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Arson attacks turn up heat on Basel police

This devastating fire in Riehen dates from March 2008


Fifty-eight fires, reward money, false trails and clueless police – what sounds like a Hollywood crime drama is in fact Switzerland’s worst-ever case of arson.

Since September 2004 Riehen, an affluent suburb of Basel, has been plagued by a series of fires to buildings including barns, sheds, public lavatories and garages. The arsonist struck most recently on February 20.

“We still have no concrete suspect,” Markus Melzl from Basel’s public prosecutor’s office admitted to on Monday.

The main problem is that the fires destroy virtually all evidence, and whatever’s left is usually washed away by the fire services. There are never any witnesses as the fires take only a few seconds to set and are usually in isolated locations with good escape routes.

“There are also often long intervals [between fires], sometimes of several months,” Melzl said. “That really complicates the investigation.”

He added that, as far as he was aware, they were dealing with the most serious arsonist in recent Swiss history.

Until now the only fatality has been a dog, but locals are on edge and are having sleepless nights. Two large fires at the beginning of 2008 alone caused damage estimated at SFr3.5 million ($3.25 million).

What’s more, the arsonist has started getting personal. In February the cellar of the local small-business association burnt down – two days after members doubled a bounty to SFr40,000.

“We avoided a catastrophe by the skin of our teeth,” said Christoph Bürgenmeier, a local councillor and association president. “If the fire doors hadn’t held, the whole building could have gone up.”

Investigators are worried that the arsonist will be spurred on not only by the increased bounty but also by lurid media reports. Insurance companies have already raised their premiums.

Looking for patterns

Despite this, investigators are no closer to solving the case than they were five-and-a-half years ago. Dozens of arson investigators and forensic specialists – often from other cantons or even abroad – meet on a regular basis but have yet to make a breakthrough.

DNA traces have come to nothing and a composit sketch of a suspect released by police in October 2008 turned out to be a mistake – although it still generates calls from the public.

Meanwhile the speculation continues. Some people think it’s a German who runs across the border, strikes a match and then runs back again; others believe it’s a fireman who sets the fires “to be a hero”.

“It’s a weight on our minds. It’s frustrating – no question of that,” said police commissioner Peter Gill.

“We’ve looked for patterns in the time of day, day of the week, weather, the route, how the fires were caused – even the phases of the moon,” he said.

However, Thomas Müller, an expert profiler from Vienna, says he has yet to come across an arson attack that didn’t leave traces.

“Which object, when it is burnt down and where, is also evidence – albeit in this sense behavioural evidence. This sometimes says more about a perpetrator than a blurred CCTV picture,” he said.

Cry for help?

Psychiatrists have also been called in to help the police.

“The most common motive for arson attacks that doesn't involve insurance fraud is revenge,” forensic psychiatrist Josef Sachs told the SonntagsZeitung newspaper.

“It’s often anger against authorities. Arson can also be a cry for help or the letting off of steam and anger in the form of blind and often undirected revenge for one’s own suffering,” he added, giving the example of someone who set fire to an old school because that person felt he or she had been badly treated there.

“But often it is not targeted. Some people scream and bang their heads against a wall; others set fire to things.”

Sachs said some arson series were triggered by a crisis and would then stop. However, the events in Riehen were different.

“Here we’re not dealing with a passing problem like a bankruptcy or divorce – this has lasted for a long time. The motive must be anchored deep in the person’s personality and prevents them from leading a normal daily life.”

Psychological strain

He said that the fact that the perpetrator always seemed to stop for a couple of months – 2007 for example saw two five-month pauses, 2008 one three-month pause and 2009 two two-month pauses – could indicate that their problem built up in regular intervals.

This, he said, could point to “an addiction or dependency, strong social or financial problems”. Will they ever stop? “Very unlikely.”

For his part, Markus Melzl said he was “very optimistic” the arsonist would eventually be caught.

“Experience of comparable cases – here and abroad – shows that such people eventually make a mistake, sometimes even in the hope of being caught because it’s such a great psychological strain for them,” he said.

“We’re therefore convinced that we will clear up this series of arson attacks. We just hope that we can do it soon.”

Thomas Stephens,

Political effect

Next Sunday, March 7, Riehen elects its mayor, and the incumbent Willi Fischer is facing stiff opposition from a previously unknown electrician, Hansjörg Wilde, whose election platform includes stamping out the fires.

Wilde accuses Fischer of being too passive. “It doesn’t help people if the mayor just shrugs his shoulders,” he said. Wilde initiated doubling the bounty.

“That is pure political point-scoring and is not in the spirit of Riehen,” countered Fischer, pointing out that it was a cantonal issue and the commune was working closely with the cantonal authorities.

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