“Serial arsonists are known to keep logs of their fires or keep pictures of them and I am sure that they get off on their coverage on the news.”
— John Orr, April 1992
January 12, 1992. I was driving to a business breakfast and heard a radio report about a man who was under home detention on suspicion of being a serial arsonist. The reporter said that this man was one of the leading arson investigators in the state of California, a well-respected teacher of other investigators. I thought the report was curious and odd, but did not give it much thought beyond that moment, as I wanted to make sure I got to my meeting on time.
The breakfast meeting was at the posh Beverly Wilshire Hotel and included my boss at the time, George Zaloom and the woman who would later become my boss, the legendary Dame of Documentaries, Sheila Nevins of Home Box Office. By 1992, Sheila was already revolutionizing the way people thought about documentaries, having created a brand at HBO under the banner of America Undercover. Under that brand she combined prestige social issue documentary films about subjects like incarceration and homelessness with more titillating projects about crime and sex. These were films without the content censorship that faced network and public television films.
The evening before this breakfast, two of Sheila‘s prestige films had lost a documentary award to the film Hearts of Darkness: a Filmmaker‘s Apocalypse about the making of Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now. George (along with me and a team of filmmakers including directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper) had produced Hearts of Darkness for Showtime and Sheila, who was very competitive, spent the first part of breakfast ruing the fact that she passed on Hearts of Darkness when George was shopping it. Sheila then offered George an opportunity to pitch her new films.
George had with him an article about arson. The article was fairly generic, and as Sheila leafed through it, she said that she needed to understand the human story at the center of any film that she would commission. At that moment, I remembered the news piece that I heard about the arson investigator accused of being an arsonist, and I just started telling her about it. In my telling, I remembered two specific details from the news report… first, that the arson investigator was not in jail, but rather was under house arrest, monitored by an electronic ankle bracelet; and second, that part of the evidence against the arson investigator was that he had written a novel about a fireman who sets fires, and that the events in the novel allegedly tracked closely to real arson fires in California.
Sheila was very intrigued and said that if I could get an interview with this arson investigator/alleged arsonist (whose name I later learned is John Orr), she would give us money to develop the idea.
In spite of the fact that this was pre-Internet, it was surprisingly easy to connect with John Orr. I found the name of his lawyer in several of the newspaper articles about him, called him and he invited me to meet John at his home in Eagle Rock, a Los Angeles neighborhood between Glendale and Pasadena.
Orr shared the home with his wife Wanda and their dalmatian. It was a quaint cottage, and in the dining room there was a menagerie of fireman memorabilia and keepsakes. Medals, certificates, model fire trucks and ceramic firemen and dalmatians. My first impression was that John Orr envisioned himself to be the Norman Rockwell idea of an American firefighter.
As we began to chat, John seemed to find me unthreatening and a captive audience to hear his story. Upon reflection, that seems to be all he has ever wanted out of our dialogue – someone to patiently listen to his story and, he hoped, help share it with the world.
As our conversation delved deeper into the events that led to his arrest, it struck me that, whether he was guilty or not, this was the hubris of John Orr’s tragic tale — his deep-seated need to be recognized for telling his story.
So Orr and I made an arrangement, and over the ensuing three months I would return nearly a dozen times and record 25 hours of audio and four hours of film interviews with him.
And then, upon my departure from HBO, I reconnected with John Orr. We have engaged in correspondence and, with his permission, I have recorded about 6 hours of new telephone conversations with him. Periodically, over the coming weeks and months, I will dig into the many ways that Orr’s story has been told over the years, and I will post excerpts from my dialogue with Orr and others, as part of an ongoing exploration of how and why his stories have been told.
I never did make the planned documentary about Orr, but that experience led directly to Sheila Nevins hiring me to work at HBO. I would spend 25 of the ensuing 27 years as an executive storyteller for the company. Meanwhile, John Orr was convicted on multiple counts of arson, and pleaded guilty to three of those counts. After his guilty pleas, he was tried and convicted of setting a fire that killed four people, including a mother and her toddler son. He is currently serving four life sentences in California state prison for those crimes. I was in touch with him sporadically over that quarter century, and became aware that — in spite of his guilty pleas — he maintains his innocence on all of the charges against him.
Kary: What I would like you to do is to take me into what you imagine the psychological profile is of the person who set those fires.
John Orr: There’s pretty much a standard profile on pyromaniac. There’s seven different motivations for setting fires. Pyromania is one that’s all by itself. The standard profile of a pyromaniac is someone that is very insecure, a loner in particular, very different than the two guys, you know, get together to set crime diversion fires. This guy is by himself, and he derives a thrill from the inadvertent attention he gets after the fires have been set. He blends into the crowd and stands there with the crowd and maybe even gets a little bit gregarious and actually mingles with people in a crowd while normally he would avoid crowds. You know, maybe he’s the type that sits down the block and with a pair of binoculars and watches the activity and the fire.
But out of the 40 serial arsonists that I apprehended, the vast majority of them were the loner type guys. They were very insecure, typically had drinking problems if they were the older guys. And the younger ones had very difficult time getting along with people. They were bullied and just the standard insecure kind of a person, where the fires became their friends and they were, they felt the importance, by being the center of the inadvertent center of attention by watching their fires burned, seeing everybody get excited and, in turn, excited them.