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Fire Official's Arrest Stuns Colleagues

December 06, 1991|PHIL SNEIDERMAN and DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Suspected arsonist John L. Orr was regarded as a mentor and sage by many of his firefighting colleagues, a veteran arson investigator called upon by fire officials across Southern California who were stumped by a tough case.

The Glendale fire captain taught seminars, wrote articles for trade publications and helped develop educational classes for statewide conferences of arson investigators.

"He has a lot more experience than most of us in the area," said Burbank Fire Capt. Steve Patterson. "He was a real role model."

Patterson was among countless firefighters and others in law enforcement struggling Thursday to make sense of allegations that Orr, 42, has led a bizarre double life--one as an accomplished arson investigator, the other as a destructive serial firesetter.

Federal law enforcement officials arrested Orr early Wednesday outside his Eagle Rock home and charged him with igniting blazes at three Los Angeles-area retail businesses. Officials suspect he may be responsible for a dozen other fires that occurred in 1987 and 1989 in Central California, although he has not been charged in those blazes.

"It is very hard to fathom a colleague who would do things like that," said Brad Phillipson, fire marshal in San Marino. "That is the dark side that you don't even want to think about."

Fire officials across Southern California described Orr as a hard-working, top-notch arson investigator who had earned the respect of his peers during 11 years in Glendale. Fire departments throughout the state routinely sent investigators to training classes led by Orr, with the most recent five-day course ending only two weeks ago in Glendale.

But early last spring, a team of arson experts headed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms began to suspect Orr--for reasons they have not yet divulged--going so far as to attach an electronic tracking device on his car when he traveled to a conference of arson investigators in San Luis Obispo.

About the same time, arson investigators in Bakersfield and Los Angeles began sharing information about Orr. Bakersfield fire officials had become suspicious about several fires in Bakersfield, Fresno and Tulare that were set around the time of a 1987 arson conference in Fresno. Similarly, they began to question the source of six fires in the Central Coast area that were set around the time of a 1989 conference in Pacific Grove.

"I went so far as to get the rosters from the two seminars and develop a list of people from the Southern California area at both seminars," said Bakersfield Capt. Marvin G. Casey. "We developed a list of about 10 people. Orr was No. 5."

Orr's arrest came on the same day that Richard Hinz, a 27-year Glendale Fire Department veteran, was named the city's fire chief. When he might have been celebrating his arrival at a career peak, Hinz found himself defending the quality of his agency and fighting morale problems prompted by Orr's arrest.

The new chief said he spent part of Thursday meeting with his firefighters, trying to boost their spirits. "It's not indicative of the department as a whole," he said of Orr's arrest.

Mario Vasquez, a Glendale fire captain and spokesman for the 165-member Glendale Fire Fighters' Assn., said the allegations against Orr caught everyone by surprise.

"Some of the guys told me they had trouble sleeping last night because they were thinking about this," he said. "The news was so explosive that it's like an internal back draft," he said, referring to a smoke blast that erupts in some building fires.

Vasquez said Orr has been active in fund-raisers sponsored by local firefighters. In recent years he has helped organize "steak fry" dinners that benefit a burn foundation. He is married, has two daughters from a previous marriage, and attended Eagle Rock High School and Glendale Community College. Before becoming a Glendale firefighter, he spent four years in the Air Force as an aircraft crash and rescue firefighter, city officials said.

Federal agents told Glendale fire administrators about their investigation early last summer, about two months after it began. The probe was kept secret from all but a few top city and Fire Department officials.

Hinz said his staff had no suspicions about Orr. Glendale fire officials cooperated in the probe, pointing investigators to a training video produced by Orr, which contained scenes of a fire in Highland Park, an area beyond the investigator's jurisdiction. City officials also alerted federal agents to a manuscript written by Orr, which told the story of a firefighter who was a serial arsonist.

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