John Leonard Orr
|Born||April 26, 1949|
|Other names||The Pillow Pyro|
|Occupation||Fire captain, arson investigator|
|Criminal status||Federal: Transferred to CA custody in 2002|
State: Incarcerated at California State Prison, Centinela
|Conviction(s)||Federal: July 31, 1992|
State: June 25, 1998
|Criminal charge||Federal: Arson|
State: First-degree murder, arson
|Penalty||Federal: 30 years|
State: Life plus 21 years (nine years vacated on March 15, 2000)
|Date||October 10, 1984|
|December 4, 1991|
|Imprisoned at||California State Prison, Centinela|
John Leonard Orr (born April 26, 1949) is an American former firefighter, novelist, and convicted arsonist. Orr was the fire captain and arson investigator for the Glendale Fire Department in Southern California. He was convicted of serial arson and four counts of murder. Orr had originally wanted to be a police officer, but had failed the entrance exam; instead he became a fire investigator and career fire officer. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Los Angeles was plagued by a series of fires that cost millions of dollars in damages and claimed four lives. Orr was found to be the cause of most of those fires. During his arson spree, Orr was given the nickname The Pillow Pyro by arson investigators due to the location of where fires were set inside shops.
His modus operandi was to set fires using an incendiary timing-device, usually comprising a lit cigarette, three matches wrapped in ruled yellow writing paper and secured by a rubber band, in stores while they were open and populated. He would also set small fires often in the grassy hills, in order to draw firefighters, leaving fires set in more congested areas unattended.
1984 South Pasadena fire
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 were killed: a two-year-old child, his grandmother, a 26-year old mother of two, and a 17-year-old employee. 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, Orr, as an arson investigator, insisted that the cause was arson.
Investigations later showed that the fire started in highly-flammable polyurethane products, which caught fire very quickly, causing the fire to flashover very rapidly. After his arrest in 1991 and subsequent conviction of arson for a series of other fires not related to the 1984 Ole's fire, Orr was charged with arson after forensic re-evaluation of the case, circumstantial evidence and a highly detailed description of a similar fire in his novel Points of Origin that bore several striking similarities with the real-life 1984 fire. Orr was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1998.
In January 1987, a convention for arson investigators from California was held in the city of Fresno. During and after the convention, several suspicious fires were set in Bakersfield. This, combined with the recovery of a single unmatched fingerprint left on a piece of notebook paper as part of a time-delay incendiary device, led Captain Marvin G. Casey of the Bakersfield Fire Department (BFD) to suspect that an arson investigator from the Los Angeles area was responsible for these arsons.
During March 1989, another series of arsons were committed along the California coast in close conjunction with a conference of arson investigators in Pacific Grove, California. By comparing the list of attendees from the Fresno conference with the list of attendees at the Pacific Grove conference, Casey was able to create a short list of ten suspects. Orr was on Casey's short list, but everyone on this short list was cleared of suspicion when their fingerprints were compared with the fingerprint that Casey had recovered from the piece of notebook paper found at one of the arson crime scenes.
In late 1990 and early 1991, another series of arson fires broke out in southern California, this time in and around the Los Angeles metropolitan area. As a result, a large task force, nicknamed the Pillow Pyro Task Force (a reference to the arson fires set in pillows) was formed to apprehend the arsonist. On March 29, 1991, Tom Campuzanno of the Los Angeles Arson Task Force circulated a flier at a meeting of the Fire Investigators Regional Strike Team (FIRST), an organization formed by a group of smaller cities in and around Los Angeles County that did not have their own staff of arson investigators. The flier described the modus operandi of the suspected serial arsonist in the Los Angeles area. Scott Baker of the California State Fire Marshal's Office was at that meeting and told Campuzanno about the series of arsons investigated by Casey and about Casey's suspicions that the perpetrator was an arson investigator from the Los Angeles area. Consequently, Campuzanno and two of his colleagues met with Casey, obtained a copy of the fingerprint that Casey had recovered, and this time matched it to Orr on April 17, 1991, with the help of improved fingerprint technology. By cross-referencing the print with a database of all past applicants for law enforcement posts in Los Angeles County, they discovered that the print was an exact match to Orr's left ring finger.
Orr was then investigated and watched for several months. In May 1991 he discovered a tracking device hidden by authorities in his vehicle, but he was apparently never aware of a tracking device later installed in his city vehicle that November. A federal grand jury handed down an indictment, and after Orr was present at a suspicious fire he was arrested December 4.
On July 31, 1992 a federal jury in Fresno convicted Orr of three counts of arson, while acquitting him on two other counts. Federal Judge Oliver Wanger sentenced Orr to 30 years in prison. However, Orr still maintains his innocence, notwithstanding his subsequent guilty plea on March 24, 1993, to three more counts of arson in Los Angeles after reaching a plea agreement that saw him paroled from federal prison in 2002. He took the plea deal when it became apparent that he could not afford to mount a defense and stood little chance at trial.
On November 21, 1994; state prosecutors in Los Angeles indicted Orr on four counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances and 21 counts of arson for a string of fires stretching from 1984 to 1990. The lead prosecutor on the case, Mike Cabral, opted to seek the death penalty in order to ensure that Orr would spend the rest of his life in prison. He made an off-the-record offer to Orr–if Orr accepted a sentence of life without parole and confessed all of his acts of arson in open court dating to his youth, Cabral would take the death penalty off the table. Orr turned the offer down out of hand.
On June 25, 1998, a jury in a California state court convicted Orr on all four murder charges and all but one of the arson counts. That arson count, for setting a fire in the Warner Bros. backlot, was subsequently dismissed at the request of the prosecution. When asked to sentence Orr to the death penalty, the same jury split eight to four in favor. The presiding judge sentenced Orr to four concurrent terms of life without parole for murder, plus an additional 21 years in prison for arson. The state sentence ran consecutively with his federal sentence for arson.
On March 15, 2000, a California appeals court vacated nine years of his state sentence, finding that the burning of homes in the College Hills blaze had only been incidental to his objective of starting a brush fire. It left the remainder of the sentence untouched, all but assuring that Orr will die in prison. Orr began his state sentence upon his release from federal custody in 2002. Orr is currently serving his life sentence at California State Prison, Centinela. His name does not appear in the California Department of Corrections inmate database. This suggests he is being held under an alias, which would not be unusual for a former law enforcement officer.
Some arson investigators and an FBI criminal profiler have deemed Orr to be possibly one of the worst American serial arsonists of the 20th century. Federal ATF agent Mike Matassa believes that Orr set nearly 2,000 fires between 1984 and 1991. Furthermore, arson investigators determined that after Orr was arrested, the number of brush fires in the nearby foothill areas decreased by over ninety percent.
Orr's daughter Lori, who later became a motivational speaker, testified on behalf of the defense at the trial and her testimony prevented him from receiving the death penalty. After maintaining her father's innocence for years, she eventually came to believe he was guilty and broke off all contact with him.
Orr's story was chronicled by bestselling true crime author Joseph Wambaugh in a book titled Fire Lover. On several occasions, film and television have also presented the story of Orr's arson activities and eventual arrest and criminal conviction. An episode of the PBS science series Nova titled "Hunt for the Serial Arsonist" (aired November 14, 1995) chronicled his story. In addition, the investigation that led to Orr's arrest and conviction was recounted on the episode "Diary of a Serial Arsonist" of the A&E Network's true crime series Cold Case Files and also on an episode of Casefile True Crime Podcast. Most notably, a film titled Point of Origin starring Ray Liotta as John Orr was released by HBO in 2002. The film's title is a reference to Orr's novel, which tells the story of a fireman who is also a serial arsonist. Arson investigators believe the book chronicles real acts of arson due to similarities with fires they believe Orr himself had set. Orr states the novel is a work of fiction and has no relation to any actual events. In an interview, defending his manuscript, Orr expressly stated: "The character of Aaron Stiles was a composite of arsonists I arrested." However, Aaron Stiles is also an anagram for I set L.A. arson. In 2004, he was profiled in the Forensic Files episode, Point of Origin, the same title used in the HBO film.
In 2019, his story was recounted on Investigation Discovery's Deadly Secrets, in the episode "The Fire Inside," and Oxygen's A Lie To Die For, in the episode, "The Heat Of Deceit."
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- Janet Maslin (2002-05-20). ""Books of the Times; A Firefighter Unable to Resist the Flame" - NY Times, May 20, 2002". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-07.
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- Frank Girardot; Lori Orr Kovach (2018). Burned: Pyromania, Murder and A Daughter's Nightmare. WildBlue Press. ISBN 9781947290570.
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- "Arson: The Scorched-Earth Obsession - Newsweek Magazine, November 5, 2007.
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- Court TV - The Firestarter - John Orr - In depth coverage with video, documents, and annotated links.
- Inside the Mind of a Serial Arsonist- The Profiling of John Leonard Orr - An article discussing the story of John Orr and how the FBI profiles serial arsonists, as well as a section on the similarities between serial arsonists and serial killers and how fire investigators can use their profiles to an advantage.