Diary of a Teenage Arsonist

Sarah Batho and Ken Holder, of Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service, help turnaround teenage firesetters

A teenager's brief fall into crime is deterring others

A bored but bright Shropshire teenager called a "geek" by his classmates has written a web diary of how he turned to arson for kicks and eventually transformed his life in a bid to deter future youngsters from straying into a life of crime.

The youngster who found school unchallenging and was called fat at school found he just didn't "fit in." Lonely, with few real friends, and a lot of time on his hands, he turned to arson to liven up his life.

"Outside school I had nothing to do. I never used to play sports and so the only thing I could think of doing was lighting fires," explained Russ in his diary.

His story which spans 18 months began when he bought a 50p lighter and set fire to newspaper "for a laugh." It developed into setting fire to bins, park benches and woodland.

"We started messing around with deodorant cans. This was when it went from staying warm to having something to do, to stupidity and where we could really be injured," recalled Russ, who was then just 15-years-old.

Despite burning his thumb, accidentally setting fire to his jeans, singeing the hair off his blistered leg and a deep cut in his arm from flying shrapnel caused by an exploding aerosol - he still thought of it as "just a laugh."

In his startlingly forthright diary he confesses he got "a rush" when he saw the flames but felt guilty afterwards in case it went wrong. And wrong it went when the R-Son gang as they called themselves decided to buy petrol and set fire to a wooden shed behind a chip shop.

"This was the downfall," said Russ, whose friend filmed the event which was put onto a website ? later discovered by the boy's suspicious mother who called in police. She told how shocked and disappointed she was and how difficult it was to report her own son to police but knew it was the right thing to do.

"I felt like running away but where would I go? The police took my computer for evidence and told me to be at the police station in a week."

He was kept in a cold police cell with a screaming drunk for company next door. A few hours later he emerged shaking with fear and cold to be charged with arson and ordered to appear before a youth court.

"It was one of the worst things in my life. Those few hours made me dread everything to come and regret everything I had done," recalled Russ who was due in court the day after his 16th birthday.

The teenager was grounded for a whole year by his parents, not allowed to use a phone including his mobile, and banned from using MSN to talk to friends on the computer.

Insults at school went from "fatty to geek to arsonist" and much worse, recalled Russ as he anxiously waited for the court date.

"I could not get away from the guilt. I knew it was my fault."

As the courtroom clock ticked by while magistrates retired to decide his fate, he said he dreaded being sent to a juvenile detention centre.

But the sentence was a six month referral order including 20 hours community service which meant painting a village hall, cleaning graffiti off an underpass, washing fire station vehicles and writing a letter of apology to the business owner of the premises he nearly burned down. He was sent on an anger management course and had to undergo 15 hours of tuition with the intervention team from Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service who turnaround young arsonists through education.

Sarah Batho, an intervention worker with the fire service, said that Russ was completely different from the average teenage firesetter.

"He is incredibly bright, very polite, from a stable home with loving parents. We normally deal with youngsters who are from deprived backgrounds and we had to re-evaluate the programme to ensure it met his intellectual ability."

Sarah and fellow advisor Ken Holder, decided to hold the lessons at the boy's home as he would not have educationally benefited from group work . They educated Russ so that he could realise the consequences of his actions and reflect on the destruction he had caused to himself, his family, the community and the Fire Service.

"We told him there are only a limited number of fire appliances available to turn out to fires in Shropshire and when we were attending one of his fires it could have meant that firefighters were kept away from a real fire in which someone could have been killed. He hadn't realised that.

"Normally we ask teenagers to use art as a tool to demonstrate what they have learned but Russ was academically a year ahead. As he is very talented with computers he offered to make a web page instead and it led to this very honest diary which we are now using to help deter other firesetters in Shropshire," said Sarah.

Russ has now discovered the hard way that he never needed to light fires to impress people. He joined a gym, got fit and channelled his energies into college work where he has made new friends. Russ found becoming a member of the school rugby team was the best way of getting rid of his anger and boredom.

In the diary he urges other youngsters not to do what he did and not to put people's lives at risk.

"From the biggest mistake in my life to the best improvement I have ever made. I am not proud of setting the fires but I am proud of the turnaround," said Russ.

His mum added: "With the support he received from Sarah and Ken and his case worker he has turned his life around and knuckled down with his studies. His results were exceptional. We are very proud of him now."

To see Russ's diary in full visit the weblink below.

22nd January, 2007