetrators fail to give a motive for their murder of a complete stranger, some who do often describe it as a "game" or "prank." Others attribute their actions to minor arguments, displaced anger, or in a self-proclaimed desire to "clean up the streets."

Burning with Anger

The second-most-common target appears to be closer to home:

In general, these victims were either in a conflictual romantic relationship with their murderer or had ended one. Revenge and/or retaliation appears to be a common thread through the precipitating event, i.e., the perpetrator was angry over an argument, perceived slight or rejection. A history of domestic violence was common and, in some cases, the perpetrator had a previous arson conviction.

The Bottom Line

It's hard to imagine a more sadistic or cruel act than deliberately setting someone on fire. It's the ultimate hate crime, whether the victim is vulnerable because they are perceived as "worthless" (a rationale sometimes given by perpetrators) or because they were unfortunate enough to get involved with someone who treated them that way.