The boy looks like an average teenager – clean-cut, agreeable countenance, dressed in a ribbed black shirt.
He turns to face the camera, and he begins to tell his story.
“Hi, my name is Sean,” he says, “and when I was 15 years old I set my high school on fire.”
And so begins an 18-minute documentary film in which Sean gives viewers a peek into the mind of a person who wilfully caused damage by fire. Sean is a convicted arsonist who burned a high school – the American equivalent of college – to the ground in 2002.
Today, 11 years later, Sean remains haunted by what he did, by the instant his life changed and the match that would forever mar his future. His motive in going public is to warn other people against committing a crime as destructive as his own.
“I never really thought about how much damage one match could do until I actually saw the outcome of this,” he says now.
Sean freely admits he was a troubled kid.
“(I thought), ‘If I can get rid of my high school, I can get rid of my problems and I won’t have to deal with anything again,” he tells the camera.
How wrong he was.
Lighting that match would change everything – his future, his relationship with his family, his wellbeing, his life. He was caught, convicted, and sent to prison. He faced a felony charge of arson – a crime that sometimes, depending on the circumstances, belongs to the same classification as murder – and a $715,000 fine.
By lighting one match, Sean irreparably destroyed his own reputation and that of his family.
“I was on newspaper covers and the radio,” Sean says. “They were talking about me on TV. It gave my family a horrible reputation. My parents were well known and well liked in the community up until that point. When I did that, it hurt their stance in the community. They had the son who set the school on fire.”
His act of arson hurt hundreds of people, and so he was, of course, caught. His consequences were, of course, severe. For the rest of his life, he will pay the price for what he did.
At this point, we do not know the identity of the arsonist who targeted Rarotonga schools this month. We do not know whether this person is young or old, male or female, and we do not know this person’s motive for committing arson. We do not know what compelled this person to inflict such deep pain on so many people – teachers, faculty, students, parents, and the wider Cook Islands community.
But we do know that the police and the community are working to achieve justice. We do know that law enforcement agencies have perfected the science of investigating arson attacks, and we trust that eventually they will find this person.
We hold out hope that justice will be served, and that this person will face the same consequences Sean faced and continues to face.
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