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John Orr: The Ex-Fire Captain and Serial Arsonist Who Secretly Carried Out His Own Arson Spree

He was the most prolific American arsonist of the twentieth century.

On October 10, 1984, a terrible tragedy struck South Pasadena, California. A shopping plaza hardware store caught fire, claiming four lives in the savage blaze. Investigators at the scene suspected that the deadly inferno was an unfortunate accident—an electrical fire. But arson investigator John Orr insisted that the fire was deliberately set.

Orr was right: the hardware store fire was an act of arson, and it wouldn’t be the last. From 1984 to 1991, an arsonist known as the Pillow Pyro ignited approximately 2,000 fires across Southern California. The Pillow Pyro earned his nickname after where he preferred to start his fires; he'd typically target linen shops or fabric stores. But this arsonist was methodical in his crime spree—he used makeshift incendiary timing-devices to ignite blazes in open and populated stores, while also setting off smaller fires on grassy hillsides to draw the attention of fire departments away from his true target.

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As fires spread from Bakersfield to Pacific Grove and Los Angeles, it soon became clear that the serial arsonist was not an outsider. He was a man who understood how fires spread and how firefighters responded to and fought blazes. He was a man who fought fires himself, who arrived on the scene of the crime and deduced the truth a little too quickly: John Orr.

Who Is John Leonard Orr?

John Orr grew up in Los Angeles, dreaming of one day pursuing a career in law enforcement. Yet when he applied to the Los Angeles Police Department, he was passed over for the position. He then approached the Los Angeles Fire Department, only to be rejected once again. Orr eventually settled for a position at the Glendale Fire Department, where he worked his way up the ranks to fire captain and established a reputation for himself as a prominent arson investigator.

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Orr had an insatiable need for recognition and glory. Bringing small-time petty arsonists to justice wasn’t enough for him. So he set off his own diabolical scheme playing both sides of the law. As he betrayed his department and the citizens of Southern California he swore to protect, he’d swagger onto arson scenes to solve investigations with stunning speed and accuracy. His ego knew no bounds. In fact, Orr even penned a novel, Points of Origin, which follows an arson investigator who suspects a serial arsonist may be operating within his own ranks. The narrative includes a scene of a fire—a fire that bore several striking similarities to the real-life 1984 blaze in South Pasadena. 

Of course, Orr was never quite as clever as he thought. In 1992, he was brought to trial. Though he still maintains his innocence to this day, John Orr was convicted on four counts of first-degree murder, and nearly two dozen counts of arson. He’s currently serving life in prison.

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In the Edgar Award-winning true crime book Fire Lover, celebrated true crime author Joseph Wambaugh draws on case records, court transcripts, interviews, and his own in-depth research to reconstruct Orr’s shocking spree. This gripping account guides readers through the arsonist’s life and crimes, detailing the millions of dollars in damage and tragic deaths caused by his attacks, and revealing the major mistake that led to his downfall. In the excerpt below, Wambaugh recounts the tragic 1984 fire at Ole’s Home Center.

Read on for an excerpt of Fire Lover, and then download the book!

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Fire Lover

By Joseph Wambaugh

Fire Lover

By Joseph Wambaugh

At 7:30 P.M. on an October evening in South Pasadena, California, a middle-aged couple, Billy and Ada Deal, and their two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, Matthew William Troidl, pulled into the strip mall parking lot of Ole’s Home Center on Fair Oaks Avenue. Matthew immediately spotted the neighboring Baskin-Robbins and wanted ice cream. His grandfather promised him they would have their treat after they finished shopping, and they walked through the entry door.

Working in the housewares department that evening was seventeen-year-old Jimmy Cetina. He was a high-school senior and a talented athlete. In fact, this varsity center fielder was being scouted by the Chicago Cubs to play double A ball. He had good looks, and had recently entered a Bullock’s department store modeling competition and won it. Doubtlessly, he would rather have been at some other place than Ole’s Home Center on that October evening, especially during the World Series, but there were seven children in his family who had to look for empty bottles and cans to exchange for deposits if they wanted to buy sports equipment. He needed this job.

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Billy and Ada Deal knew that the near-empty store was about to close, so they decided to split up and shop separately to save time. Billy wanted to buy some cheap two-by-fours, so he headed for the lumber display, which was between the north and south fire doors. Ada said she was going to the paint department.

Carolyn Krause was working in the paint department that evening, so she may well have seen the fifty-year-old grandmother pushing her grandson Matthew William in a shopping cart. Carolyn Krause was married to an LAPD lieutenant and had two young children of her own. She may have heard Matthew asking when he was going to get his ice cream. And someone else who was in that store may have heard him too. Or perhaps not. This issue would be later debated in courts of law.

It had been a long shift for Jim Obdam. The young clerk had been working in the hardware department all day and into the evening. Just after 8:00 P.M. he heard something over the PA system, but couldn’t make out what had been said. He was headed for the front of the store, toward the south aisle, and there he was astonished to see a column of dark smoke rising from a display rack, all the way to the ceiling.

fire lover excerpt destroyed house
  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Jim Obdam hurried toward the west end of the store, looking for customers. He saw people heading toward the exits, but still was not alarmed when he arrived at the paint department.

“Are there any more people in your section?” he asked Carolyn Krause.

She answered, “I’ll check my area!” And then she rushed through the hardware department looking for stragglers.

Still, nobody was alarmed. Nobody had seen any fire, just that column of dark smoke. In fact, Jim Obdam found two people browsing in hardware, looking at tools. He told them to leave the store at once.

And then he encountered a middle-aged woman with a small child in a shopping cart. Ada Deal was looking at merchandise on an end cap at the foot of the aisle.

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“We’ve got to leave the store,” Jim Obdam told her. “But don’t be alarmed.”

Ada Deal put some merchandise into the cart behind her grandson, Matthew. Jim Obdam walked hurriedly down the north aisle toward the main part of the store, but when he looked around, Ada Deal hadn’t started to follow, so he went back.

“You should probably leave the cart here,” he said, more forcefully. “Take the child and let’s go!”

And then he headed toward the front of the store, assuming that Ada Deal and her grandson were following behind him. He was near the north fire door, about two aisles away, when he looked back toward that column of smoke. But it was no longer a cloud. It was a wall of flame. It was bright orange and raging. Then he noticed the north fire door had closed. That steel door had dropped down.

When he turned to look for the woman and child he heard a popping noise and the lights went out. And Jim Obdam suddenly felt alone and trapped.

A bell chimed in the lumber area: “Ting ting ting.” That’s how Billy Deal described it. And there was an unintelligible announcement. He thought that the store was closing so he looked at his watch. It was 8:05 P.M. Yes, it must be a closing announcement, he thought.

But then a peculiar thing happened. A young man on a forklift jumped off the vehicle and cried, “My God, it’s a fire!” And he took off running.

Billy looked around. He couldn’t see what the young man was getting excited about. There was nothing. But suddenly some people ran through the fire door and yelled, “Get outta here! There’s a fire!”

Billy peered through that door, that fireproof barricade, toward the west side of the store, and he saw a big cloud of smoke in the center of the space. He ran toward the south fire door searching for Ada and Matthew, and when he got there the cloud behind him had turned into a wall, a wall of very black smoke.

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Billy Deal screamed, “Ada!”

He ran toward the entrance doors that he and his wife and grandson had passed through a half hour before, and saw that a fire engine was arriving.

In the darkness, Jim Obdam battled panic. He was all alone in the smoke and heat. He knew there were steps to an emergency exit in the back stockroom. He couldn’t see, and hoped he could feel the steps, but his thoughts were fragmenting, and he began praying. Then he remembered there was a fire exit in the hardware department in the far northwest corner, if he could only find the far northwest corner.

He staggered to the back wall and duck-walked his way along, feeling the wall and feeling merchandise, feeling anything to guide him. He was holding his breath, low to the floor, and he dropped even lower, desperate for the same oxygen that the fire craved.

He was just about to give up. He couldn’t go any farther. When he suddenly realized he was six feet from the emergency exit, he felt an energy rush and he lunged, pushing the bars, activating the alarm. And he was out.

fire lover excerpt john orr
  • Photo Credit: Medstar Television

But though the hungry flames couldn’t reach him, the trailing heat did. He was outside, but he felt as though he were still inside. It was hot and he was burning. His arms, neck, and ears all suffered second- and third-degree burns.

Jim Obdam, covered head to foot with soot, ran toward the front of the store, anxious to call his parents to tell them he was all right, but when he touched his hand to his burning wrist, the flesh fell off onto the pavement.

[…]

It was indeed a bizarre evening for firefighters in that part of the San Gabriel Valley. Prior to the Ole’s fire and the fire at Von’s Market, there had been a fire in nearby Pasadena, at Albertson’s Market on East Sierra Madre Boulevard, about seven miles from Ole’s. Arson investigator Scott McClure had arrived at Albertson’s at 6:45 P.M. and met with a battalion chief for a quick briefing.

McClure had found the point of origin easily enough, in the grocery racks piled high with bags of potato chips. At 7:45 P.M. McClure called dispatch and requested that they send arson investigator John Orr from nearby Glendale Fire Department, probably the most accomplished arson sleuth within the several fire departments that rendered mutual aid in the area.

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John Orr showed up very quickly, and he explained to McClure about the volatility of potato chips, that the oils in the chips and the bag material are highly combustible, a sack of solid fuel. John Orr told McClure that in his opinion, the Albertson’s fire was deliberately set, as is usually the case with fires in retail stores during business hours when customers are present. When McClure later finished his investigation and returned to his car, he heard radio reports of the disaster that was unfolding seven miles away at Ole’s Home Center and he sped toward the scene.

When McClure arrived at Ole’s John Orr was already there.

Fire Captain William Eisele was was in charge of the response to the Ole’s Home Center fire. After he’d ordered his firefighters off the roof of the hardware store, and after the interior attack was aborted, Captain Eisele found John Orr standing at the rear of his engine carrying a thirty-five-millimeter camera.

“John! What’re you doing here?” Eisele asked.

“Passing by,” John Orr said. “Do you mind if I shoot some pictures?”

Eisele wished that Orr had turnout gear in his car, but since the arson investigator was in civilian clothes and hadn’t offered to help, the fire captain assumed he did not.

“Help yourself, I’ve got work to do,” Eisele said.

And while Eisele awaited the arrival of engine companies, and while Jim Obdam was led to the back of an ambulance, and while Billy Deal stood in front of Ole’s Home Center, where he would remain for twenty-two hours, and while John Orr shot film of the conflagration, the roof caved in and a geyser of flame and sparks exploded high into the night.

Want to keep reading? Download Fire Lover.

Fire Lover

By Joseph Wambaugh

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Featured photo: Glendale Fire Department; Additional images: Wikipedia; "Forensic Files" via Medstar Television

Published on 09 Apr 2020

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