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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Sometimes, Truth Is as Evil as Fiction

July 01, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

A 1992 movie, "Basic Instinct," is best remembered for a scene in which Sharon Stone is interrogated by a bunch of cops, all of whom are more nervous than she is.

But the plot of the film is also worth remembering.

It involves a writer who depicts a fictional murder in vivid detail, then is accused of committing a real murder in the same way.

The cops suspect one of two things:

Either a copycat is trying to frame the writer by killing somebody in exactly the manner she invented, or the writer is a dangerous and diabolical criminal who considers herself too smart to be caught.

"I'd have to be pretty stupid," she says, to do a murder in precisely the same way described in her own novel.

No, the cops argue, that's just where she's being brilliant.

Pretty farfetched, right?

Could never happen in real life.

That's what you tell yourself, and then you come across John Leonard Orr.


On Oct. 10, 1984, a hardware store in South Pasadena had a terrible fire, while it was still open for business.

Two customers died--a woman and her 2-year-old grandson.

Two employees died--a woman, 26, and a boy, 17.

Luis H. Cetina lost his little brother that day. Jimmy was a high school senior who had just bought a car. He got a job at Ole's hardware store to help pay the insurance.

In a courtroom Tuesday, still reliving that horrifying experience 14 years later, Luis told of how he looked for his brother in the store that day, amid the ashes.

He told of being so traumatized, "I slept under my bed."

John L. Orr was found guilty last Friday of setting this fire. He was convicted on four counts of first-degree murder.

The crime was bloodcurdling enough, without knowing more about Orr.

He's a former Glendale fire captain.

He set several other fires at hardware stores from the San Joaquin Valley all the way to Atascadero.

And he wrote a novel.

"Points of Origin," a work of fiction by Orr, is the story of a firefighter named Aaron who sets a fire at a Pasadena hardware store. The store is called Cal's, where several employees are killed, plus a woman and her grandson.

In pitching his manuscript to a literary agency in 1991, Orr said he patterned the book after an actual California arsonist who "has not been identified or apprehended, and probably will not be in the near future."

Orr was arrested and convicted of arson a year later.

Whether he hatched the fiction or fact first is a chicken-or-egg question of awesome and gruesome proportion. The fire in South Pasadena occurred in 1984. How long it took Orr to research his "novel," who knows?

He proclaimed innocence in the Ole's fire that killed Jimmy Cetina and three others. But the jury didn't buy it.

A man would have to be pretty stupid to write a book about a firefighting firebug who burns down a Pasadena hardware store, if he were the one who had burned down a South Pasadena hardware store.

Orr's lawyers called it "pure fiction."

But it is more like pure evil.

Prior to being convicted of the South Pasadena store fire, Orr had already confessed to torching three other businesses. He was also found guilty of setting a 1990 fire in Glendale that destroyed 67 homes.

Police even charged him with burning down a Warner Bros. studio set where the 1970s television show "The Waltons" was shot, though Orr beat that rap.

A fire in which John Boy and Ma and Pa Walton lose their house? It could have been a compelling story.

Too bad for Orr he's in jail. He could have had material there for a second book.


A 1991 movie called "Backdraft" had the same character--a fireman who sets fires. That was the same year John Leonard Orr sent his book to an agent.

The fireman in that film gets caught and gets killed.

Testimony will continue in Superior Court this morning, as jurors weigh whether to put Orr, 49, to death or behind bars for life.

"A perpetrator of evil," he was called by Sandra Flannery, a deputy district attorney, in arguing Tuesday for the arsonist's execution.

Opponents of capital punishment will want to spare him.

Proponents will prefer he get the gas or the chair, whichever's the hottest.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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