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The World Now Knows John Orr as 'the Most Prolific
American Arsonist of the 20th Century.' But in 1984
He Was a Respected Glendale Arson Investigator Calmly
Sifting Through the Rubble of His Ghastly Masterpiece.
In This Excerpt From His New Book, Joseph Wambaugh
Recounts the Night Orr Set His . . .

Blaze of Glory

April 28, 2002|JOSEPH WAMBAUGH

The following excerpt is adapted from the book "FIRE LOVER: A True Story," by Joseph Wambaugh. Copyright 2002 by Joseph Wambaugh. To be published April 30 by William Morrow and Co., an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.


It wasn't until this past January that, with one final DNA test, Los Angeles finally closed the book on a unique criminal investigation and prosecution. This massive inquiry involved John Orr, whom a U.S. government serial-arson profiler at the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes had dubbed "probably the most prolific American arsonist of the 20th century."

California arson investigators would concur that this case was like nothing seen before, transforming the methods of those who scan fire scenes for that elusive "point of origin." Arson sleuths were forced to consider possibilities that had seemed unthinkable prior to an unprecedented series of incendiary fires that blazed across Central and Southern California for many years and ended with Orr's arrest in 1991. When it all began is anyone's guess, but the flames would never be damped for those who had been psychically seared by the inferno.

Perhaps an arbitrary point of origin for this story might be found in the quiet suburb of South Pasadena, on the evening of Oct. 10, 1984, during the World Series.


South Pasadena is a small city of some 20,000 residents who live within three square miles of mostly aging homes and limited commercial property. Many of the houses were built in the 1920s, the heyday of California Mission-style architecture, before the Great Depression stifled home building. Neighboring Pasadena, host to the famous Rose Parade, continued building luxury homes well into the 1930s, some of them gems of California style, all in need of periodic renovation. A good place for homeowners to buy materials to refurbish those old houses was at Ole's Home Center on Fair Oaks Avenue, an 18,000-square-foot building in a strip mall, three blocks from the town's only fire station.

At 7:30 p.m. that October evening, Billy and Ada Deal and their 2 1/2-year-old grandson, Matthew William Troidl, arrived in Ole's parking lot. Matthew immediately spotted the neighboring Baskin-Robbins and wanted ice cream. His grandfather promised him they would have their treat after they finished shopping, and they walked through the entry door.

Working in the housewares department that evening was 17-year-old Jimmy Cetina. He was a high school senior and a talented athlete. In fact, this varsity center fielder was being scouted by the Chicago Cubs to play double-A ball. He had Latino good looks and had recently entered a Bullock's department store modeling competition, and won it.

Doubtlessly, he would rather have been some other place than at Ole's Home Center on that October evening, especially during the World Series, but there were seven children in his family who had to look for empty bottles and cans to exchange for deposits if they wanted to buy sports equipment. He needed this job.

Billy and Ada Deal knew that the near-empty store was about to close so they decided to split up and shop separately to save time. Billy wanted to buy some cheap two-by-fours, so he headed for the lumber display between the north and south interior fire doors. Ada said she was going to the paint department.

Carolyn Krause was working in the paint department that evening, so she may well have seen the 50-year-old grandmother pushing her grandson Matthew William in a shopping cart. Carolyn Krause was married to an LAPD lieutenant and had two young children of her own. She may have heard Matthew asking when he was going to get his ice cream. And someone else who was in that store may have heard him, too. Or perhaps not. This issue would be later debated in courts of law.

It had been a long shift for Jim Obdam. The young clerk had been working in the hardware department all day and into the evening. Just after 8 p.m. he heard something over the public-address system, but couldn't make out what had been said. He was headed for the front of the store, toward the south aisle, and there he was astonished to see a column of dark smoke rising from a display rack, all the way to the ceiling.

Obdam hurried toward the west end of the store, looking for customers. He saw people heading toward the exits, but still was not alarmed when he arrived at the paint department.

"Are there any more people in your section?" he asked Krause.

She answered, "I'll check my area!" And then she rushed through the department looking for stragglers.

Still, nobody was alarmed. Nobody had seen any fire, just that column of dark smoke. In fact, Obdam found two people browsing in hardware, looking at tools. He told them to leave the store at once.

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