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As of this writing, the largest wildfires in Arizona and Colorado history have burned more than half a million acres of land, destroyed 556 homes, and forced the evacuation of more than 32,000 people. In both states, firefighters stand accused of setting the fires deliberately.
The fact that firefighters are sometimes fire-starters is not new. Since the FBI identified the “excitement-recognition”-motivated profile in its study of serial arsonists, many fire departments have begun routinely screening their applicants for arsonist characteristics. Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service, for which those accused of starting the Western wildfires worked, doesn’t.
Using a case mirroring this summer’s headlines, former LAPD detective and renowned crime author Joseph Wambaugh attempts to get into the mind and methods of former firefighter John L. Orr, now believed to be the most prolific American arsonist of the 20th century, in his latest book, Fire Lover: A True Story. Although Orr denies ever having deliberately set a fire, after his imprisonment in 1991, brush fires in the Los Angeles area where he worked as an arson investigator decreased by 98 percent. In addition to brush fires, Orr was convicted of arson in a number of retail stores, including one at a home-improvement center that claimed four lives.
After a stint as a firefighter in the Air Force, Orr applied to the LAPD in 1971 but flunked the psychological screening process. Two years later, he joined but was released from the Los Angeles Fire Department for poor written- and skills-test scores. Then he applied to the neighboring Glendale department, where he began a career in firefighting that continued until his arrest.
Everywhere John Orr went, fires erupted. When he attended a three-day arson-investigation seminar in Fresno in 1987, three retail-store fires broke out in the vicinity. On the day the seminar ended, four more stores were the sites of arson, all located along Highway 99, the route Orr presumably drove home to Los Angeles. In 1989, he attended another arson conference, this time in Pacific Grove. Six fires in retail businesses broke out immediately before and after the conference, all along Highway 101, the main artery to L.A. In some of these fires, a distinctive homemade incendiary device was found—a lit cigarette with matches attached to it by a rubber band, wrapped in a piece of paper. The signature gadget would convince arson investigators that they were dealing with a serial arsonist out of control—and eventually convince a jury that John Orr was guilty of murder.
Orr’s story was already well-known by the time Wambaugh ended a six-year hiatus in the spring of 2001 to write about it. PBS’s Nova had done an episode called “Hunt for the Serial Arsonist” in 1995, and both Court TV and HBO were planning programs related to the Orr case. Wambaugh contacted Mike Matassa of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, who had led the task force that identified Orr as a serial arsonist, and Orr himself, who was serving time in a federal penitentiary. The extensive cooperation of both investigators and Orr helped Wambaugh shed light on how Orr was able to set so many fires over so long a period—from at least 1984 to 1991—and why it was so difficult to catch him.
In examining the mind of the serial arsonist—someone who sets at least three fires on at least three occasions—Wambaugh got a lot of help from Orr. While maintaining his innocence, the former firefighter eagerly wrote and telephoned Wambaugh from prison and provided him with copies of two books he had written: an autobiography and Points of Origin: Playing With Fire, a novel about a firefighter who is also a serial arsonist. (Orr’s dream of being a published novelist came true in 2001, 10 years after he finished the book, and only after his murder conviction.) The novel, details from which were introduced as evidence during Orr’s 1998 trial for a trio of fires, including the fatal home-improvement-store blaze, features an arson investigator who chases a brother firefighter gone bad. Prosecutors theorized that Orr was writing about the two sides of his own nature—hero and killer. For example, Orr’s arsonist, Aaron Stiles, becomes frustrated when a fire he starts at a home-improvement store is mistakenly ruled an accident. He fumes:
Aaron was so furious that he set a nearly identical fire two days later in Hollywood at another hardware store. The investigating agency termed the fire arson, but no correlation was made to the Cal’s fire. Aaron wanted the Cal’s fire to be arson. He loved the inadvertent attention he derived from the newspaper coverage and hated it when he wasn’t properly “recognized.” The deaths were blotted out of his mind. It wasn’t his fault. Just stupid people acting as stupid people do.
The fatal 1984 Ole’s Home Center fire was also mistakenly deemed an accident, attributed to faulty wiring. A few days later, a similar fire, with the distinctive incendiary device, was set at another home-improvement store, in North Hollywood. Until investigators read Orr’s manuscript, in the fall of 1991, no one connected the two.
The FBI arson study describes fire-starters like Orr as being “motivated by excitement including…thrills, attention, recognition, and rarely, but importantly, sexual gratification….Fire fighters are known to set fires so they can engage in the suppression effort.” Because Orr continued to maintain his innocence, Wambaugh looked to his fictional arsonist, Aaron Stiles, for insight into his crimes. Sexual arousal from fires may be rare, but Stiles becomes excited when he sees fires, when he remembers fires he’s set, when he sees people running away from his fires, and even when he’s assembling his time-delay incendiary devices, identical to the ones Orr made.
In explaining serial arsonists’ lack of normal relationships with other people and their special feeling about fire, Orr once wrote, early in his career as an investigator, “The fire becomes a friend they can relate to. Their fires bring attention, friends, admiration as heroes, and self-esteem. Like a drug addict, one good score leads to the desire for another.” Four-time divorce Orr, who is believed to have set more than 2,000 fires in his career—including the College Hills wildfire, the biggest fire in Glendale history, which damaged or destroyed 66 homes—could have been a case study for the FBI survey.
At its best, Wambaugh’s writing reads like a good police-procedural novel. For example, as he narrates the horrifying fatal fire at Ole’s Home Center, he describes how one store employee found himself in a deathtrap:
Anthony Colantuano had been at his workbench at 8:04 p.m. when a voice screamed “Fire!” He spotted a fellow employee and a few customers rushing down the aisle toward the south fire door and he stopped them, herding them toward the fire exit in the electrical department….When he later described it he said, “It was coming, coming fast toward us. The flame. The fire. Everything.”
They were literally blown outside by a flashover, the instant burn of gasses and smoke, when the carbon that is smoke burns hotter than one thousand degrees and the entire contents of a room erupt in flame and no living thing survives. People, smoke, flames, merchandise, everything, were blasted through the door into the cool autumn night.
This is the dispassionate storytelling style of the author’s seminal nonfiction work, The Onion Field, the tale of a 1963 murder of a police officer. When the story gets emotional, Wambaugh lets the voices of the victims of Orr’s crimes, his acquaintances, and those who investigated and built the case against him speak for themselves.
When Wambaugh injects his own humor or sense of irony into the story, however, he can jolt the reader painfully out of the narrative, with writing-workshop imagery and the prurience of a vice cop. One arson investigator suspected Orr of raping and strangling a young woman. When the fireman reads what seems to be corroboration of his theory in Orr’s Points of Origin, Wambaugh describes his reaction thus: “If his neck hairs had swayed before, now they were break-dancing.” Later, referring to the same fireman: “For an old movie buff, it felt as though every hair was standing electrified, like the Bride of Frankenstein!” When Wambaugh quotes Orr’s characters discussing masturbation, it’s relevant insight into Orr’s motivations; when he draws on his own array of euphemisms for the act—”wanking,” “whacking the weasel,” “choking the ferret,” “waxing the carrot”—it’s just distracting. Whereas Wambaugh’s police expertise is crucial to making Fire Lover’s complex story coherent, it also leads him to digress, as in this aside on why the Dallas Police Department couldn’t have participated in a conspiracy to cover up the assassination of John Kennedy:
Because everyone who’s ever worn a badge knows that the moment a cop gets a real secret, the drums start beating and the asphalt jungle wireless starts humming, and the first leggy news chick with tits out to here will be blabbing the secret on the news at ten even before the cop wives get to tell it to the gang at the office and the girls at the gym.
Ultimately, though, Orr’s story is just too compelling to be torpedoed by these diversions. Like the doctor who murders, the priest who rapes, or the cop who steals, the firefighter who sets fires is a mystifying marriage of opposites somehow locked into the same psyche. He is a modern-day, living Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Wambaugh, for all his quirks, is a 21st-century Robert Louis Stevenson, illuminating this true, strange case.
In the summer of 2001, Orr’s former colleagues from the California Conference of Arson Investigators contacted him in prison to ask if they could interview him to improve their understanding of the mind of the serial arsonist. His answer echoes Stevenson’s benighted physician, who didn’t know Mr. Hyde existed: “If you want to study a serial arsonist, why have you contacted me?” CP