News >> Browse Articles >> Op / Ed


Inside the Mind of the Serial Arsonist

Inside the Mind of the Serial Arsonist

Kayla Baxter,

November 18, 2009

The Path to Arson

The D & M Yardage fire and consequent fires were matters of much speculation in 1991. Investigators noticed that all the fires in the area were connected by major highways, and were easily accessible by freeway exits. An arsonist could have hopped off the exit, started the fire, then taken off to start the next one. Ironically, an arson investigation convention had been happening in the center of all these fires.

Upon further research, investigators discovered that there were hundreds of other fires that were connected to arson investigation conventions: the 1989 convention in Santa Barbara, and the 1987 convention in Fresno. All of these conventions were next to major highways.

Investigators made lists of all the people that had attended the three conventions, but there were at least 10 people that had attended all three. One crucial piece of information surfaced- a fingerprint on a time-delay incendiary device, used in the 1987 fire. At that time, fingerprint technology was not advanced and the evidence was useless – but in 1991, they were able to pinpoint the fingerprint to one man.

John Orr, a well respected arson investigator from Glendale, was pinpointed by the fingerprint. He was born and raised in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. Investigators were devastated and skeptical, but all the evidence pointed to him.

He lived with his fourth wife. The youngest of 3 sons, and was drawn to fire and police work. He tried for a police position and was denied. He liked to wear a beard, which was against regulation.

He demonstrated an uncanny knack for investigating Glendale’s notorious problem with wildland fires.

Before the investigation, on October 10, 1984, in South Pasadena, California, a major fire broke out at an Ole’s Home Center hardware store located in a shopping plaza. The store was completely destroyed by the fire, and four people died in the blaze, including a two year old child. On the following day, arson investigators from around southern California converged on the destroyed store, and declared the cause to be an electrical fire. However, John Orr, as an arson investigator, insisted that the cause was arson.

Interestingly, he had written a novel, “Points of Origin” which traced the activities of a serial arsonist.

He wrote to a literary agent:

  • “My novel is a fact-based work that followed the pattern of an actual arsonist that has been setting serial fires in CA over the past 8 years. He has not been identified or apprehended and probably will not be in the near future. As in the real case, the arsonist in my novel is a firefighter.” -John Orr

In Orr’s novel, the arsonist’s name was Aaron. Orr wrote, “He was a loner and insecure. His fires gave him the much-needed attention that he craved. He was, after all, the only one who knew how the fire started. To Aaron, the smoke was beautiful.”

On Nov 4, 1991, John Orr was arrested and charged with arson. A briefcase was found in his car in a search of his property: among its contents were binoculars, cigarettes, and a bag of rubber bands, all items used in his accelerating devices. He admitted nothing.

He was found guilty on three counts of arson in central California. Despite a guilty plea, Orr continues to maintain that he is innocent. He was then charged with many, many fires that destroyed 64 homes, and charged with 2 counts of murder caused by the fires he set.

The story of John Orr has been chronicled by bestselling true crime author Joseph Wambaugh in a book entitled Fire Lover. Also, a film entitled Point of Origin starring Ray Liotta as John Orr was released by the HBO network in the year 2002.

Editor’s note: References: New Yorker article “Seeking Out Psychopaths,” November 10, 2008, by John Seabrook, and the NOVA public television video “Hunt for the Serial Arsonist,” WGBH Boston Video, copyright 1995, 2005.