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2 Arson Suspects Had Firefighting Ties in Common : Crime: A Glendale fire captain and a former county firefighter trainee are due to stand trial for separate South Bay arson sprees.

March 26, 1992|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLENDALE — Against all odds, authorities believe two serial arsonists, both with fire department ties, were active last year in the South Bay area.

Glendale Fire Capt. John L. Orr and former county firefighter trainee Douglas R. Hunziker are slated to stand trial separately soon for what investigators insist were two independent South Bay arson sprees.

Prosecutors say the cases are connected only by a quirk of timing and geography. But the suspects' attorneys this week proposed another common thread: Both asserted that their clients are victims of overzealous investigators who used flimsy evidence to clear a backlog of unsolved fires.

"Arson is a very difficult thing to prove, so you can understand why they charge with very little evidence," said Orr's attorney, Douglas McCann. "I would describe (the investigation) as being presumptuous. In the minds of the investigators, if they believe they've got their guy, I think they lose some of their objectivity."

McCann said federal authorities have not thoroughly checked whether Hunziker might have started the South Bay fires that Orr is accused of setting. "I have asked them to investigate things that might show they have the wrong guy," he said. "And I've received no response."

Hunziker's lawyer, Darryl W. Genis, said, "I'm not going to go as far as Mr. Orr's attorney and say that Mr. Orr is responsible for starting the fires that Douglas Hunziker is accused of setting. My client didn't start these fires. I don't know who started them.

"I could agree with Mr. Orr's attorney on one thing," Genis added, "that is that the authorities have done a slipshod job of investigating these fires."

In December, a federal grand jury indicted Orr, 42, of Eagle Rock, in connection with eight arson fires, including three that took place last March 27 at stores in Lawndale and Redondo Beach. His trial is set to begin April 14 in U.S. District Court. He was charged under federal law because he is accused of setting fires at stores involved in interstate trade.

In January, a county prosecutor charged Hunziker, 22, of Torrance, with setting 10 fires throughout the South Bay, beginning last July. Hunziker earlier spent two years in a Los Angeles County Fire Department Explorer program, authorities said.

On Friday, Hunziker pleaded not guilty to the arson counts and was ordered to stand trial May 8 in Torrance Superior Court.

The suspects' attorneys say the charges are based on unreliable sightings and weak circumstantial evidence.

But the prosecutors insisted this week that their cases are solid--and distinct. "In all of the fires we are concerned with, there is a direct connection on a personal level with Mr. Hunziker," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard A. Wilson.

He said the incidents tied to Hunziker occurred in neighborhoods where Hunziker or his girlfriend live and at a club where he worked, a bar he patronized and a driving school he attended. South Bay investigators have described Hunziker as a "vanity arsonist," who often sought attention by extinguishing his own fires or evacuating people from a fire scene.

Wilson said all of the fires attributed to Hunziker were started by applying an open flame, such as a lighter, to existing materials.

In contrast, federal officials have alleged that Orr used time-delay fire-setting devices made of matches, a cigarette, a rubber band and yellow lined paper. They have offered no evidence that Orr assisted firefighters at any of the fires he is accused of setting.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Stefan D. Stein said Tuesday that federal investigators are satisfied that Hunziker was not connected to the fires Orr is accused of setting.

He denied McCann's assertion that federal officials are ignoring leads that might exonerate Orr. "We're not in the business of trying to prove cases against people that they didn't commit," Stein said.

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