This the second part of a series of articles about my relationship with John Orr. You can find part one of the series here.
It was May 1, 1992 and Los Angeles was on fire. As I drove to the home of John Orr — a widely respected arson educator and investigator with the Glendale Fire Department — the air held a deep brown tint. And while most of the 1,750 fires burning during the LA riots were caused by arson, John Orr had an alibi for each of them. During the LA riots, triggered by the April 29 acquittal of police officers charged with using excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King, John Orr was under electronically monitored home detention, awaiting trial for starting at least a dozen fires throughout California.
I was in the midst of a two month process of recording audio interviews with Orr about his life, his two decade career as a fireman, his budding avocation as a novelist, and the criminal charges against him. It was my first effort at telling a story professionally. Though I’d worked as an attorney for a year, I hadn’t constructed a full legal brief or argument. And my work for the producer George Zaloom largely consisted of reviewing contracts. So, as an aspiring filmmaker, I perceived this as my big break: a commission by Sheila Nevins of HBO to interview John Orr and develop a narrative pitch for a documentary about who he was and what he did or did not do.
It was my big break and yet I felt like I was in way over my head. Listening to the recordings of my interviews with Orr today, I am embarrassed by the lack of rigor to my questioning and by my limited knowledge of the available facts. That said, what comes through is that I was genuinely trying to get to the bottom of whether this was a man wrongly accused based upon a collection of circumstantial evidence, or whether this was a sociopath who got caught because of a series of reckless mistakes. I remember noting the irony that one of the critical pieces of evidence against Orr was his manuscript about a serial arsonist — a manuscript he hoped would help him break through to artistic renown. Of course artistic, or at least commercial recognition was my ambition in telling his story.
The legal case of John Orr would drag on for years, taking several unexpected turns along the way. The trajectories of our lives would take us in opposite directions — me to a career at HBO, a wife, a family, and a full life in LA, him to divorce, loneliness, and a life behind bars all while proclaiming his innocence. Still, we were in touch over the years. And with the launch of Crime Story, I found myself thinking a lot about John Orr. To tell his story, and the story of our relationship, it is best to start with the facts as I knew them on that May day in 1992 when LA was on fire.
During the weekend of January 13–16 of 1987, seven fires burned through the Central California valley towns of Fresno, Tulare and Bakersfield. All were suspected arson fires. The remnants of time-delay incendiary devices were found at four of these fire locations. Tucked into materials that were highly combustible, the devices shared distinctive common elements including a rubber band holding matches to the bottom of a cigarette, with a piece of paper in between. The slow burn of the cigarette served as the time-delay fuse; the device would inflame when the cigarette burned down to the matches; the paper served as an accelerant when the fire flashed from the matches.
One of the remnants, a device found in the debris of a torched craft store in Bakersfield, was a yellow lined piece of paper. Upon careful examination, investigators discovered a single fingerprint on that piece of paper. However that fingerprint drew no matches when placed in the national fingerprint database.
There were several witness descriptions of potential suspects, but given the time delay nature of the device and the vague and conflicting nature of the witness accounts, arson investigators had few ledes.
One local investigator in Bakersfield, Marvin Casey, observed that the seven fires were set along the highway route from Fresno to Los Angeles and that there happened to be a three-day seminar hosted by the California Conference of Arson investigators in Fresno. Casey reached out to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, suggesting that they look for a link between the fires and any of the attendees of the conference. But his hunch was rebuffed.
Two years later, during the weekend of March 3-9, 1989, there was another series of arson fires, this time in the central coast area of California. The modus operandi of this arsonist was very similar to that employed by the person who started the 1987 fires — a time delay device placed in and among highly flammable material. Moreover, the fires’ locations were along the route between Los Angeles and Pacific Grove, where the four-day Symposium IV Arson Conference was held on that very same weekend.
Casey immediately requested a list of the attendees of the Pacific Grove conference and compared it to the list from Fresno. There were ten individuals who had registered for both conferences. One of them was John Orr.
Casey reached out to the same ATF investigator with whom he’d spoken in 1987. This time, the investigator agreed to take the image of the fingerprint recovered from the piece of paper at the Bakersfield fire and have a federal fingerprint expert compare it with fingerprints of the ten people who attended both conferences. Those fingerprint samples were available in the database of individuals who hold public safety jobs.
But the expert’s findings were negative. He could not match the fingerprint from the fire to any of the ten conference attendees.
The same serial arsonist with the signature time-delay incendiary device appeared to strike again in 1991, and a task force was formed to finally find him. This loose affiliation of local arson investigators, ATF agents and Los Angeles fire department investigators was dubbed the Pillow Pyro Task Force, as some of the incendiary devices had been tucked into pillows. Several members of the task force met with Casey and secured a photograph of the fingerprint discovered on the Bakersfield device.
Task force members ran a new check on the fingerprint in the hope that a matching print had been added to the database in the intervening two years. But rather than scanning the photograph of the fingerprint into the database, a fingerprint specialist enlarged the photograph, placed a piece of tracing paper over the enlargement, traced the lines of the fingerprint onto the tracing paper, and then submitted a copy of the new tracing into the Los Angeles Hall of Justice database. The idea was that the clarity of the tracing would offer more information to the computer program looking for a match than a blurry photograph of the fingerprint.
On April 17, 1991, the task force received word that the submitted fingerprint tracing matched a fingerprint in the Los Angeles Hall of Justice database. It matched the fingerprint of John Orr.
After the fingerprint match, the task force began surveilling Orr. During the course of that spring, they put a tracker on Orr’s vehicle and followed him as he drove to and from a peace officer safety course at the California Specialized Training Institute in San Luis Obispo. Orr discovered the device, and turned the device in to a local law-enforcement officer.
During the course of that same spring, Orr was finishing the manuscript of a novel he was writing about a fictitious arson investigator and his pursuit of a serial arsonist who also happens to be a firefighter. He titled the novel Points of Origin.
The plot of Points of Origin involves fires that Orr acknowledges were based on a number of real fires throughout California, including several of the fires that were set in 1987 on the route between the Los Angeles area and the Fresno arson conference. In an early draft of the novel, the incendiary device used by the arsonist is nearly identical to the devices discovered in the 1987 fires, including a cigarette and matches held together with a rubber band. In later drafts of the novel John Orr changed the device to a cigarette with a bead of glue at the bottom.
During the same period of time, Orr wrote inquiry letters to literary agents seeking representation for the novel. He asked the assistant to Glendale Fire Marshal Chris Gray to type one of those letters for him. The assistant told Grey, who then reported the letter to task force investigators when they came to him with questions about Orr’s activities.
The investigators successfully executed a plan to secure Orr’s manuscript, and noted similarities between the fires in the book and the string of Southern California arson fires. Among the fires depicted in the book is a fire at a home improvement store that kills five people, including a woman and her grandson. The investigators immediately recognized that this incident was nearly identical to a 1984 fire in Pasadena.
As the Pillow Pyro Task Force was tracking Orr’s movements, he suddenly appeared at the scene of a fire on the Warner Bros. studio lot. While they had not caught Orr in the act of setting the fire, the task force members concluded that they could be risking public safety if they did not arrest him immediately.
On December 4, 1991, at 7:10am, John Orr was arrested as he walked out of his Glendale home. During a search of Orr’s home and vehicle, investigators collected evidence including:
- Orr’s black canvas “work” bag holding among other things:
- a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes
- two books of matches
- a cigarette lighter
- a plastic baggy containing rubber bands
- Seven paper bags
- Behind the driver’s seat and under the floor mat of Orr’s Glendale FD car, the investigators found a steno pad of yellow lined paper.
- Video tapes of various fires
- Two drafts of Orr’s novel.
- The earlier-dated draft of only three-chapters, in which the delay device is described as a match attached to a cigarette, placed inside a paper bag.
- A later-dated complete draft of the novel, in which Orr has removed the matches and the paper bag and turned it into a bead of glue on a cigarette.
- Copies of letters from Orr to prospective literary agents and publishers along with a copy of the manuscript of his novel, which included the following passages:
- “POINTS is the story of a serial arsonist and the investigator who tracks him in Southern California. Aaron, the arsonist, is actually a firefighter, and Phil Langtree slowly develops the theory that the suspect is somehow related to the fire department.”
- “My arsonist is sexually/psychologically motivated, and POINTS is somewhat fact-based. There is an arsonist plying his trade in the west, and he sets the same types of fires portrayed in my novel.”
- “My novel is fiction but is based on a real arsonist who has again hit the L.A. area earlier this year doing over $12 million in damage. The investigation now has federal assistance and could be linked to fires outside California. It is my feeling that the arsonist could be a firefighter, but I’m not directly linked to the investigation and can’t confirm this fact.”
- “My work is a fact-based novel of an ongoing investigation here on the west coast. A serial arsonist is setting fires throughout the west and is quite possibly a firefighter. The series has been going on for over five years and I was even considered a suspect at one point. In early May of this year, I found a radio tracking device attached to my car in San Luis Obispo while I attended a training conference. Ironically, my protagonist experiences the same situation. I had already written the chapter dealing with the protagonist being tailed before I found that I was being followed. By the way, I’m not the arsonist and the investigation out here continues. My work is fictional.”
These were the facts made available to me by public documents and by John Orr himself in the days and weeks leading up to my meeting with him on May 1, 1992.
In future essays, I will explore my efforts to tell Orr’s story, or more precisely, to get Orr to tell his story. But I will conclude today with his answer to my question of how he came to tell the story of a fireman who sets fire in his novel, Points of Origin.