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Ex-Fire Investigator Gets Life Term in Fatal Arson

Courts: Judge sentences former Glendale official to prison without possibility of parole for setting blaze that killed four people in South Pasadena.

September 18, 1998|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying that his crimes showed "great violence and sophistication," a judge sentenced former Glendale arson investigator John Leonard Orr to life in prison without the possibility of parole Thursday for setting a fire that killed four people at a South Pasadena hardware store.

Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry ordered the 17-year firefighting veteran to spend four consecutive life terms in prison for the 1984 fire at Ole's Home Center, in addition to 20 years for other fires that damaged or destroyed dozens of homes in La Canada and Glendale in the early 1990s.

"The enormity of the defendant's crimes should not be understated," the judge said in handing down the maximum sentence. "He embarked on a campaign of setting arson fires that is remarkable in the number of fires he set and in the expert way he set them."

As he had throughout his five-week trial, the balding grandfather and Air Force veteran showed no emotion during the brief hearing. Orr also declined to address the court.

Orr's silence prompted outrage from the brother of a victim, who called Orr "a coward" who "showed no remorse throughout his trial."

Relatives of the victims criticized the judge's decision to prohibit them from looking at or directly addressing Orr during the hearing.

"He's a shell. He fails to be human," Luis Cetina said of Orr. "He's sentenced our families to a life of pain and grief."

Last June, Orr, 49, was found guilty of more than two dozen crimes, including the Oct. 10, 1984, fire that killed Jimmy Cetina, 17, fellow employee Carolyn Kraus, 26, Ada Deal, 50, and her 2-year-old grandson, Matthew Troidl.

Orr also was convicted of 20 arsons, including a devastating firestorm that damaged or destroyed 67 homes in the College Hills section of Glendale in June 1990.

Jurors later deadlocked 8-4 in favor of sentencing Orr to death. State law requires a death penalty recommendation to be unanimous.

"We felt that we had about as good a jury as we were likely to get in that first jury," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Cabral, who decided last month not to try Orr again on the death penalty issue. "We felt that the likelihood of getting a different verdict from a new jury was very slim."

During the five-week trial, Cabral and Deputy Dist. Atty. Sandra Flannery presented evidence that Orr engaged in a distinctive pattern of criminal behavior, setting fires during daytime hours in polyfoam materials in the back of occupied businesses, using a "signature" time-delay device consisting of a cigarette, matches, a rubber band and a piece of legal paper.

To back up their case, prosecutors presented "Points of Origin," a manuscript Orr wrote detailing the activities of a firefighter-turned-arsonist who uses his knowledge to outwit authorities. The novel's protagonist, named Aaron, uses a slow-burning incendiary device to set fire to a Pasadena hardware store called "Cal's," in which several employees die, as well as a woman and her young grandson.

"Aaron wanted the Cal's fire to be called arson. He loved the inadvertent attention he derived from the newspaper coverage and hated it when he wasn't properly 'recognized,' " Orr wrote in the manuscript. "The deaths were blotted out of his mind. It wasn't his fault. Just stupid people acting as stupid people do."

Defense attorneys Edward Rucker and Peter Giannini argued that the South Pasadena blaze was an electrical fire and dismissed Orr's manuscript as "pure fiction," comparing it to the 1991 movie "Backdraft," which also was written by a firefighter.

Giannini cited testimony by a UCLA forensic psychiatrist, who said Orr was driven to torch buildings by a compulsion he was powerless to control. "He had no choice in the matter," the lawyer said.

Orr, who has been in custody since 1991 and is serving a 30-year federal prison sentence, was convicted in 1992 of federal crimes stemming from a series of hardware store blazes in the San Joaquin Valley around the time of a state arson investigators convention in Fresno.

The next year he pleaded guilty to setting three additional blazes, including a 1990 fire at a Builders Emporium in North Hollywood and two others near Atascadero in 1989.

Prosecutors said he will be transferred from federal to state prison in 2002. He was ordered to pay $90,000 in restitution.

"The lesson that this case teaches us is that no one should be above suspicion when it comes to criminal activity," Cabral said. "There were many instances where other investigators felt that something wasn't right, and for a long period of time overlooked it because of his position in fire service."

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