Since February 2008, this broken Rust Belt town in southeastern Pennsylvania, population 11,000, has been the scene of some 50 arsons, making it the site of what one Web site for firefighters called the country’s worst arson epidemic since the 1980s. Shells of burned houses are everywhere, their windows covered in plywood, or their charred structures open to the weather. One fire burned an entire city block, akin to the immolation of an entire neighborhood in a town less than two square miles in area.
But even after 50 separate incidents, no one knows who’s burning the city, or why it keeps happening. So far, the police have netted seven suspects—and zero convictions. The arsonists’ motives are unclear, and the fires follow no apparent pattern. Like the D.C. sniper shootings, the Coatesville arsons are a perfect storm of a crime problem: a series of violent acts that, while apparently related, seem indecipherably random.