The murder trial of John Leonard Orr, a former Glendale fire captain turned arsonist, got underway Wednesday with defense lawyers arguing that faulty wiring--not arson--was to blame for a fire that killed four people in South Pasadena.
Although acknowledging to jurors that Orr, a former arson investigator, had pleaded guilty in 1992 to federal charges stemming from a series of arson fires in Bakersfield, attorney Ed Rucker said the blaze at Ole's Home Center in 1984 was not Orr's handiwork. The fire began in the store's ceiling as a smoldering electrical fire before exploding into the aisles below, he said.
"He has admitted he set fires," said Rucker, referring to San Joaquin Valley blazes Orr set while attending a 1987 arson investigator's convention in Fresno. However, Rucker said, "Mr. Orr is not responsible for this [Ole's] fire. . . . Nobody is responsible for this fire, because it's not an arson."
In the state trial--which was delayed by the federal case and civil actions--Orr is accused of more than two dozen felonies. These include four murder counts for allegedly causing the deaths of Ada Deal, 50, her 2-year-old grandson, Matthew Troidl, and hardware store employees Carolyn Kraus, 26, and Jimmy Cetina, 17.
A key prosecution exhibit is the manuscript of a novel Orr wrote about a firefighter turned arsonist, in which the protagonist sets a hardware store ablaze, killing a woman and her grandson.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sandra Flannery told the jurors that Orr ignited the Ole's fire, as well as others at a nearby Vons and Albertson's grocery stores to create a diversion.
Prosecutors said Orr arrived at the scene with a 35mm camera, telling a fire official he was "just passing by," Flannery said.
"John Orr claimed the Ole's fire was arson . . . that he knew the identity of the arsonist," Flannery said. "He was speaking from first-hand knowledge."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Cabral briefly summarized three other fires Orr is accused of setting, including a Nov. 22, 1991, blaze in the Warner Bros. back lot in Burbank--which destroyed the set of the television show "The Waltons"--and the 1991 brush fire that engulfed 67 homes in the College Hills area of Glendale.
Cabral said Orr displayed a knowledge that went beyond his 17 years of experience with the Glendale Fire Department.
Orr theorized that an arsonist ignited the Glendale brush fire with a lighter, Cabral said, but "no one in any position of authority saw the device" that Orr said he found at the point of origin.
Cabral also told jurors he would introduce numerous videotapes and audiotapes of fires at which Orr was present, including video Orr filmed of a Glendale blaze before firefighters arrived.
The prosecutors' presentation made no mention of the most dramatic evidence, Orr's unpublished manuscript for a novel called "Points of Origin," which tells the story of a firefighter-arsonist as he sets fires across California.
Nevertheless, defense attorney Peter Giannini launched a preemptive strike.
"There's no question John Orr had access to information contained in the book. He was the investigator," Giannini said.
"The fact the information is in the book does not mean he set [the fires]." A firefighter also wrote the story that became the movie "Backdraft," the lawyer said, but that "doesn't mean he set the fires any more than John Orr would."
Giannini also attacked prosecutors' contention that Orr used a signature device to set the fires, consisting of a cigarette, matches and a rubber band.
"There's nothing particularly unusual about it," he said.
Such a device was not found at any of the fires specified in the charges, Giannini said. "Not a single one."