Criminal Minds

Season 2 Episode 19

Ashes and Dust

Aired Wednesday 10:00 PM Mar 21, 2007 on CBS

Episode Recap

In South San Francisco, California, a man and woman are sleeping peacefully as someone pours kerosene throughout their home. The fire spreads quickly, and the couple's son hurries into their bedroom, awakening them and urging them to get out of the house. The three crawl along the floor, struggling to breathe as the fire rages. They finally make their way to the front door – the only exit that isn't surrounded by flames – just as the son collapses. The father manages to unlock the door, but it won't open. The mother tugs on the door, crying, "Somebody, somebody please, help us!" She can't open it.

She crumples to the floor, and sees a man in a protective suit wearing an air mask walking through the flames towards her. He removes two devices that had been jammed into the top of the door frame to hold the door shut before he walks back through the flames and out of the house. He puts his equipment into his car – a gold Taurus - and drives away as the house is completely swallowed up in flames.

At BAU headquarters, the team is in the conference room, listening to JJ as she describes two fires in the San Francisco area that had claimed the lives of two families – the Jarvises and the Cutlers. Charlotte Cutler, the mother, survived, but has burns over 60% of her body. Kerosene was found at both fires, in multiple points of origin. Reid cites the statistics: "94% of all serial arsonists are male, 75% are white and few, if any, are ever caught." When Prentiss questions him, he admits that only 16% are caught. Most serial arsonists do not want to inflict harm, but this one is different. Gideon adds that fire is also about power, and ultimately about sexual release. He is not amused by Garcia's attempts at levity, and reminds her that this unsub is interested in burning entire families to death. There are no statistics about this type of criminal; he is, thankfully, one of a kind.

Although there doesn't seem to be any connection between the victims, JJ tells the team about a late model gold sedan that had been seen in the areas of both fires. Hotchner gives the team members their assignments: JJ is to run down the car, Garcia will run the victims through her computers to try to find a connection, Reid is assigned to victimology, and Hotchner volunteers to interview Mrs. Cutler in the hospital. "You took the burn ward last time," offers Gideon, but Hotchner insists on going. He studies a photograph of a younger Mrs. Cutler holding her infant son in her arms, then adds the photo to the file before leaving.

Mrs. Cutler's burns are raw and horrible. The doctor speaks to Prentiss and Hotchner as they look through a window into her hospital room. The doctor admits she is giving Mrs. Cutler as much pain medication as she can, and that she has been avoiding her questions about her family. "Whatever you tell her, she won't live long enough to know different." Although Prentiss is uncomfortable with the thought of lying to Mrs. Cutler, Hotchner, seeing the woman's wounds, is moved by her condition.

At the Cutler home, Morgan and Gideon meet Lt. Ricardo Vega, the head arson investigator. Vega is extremely well read on arson and arsonists, and he has already investigated every firefighter and first-responder to the fires, knowing they will be the first best suspects. Except for himself, no one has responded to both fires, so he's included his own personnel file in the report for the profilers. "That wasn't necessary," maintains Gideon. "Saving you time," replies Vega.

Hotchner and Prentiss don gowns and gloves to speak with Mrs. Cutler. When she asks for her son Paul, Prentiss begins to tell her he is dead, but Hotchner interrupts gently and leads the conversation back to the fire. The agents ask her if there was anything out of the ordinary that happened, and Mrs. Cutler remembers that the water wasn't working – she couldn't brush her teeth. Her husband got the water back on and they went to bed. She also remembers that the smoke alarms didn't go off. Her son, Paul woke them and, although though the door was unlocked, it would not open. "And then I saw the fireman and I knew it was going to be okay."

Mrs. Cutler, panicking, asks about her family, demanding to see them. Hotchner tells her they are fine and waiting to see her. Hotchner sends Prentiss out of the room to call Gideon and Morgan and tell them what Mrs. Cutler said, while he waits with Mrs. Cutler. He watches silently as she slips into unconsciousness and dies.

After receiving the call about the "fireman" and the fact the Cutlers' water had been turned off, Morgan begins to role play. He finds the water shut-off valve in the front yard and imagines that the unsub had turned off the water to force Mr. Cutler to come outside. The unsub then sneaked into the house through the open front door and waited for the family to go to sleep before pouring the fuel and lighting the fire, deliberately cutting off any escape routes except through the front door. Lt. Vega informs them the front door had been unlocked when they arrived, but there were marks left on the doorframe where something had been used to wedge it shut from the inside. They realize the "fireman" Mrs. Cutler saw was really the unsub, who had remained inside in full fire gear to watch the family burn.

Det. Castro of the SFPD is not impressed when JJ introduces her to Dr. Reid, who seems very excited by the police department's espresso machine. As Reid fumbles a first-aid kit he'd brought to deal with a small burn on his hand, JJ explains that Reid's "coordination drops off when he's thinking." Castro is concerned about why the unsub chose these victims, and Reid declares immediately he was most likely targeting the husbands. The wives were very dissimilar, as were the children, but the husbands were both in their late 30s, approximately 6 feet tall, with brown hair, nice homes, nice families, and good jobs. Although Det. Castro points out they worked at different jobs, Reid insists they are of the same type. Serial arsonists – mostly white males – develop their MOs over time, and he sees the victims as more successful versions of himself. Det. Castro sarcastically agrees to put out an APB for a "resentful six-foot white guy."

Hotchner returns to the station with the news that Mrs. Cutler had died. Gideon feels bad that Hotchner had had to deal with it, and tells him he will handle it "next time." JJ has identified the car as a 1999 gold Ford Taurus – 89% of which were sold as fleet vehicles - rental cars or company cars. Because no rental cars had been reported missing, they determine it is most likely a company car. Hotchner and Lt. Vega discuss the case of Paul Keller, a serial arsonist in Seattle, and how he used a company car to scout out his targets.

Gideon, Hotchner, and the team present the profile to the SFPD. The unsub is described as an underachieving white male between 35 and 45 who suffers from a narcissistic character disorder. He can't succeed in his personal life or in business. He wants admiration and feels entitled like a petulant adolescent, and expects other people to take care of him. "His arson suit is expensive," notes Morgan, continuing that this means he is employed but can't work closely with others. This, along with the car information, leads the team to believe he is a traveling salesman of some sort.

When Det. Castro asks why he uses fire, Reid answers that arsonists are like drug addicts who need a "fix" to get off. As addicts need more and more of a drug, so arsonists' crimes become worse and worse as time goes on. "It would be almost impossible for him to quit without help."

Garcia calls the team with information about an environmental group called EDF – the Earth Defense Fund. An EDF website links both victims through their jobs. The companies they worked for had been targeted for "Leaking Underground Storage Tanks" or L.U.S.T. When Prentiss comments that EDF is an eco-terrorist group, Reid corrects her – the group is actually for environmental activists. Vega notes some EDF members had been arrested for torching an SUV dealership in San Diego, but the group had always been dedicated to protecting life and had always been careful to make sure they never hurt anyone. Prentiss wonders if a small faction of members may have broken off from the group to pursue more violent action. Garcia identifies 100-150 members in the local EDF chapter.

At another home, Thomas Dunlevy is getting ready to take his son and daughter to school. They get into their SUV in the garage, but the garage door opener won't work. Suddenly, a man in fire gear appears, dousing the car with fuel. The family tries desperately to get out of the car, but the doors won't open. The man lights the fuel as the family screams. He leaves the garage and gets into his car, and then watches as the garage explodes.

Hotchner and Gideon are at the scene of the fire. Garcia, on the phone with Hotchner, confirms that Dunlevy's company was on the targeted L.U.S.T. list for the EDF. The leader of the San Francisco chapter, Evan Abby, is a white male, 41. In order to determine whether Abby is involved, they have him brought to the crime scene for his interview, and surround him with evidence of the deaths of Mr. Dunlevy and his children to gauge his reactions. Hotchner tells Gideon that Abby is divorced with one son, and is an environmental engineer who has consulted with every company on the EDF list.

When Prentiss brings Abby to the scene, he is horrified by what he sees. He is confused by Hotchner and Gideon's personal questions, especially when Hotchner, who is clearly emotionally affected by the case, hands him photos of the other victims, linking them all to the EDF website. Abby denies not only the crimes, but also being associated with the EDF at all. Gideon appeals to him one more time before he leaves. "We know EDF strategy has always abhorred violence. We're asking you – has EDF's strategy changed?" "No, it hasn't," Abby replies.

Prentiss wonders about people's preconceptions about EDF – all she knew was that it was an eco-terrorist group. Maybe someone else thought these horrible tactics were something EDF would admire. They know the unsub wants people to respect and admire him, maybe he joined the EDF because he thought it was an "arsonists' club." Hotchner insists on tailing Abby – he's the best lead they have. Gideon tells Prentiss to go with him.

Gideon interviews Abby's ex-wife at the police station. She tells him that her husband had changed during the course of his career. He had believed companies had been hiring him to "do the right thing" and clean up environmental problems on their sites. He later learned they actually paid him to make the problems go away. Eventually, he turned to alcohol. Mrs. Abby admits her ex-husband's relationship with his son is non-existent.

Prentiss and Hotchner watch as Abby enter a bank. Hotchner is on the phone with his wife explaining that he doesn't know when he'll be home, and telling her he loves her. After he hangs up, they discuss all the stops Abby has made: he's packed up his belongings, visited his lawyer and four banks. He may be getting ready to run.

Later that night outside Abby's home, the agents observe people gathering. Hotchner tells Prentiss to take pictures of the people who leave Abby's home and not to be subtle about it. They are hoping to intimidate Abby into a reaction. Prentiss snaps picture after picture, and Abby does react- he approaches the car and tells them he just denounced the fires and disbanded the EDF. He says he started the EDF for his son and not to have someone else's son burned to death. Hotchner isn't sure he believes Abby – "Either he's angry because he's guilty that we're onto him or he's angry because his attempts to do the right thing with the EDF have gotten people killed." They conclude the arsonist had attended the meeting and they have to get the pictures to Garcia quickly.

One of the men who left the meeting - Vincent Stiles – is walking down a nearby street, angrily talking to himself. "I'll show you a sick, deranged coward you ignorant son-of-a-bitch." He enters a gold Ford Taurus, still angry, pounding his hands on the steering wheel. He stops for a man crossing the street, grabs a Molotov cocktail from a box in front of the passenger seat, lights it, and throws it at the man. The fire quickly ignites the fuel that has splattered all over the man, and Stiles watches with satisfaction as the man burns.

The next morning, Det. Castro describes the victim to Gideon, Morgan and Hotchner at the scene. He was 39, six feet tall and handsome. Lt. Vega has determined the kerosene used was the same as at the other fires, and that witnesses saw a gold sedan drive away. Because of the change in MO and in his choice of victims, they know the unsub is devolving – his crimes will become less well planned and more frequent. He had listened to Abby denounce his work and lashed out immediately. They will have to ask Abby for his help in identifying the unsub.

At a local hospital, Hotchner learns why Abby is packing – he's been to see his oncologist. He's not running away; he has cancer. Hotchner approaches Abby as he watches his son's baseball game. Abby admits he has leukemia and has six months to live. Hotchner shares with Abby that his own father had died of lung cancer when he was in high school. Exposure to chemicals – benzene in particular - has led to Abby's illness. Companies kept it stored in underground tanks and he had helped them hide it. Most of the properties were zoned CR – commercial restricted – and no one would be harmed. One of the properties had just been sold and rezoned to ES – elementary school. That was the reason he had started the EDF. Hotchner shows him photographs of the men leaving the EDF meeting and asks Abby if one of them – perhaps someone who didn't have a normal reaction to Abby's denouncement of the arsonist – could be the unsub. Abby identifies Vincent Stiles.

Hotchner, Gideon, Morgan, and Prentiss raid Vincent Stiles' home. They find photos of the men he targeted, but Stiles isn't home. A neighbor tells them he had just left, but had been living there since his divorce six months ago. Morgan receives a call that Abby slipped away from the cop who was tailing him.

Abby drives up to an industrial area and meets with Vincent Stiles. Abby apologizes for insulting Stiles at the EDF meeting and tells him he is "an artist… a genius." Abby tells Stiles he wants to take full advantage of his talent.

At the police station, Hotchner is furious with himself for letting Abby escape. Abby had called Stiles right after Hotchner's meeting with him. Gideon approaches him, understanding that Hotchner has identified with something in Abby. Hotchner explains how frustrated he is, how he saves lives and is a hero until he gets home, and then he's "the father who's never there." "Yeah, I got that one," agrees Gideon. Hotchner goes on to say that he tries to make every second count at home, frightened that the phone is going to ring and he's going to have to leave again. This was the same feeling he'd gotten from Abby. Gideon tells Hotchner it's good that he's identifying with Abby, thinking like him, - that he knows what Abby's going to do. Hotchner realizes he's going to stop Stiles – burn him - the same way he had burned his victims, and in a place where no one else can get hurt.

The report of a fire has just come in for a warehouse, but there is no sign of fire. Garcia confirms this is the property that had just been converted from zone CR to ES, and the building has a leaking tank of benzene underground. On the way to the warehouse, Lt. Vega explains to Gideon that a benzene fire cannot be put out with water – it burns too hot. Benzene fires are contained and left to burn themselves out. Gideon calls Morgan, who is driving Hotchner to the warehouse, and tells Morgan the situation – without letting him tell Hotchner.

Stiles arrives at the warehouse in his fire gear to find Abby already spreading the kerosene on the floor. Abby knows Stiles is there to kill him, to watch him burn. Stiles threatens Abby with a gun, but won't shoot – the warehouse would go up like a bomb. Abby pulls out a cigarette lighter. Stiles isn't afraid because he thinks his fire suit will protect him up to 1500 degrees. Abby explains that benzene burns at twice that temperature. Stiles asks Abby how he plans on escaping from the fire. Abby answers, "I don't," and flicks the lighter's wheel. They are both immediately engulfed in flames.

The fire engines and FBI vehicles stop at a distance from the warehouse. Hotchner rushes out of the vehicle and Morgan and Gideon physically restrain him from trying to rescue Abby. It is too late – the warehouse has exploded – and Hotchner knows it. "He wanted his death to mean something," Hotchner notes sadly.

Back at the police station, Hotchner sits alone, fingering his phone, when Lt. Vega walks up with an envelope. "I found this in Abby's car," he says.

Some days later, Hotchner, in casual clothes, is talking with Abby's ex-wife outside her home. Abby's son, Liam, rides up on his bike, and Hotchner introduces himself. He tells Liam that his father asked him to give Liam the envelope. Hotchner also gives Liam his business card and tells him that, if he ever has any questions, he'll do everything he can to get him some answers.

[Recap written by highwaykind and phf3947]