From Joseph Wambaugh, the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of such classics as The Onion Field and The Choirboys, comes the extraordinary story of the chase for the “Pillow Pyro,” led by one ambitious firefighter.
Growing up in Los Angeles, John Orr idolized law enforcement. However, after being rejected by both the LAPD and LAFD, he settled for a position with the Glendale Fire Department. There, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a fire captain and one of Southern California’s best-known and most respected arson investigators. But Orr led another, unseen life, one that included womanizing and an insatiable thirst for recognition.
While Orr busted a slew of petty arsonists, there was one serial criminal he could not track down. Nothing was safe from the so-called Pillow Pyro’s obsession. Homes, retail stores, and fields of dry brush all went up in flames. His handiwork led to millions of dollars worth of property damage and the deaths of four innocent bystanders. But after years of evading the police, he made a mistake—one that would turn Orr’s life upside down.
The Washington Post raves, “When [Joseph Wambaugh] talks about the culture of cops versus the culture of firemen, we get no speculation, only hard-earned details.” Based on meticulous research, interviews, case records, and thousands of pages of court transcripts, Fire Lover is Wambaugh at his best.
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About the Author
Since then Wambaugh has continued writing about the LAPD. He has been credited with a realistic portrayal of police officers, showing them not as superheroes but as men struggling with a difficult job, a depiction taken mainstream by television’s Police Story, which Wambaugh helped create in the mid-1970s. In addition to novels, Wambaugh has written nonfiction, winning a special Edgar Award for 1974’s The Onion Field, an account of the longest criminal trial in California history. His most recent work is the novel Hollywood Moon (2010).
The son of a policeman, Joseph Wambaugh (b. 1937) began his writing career while a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. He joined the LAPD in 1960 after three years in the Marine Corps, and rose to the rank of detective sergeant before retiring in 1974. His first novel, The New Centurions (1971), was a quick success, drawing praise for its realistic action and intelligent characterization, and was adapted into a feature film starring George C. Scott. He followed it up with The Blue Knight (1972), which was adapted into a mini-series starring William Holden and Lee Remick. Since then Wambaugh has continued writing about the LAPD. He has been credited with a realistic portrayal of police officers, showing them not as superheroes but as men struggling with a difficult job, a depiction taken mainstream by television’s Police Story, which Wambaugh helped create in the mid-1970s. In addition to novels, Wambaugh has written nonfiction, winning a special Edgar Award for 1974’s The Onion Field, an account of the longest criminal trial in California history. His most recent work is the novel Hollywood Moon (2010).
Read an Excerpt
A True Story
By Joseph Wambaugh
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2002 Joseph Wambaugh
All rights reserved.
South Pasadena is a small city of some twenty thousand 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 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 Ole's Home Center on Fair Oaks Avenue, an eighteen-thousand-square-foot building in a strip mall, three blocks from the town's only fire station.
At 7:30 P.M. that October evening, a middle-aged couple, Billy and Ada Deal, and their two-and-a-half-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 seventeen-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 at some other place than 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, which was between the north and south 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 fifty-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 8:00 P.M. he heard something over the PA 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.
Jim 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 Carolyn Krause.
She answered, "I'll check my area!" And then she rushed through the hardware department looking for stragglers.
Still, nobody was alarmed. Nobody had seen any fire, just that column of dark smoke. In fact, Jim Obdam found two people browsing in hardware, looking at tools. He told them to leave the store at once.
And then he encountered a middle-aged woman with a small child in a shopping cart. Ada Deal was looking at merchandise on an end cap at the foot of the aisle.
"We've got to leave the store," Jim Obdam told her. "But don't be alarmed."
Ada Deal put some merchandise into the cart behind her grandson, Matthew. Jim Obdam walked hurriedly down the north aisle toward the main part of the store, but when he looked around, Ada Deal hadn't started to follow, so he went back.
"You should probably leave the cart here," he said, more forcefully. "Take the child and let's go!"
And then he headed toward the front of the store, assuming that Ada Deal and her grandson were following behind him. He was near the north fire door, about two aisles away, when he looked back toward that column of smoke. But it was no longer a cloud. It was a wall of flame. It was bright orange and raging. Then he noticed the north fire door had closed. That steel door had dropped down.
When he turned to look for the woman and child he heard a popping noise and the lights went out. And Jim Obdam suddenly felt alone and trapped.
A bell chimed in the lumber area: "Ting ting ting." That's how Billy Deal described it. And there was an unintelligible announcement. He thought that the store was closing so he looked at his watch. It was 8:05 P.M. Yes, it must be a closing announcement, he thought.
But then a peculiar thing happened. A young man on a forklift jumped off the vehicle and cried, "My God, it's a fire!" And he took off running.
Billy looked around. He couldn't see what the young man was getting excited about. There was nothing. But suddenly some people ran through the fire door and yelled, "Get outta here! There's a fire!"
Billy peered through that door, that fireproof barricade, toward the west side of the store, and he saw a big cloud of smoke in the center of the space. He ran toward the south fire door searching for Ada and Matthew, and when he got there the cloud behind him had turned into a wall, a wall of very black smoke.
Billy Deal screamed, "Ada!"
He ran toward the entrance doors that he and his wife and grandson had passed through a half hour before, and saw that a fire engine was arriving.
In the darkness, Jim Obdam battled panic. He was all alone in the smoke and heat. He knew there were steps to an emergency exit in the back stockroom. He couldn't see, and hoped he could feel the steps, but his thoughts were fragmenting, and he began praying. Then he remembered there was a fire exit in the hardware department in the far northwest corner, if he could only find the far northwest corner.
He staggered to the back wall and duck-walked his way along, feeling the wall and feeling merchandise, feeling anything to guide him. He was holding his breath, low to the floor, and he dropped even lower, desperate for the same oxygen that the fire craved.
He was just about to give up. He couldn't go any farther. When he suddenly realized he was six feet from the emergency exit, he felt an energy rush and he lunged, pushing the bars, activating the alarm. And he was out.
But though the hungry flames couldn't reach him, the trailing heat did. He was outside, but he felt as though he were still inside. It was hot and he was burning. His arms, neck, and ears all suffered second- and third-degree burns.
Jim Obdam, covered head to foot with soot, ran toward the front of the store, anxious to call his parents to tell them he was all right, but when he touched his hand to his burning wrist, the flesh fell off onto the pavement.
An employee in the electrical department, Anthony Colantuano, had been at his workbench at 8:04 P.M. when a voice screamed "Fire!" He spotted a fellow employee and a few customers rushing down an aisle toward the south fire door and he stopped them, herding them toward the fire exit in the electrical department.
"Come with me!" he yelled. "The door is over here!"
As they exited the store, he looked back and it was like wading through surf when a mountainous breaker is roiling toward you. But this wave was made of fire. It was heaving and cresting and roaring.
When he later described it he said, "It was coming, coming fast toward us. The flame. The fire. Everything."
They were literally blown outside by a flashover, the instant burn of gasses and smoke, when the carbon that is smoke burns hotter than one thousand degrees and the entire contents of a room erupt in flame and no living thing survives. People, smoke, flames, merchandise, everything, were blasted through the door into the cool autumn night.
The six men of Engine Company 81 had been just settling in front of the TV, waiting for the start of the World Series game between the San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers, when they heard the police dispatch a "possible 904," the police term for a fire. They were still sliding the pole when the alarm bell went off and they figured it was more than a "possible."
Since Ole's Home Center was only three blocks from the station the fire company arrived in a few minutes. The fire captain in charge, William Eisele, didn't think there'd be much to this one. There was no glow or header of smoke above the roof line indicating a major structure fire. All he saw was some haze in the air. He thought it might be a trash Dumpster or maybe a vehicle fire.
But when the firefighters leaped from their engine Captain Eisele saw flames rolling out the southwest door. When he got close to that door the fire actually hissed at him. The flames emitted very little smoke and had a bluish-green tint from the merchandise — polyurethane foam, they would later learn — that produced a strange sound, the hissing.
The firefighters prepared to attack those flames, only three feet off the floor but lapping out the door, hungry for oxygen, lunging against the overhanging facade, climbing up.
Never in his fifty-four years had Billy Deal been so thirsty. He was parched. "Just like I was in a desert," he would later say.
Maybe Ada and Matthew had gotten out some other way, he kept telling himself. He actually made an attempt to enter the building again before being driven back. Then he joined the gathering crowd of onlookers as neighboring engine companies neared, honking and wailing.
Billy plodded on, trying to avoid the helmeted firefighters in turnout gear who were pulling hose and adjusting their breathing apparatus. But he couldn't bear it another moment, the incredible thirst. He staggered into a nearby restaurant and asked for a drink of water, but he was told that they didn't give free drinks; he'd have to buy something. So Billy bought a Coke and poured it down his throat.
And then he spotted young Jim Obdam, carbon covered, running in front of the store, toward other huddled employees in the parking lot who shouted to him, overjoyed to see him alive.
And Billy thought, Well, he got out, didn't he? Maybe Ada and Matthew did too. Maybe.
Billy ran to the fire captain and cried out that he had escaped but his wife and grandson were trapped, maybe only ten feet inside the door.
"Did the fire doors roll down?" the fire captain yelled.
Billy didn't know what a fire door was, but he said, "No, I didn't see any doors close."
Eisele later reported that he had all the confidence in the world that if somebody was only ten feet inside that door he could go in and get them out, so he said to Billy, "Don't worry, we'll take care of that!"
And then Eisele gathered his firefighters for a rescue attack. He ordered that they pull three folds of two-and-a-half-inch hose, each fold being fifty feet long, in a try to make a quick knockdown and rescue. They charged the line with water and made their approach.
The fog nozzle was like a giant shower head designed to break up water particles and consume BTUs, drawing the heat from a fire. Because fire needs oxygen, heat, and fuel to survive, the fog nozzle was meant to disrupt the fire triangle by turning heat into steam, in effect, shooting steam at the fire to lower the temperature. It was all logical, very logical.
So after sending his sixth firefighter to find and shut down utilities, especially natural gas, the captain and his men entered through the southwest door, where suddenly they were looking into a blinding orange inferno.
They tried to attack under those flames, vivid orange but with a weird blue-green tint, but they only got a few feet inside. The fire had obviously flashed over. There were no aisles, there were no people, there was nothing but fire. Everything was aflame. But now came an eerie sound commingled with the hiss of the burning foam. The battery-powered display smoke detectors were going off, one after another. And the firefighters could hear high-pitched squeals within the flames, like animals burning alive.
Captain Eisele yelled at the nozzle man to hit the Celotex ceiling tiles, but the 225-gallon nozzle created so much steam in the superheated air, emitted so much nozzle pressure, that it blasted the firefighters back out the door.
While other engines were still racing to Ole's Home Center, Eisele ordered a one-and-three-fourths-inch attack line to be brought to another entry, but learned that the fire doors had in fact rolled down and could not be pried open. The captain sent a man up to ventilate the roof because the fire had not burned through yet. When the firefighter cut the hole, flames shot into the sky, pulling heat with them in a chimney effect, but it was too little, too late. It was about seven minutes into the fire and the entire roof was perilously threatened, so Eisele had to order his firefighter back down.
And where in the hell was Engine 41, he wondered, yelling into the radio. And why did he hear an engine being radio-dispatched in the wrong direction?
What Captain Eisele didn't know at the time was that there was another, nearly simultaneous fire at Von's Market, only blocks from Ole's Home Center. He would later say that it was unheard of: two South Pasadena fires in close proximity? In retail establishments, during business hours? Unheard of!
It was indeed a bizarre evening for firefighters in that part of the San Gabriel Valley. Prior to the Ole's fire and the fire at Von's Market, there had been a fire in nearby Pasadena, at Albertson's Market on East Sierra Madre Boulevard, about seven miles from Ole's. Arson investigator Scott McClure had arrived at Albertson's at 6:45 P.M. and met with a battalion chief for a quick briefing.
McClure had found the point of origin easily enough, in the grocery racks piled high with bags of potato chips. At 7:45 P.M. McClure called dispatch and requested that they send arson investigator John Orr from nearby Glendale Fire Department, probably the most accomplished arson sleuth within the several fire departments that rendered mutual aid in the area.
John Orr showed up very quickly, and he explained to McClure about the volatility of potato chips, that the oils in the chips and the bag material are highly combustible, a sack of solid fuel. John Orr told McClure that in his opinion, the Albertson's fire was deliberately set, as is usually the case with fires in retail stores during business hours when customers are present. When McClure later finished his investigation and returned to his car, he heard radio reports of the disaster that was unfolding seven miles away at Ole's Home Center and he sped toward the scene.
When he arrived at Ole's John Orr was already there.
After he'd ordered his firefighter off the roof of Ole's, and after the interior attack was aborted, Captain Eisele found John Orr standing at the rear of his engine carrying a thirty-five-millimeter camera.
"John! What're you doing here?" Eisele asked.
"Passing by," John Orr said. "Do you mind if I shoot some pictures?"
Eisele wished that Orr had turnout gear in his car, but since the arson investigator was in civilian clothes and hadn't offered to help, the fire captain assumed he did not.
"Help yourself, I've got work to do," Eisele said.
And while Eisele awaited the arrival of engine companies, and while Jim Obdam was led to the back of an ambulance, and while Billy Deal stood in front of Ole's Home Center, where he would remain for twenty-two hours, and while John Orr shot film of the conflagration, the roof caved in and a geyser of flame and sparks exploded high into the night.
In the parking lot of Ole's, the sister-in-law of Carolyn Krause, who was a community-service officer for the Glendale Police Department, saw a blue Dodge that belonged to the Glendale arson unit, and standing by the car were John Orr and his partner, police officer Dennis Wilson.
After checking in vain at the triage area for her missing sister-in-law, Karen Krause approached the arson investigators and told them that Carolyn Krause was missing.
John Orr told her that they would keep an eye out for Carolyn, but that until the fire was suppressed nobody could get near the building except the firefighters — the implication being that a search for bodies would be hours away.
Karen Krause stayed as the rest of the family arrived, and they remained for several hours. Waiting.
Excerpted from Fire Lover by Joseph Wambaugh. Copyright © 2002 Joseph Wambaugh. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
2. The Wanna-be,
3. The Big Show,
5. Pool of Fire,
6. The Fingerprint,
7. Bird Dog,
8. Points of Origin,
9. The Prisoner,
10. Fire Lover,
14. Strange Fish,
15. Mary Duggan,
16. The Fire Monster,
18. Uncharged Acts,
19. The Manuscript,
20. Death House,
22. The Debate,
23. The Quest,
Burning Down the House
From the May/June 2002 issue of Book magazine.
After 33 years of writing about pedophiles, cop killers and rapists, Joseph Wambaugh -- a former Los Angeles Police Department detective whose first novel, 1971's The New Centurions, elevated the pulpy procedural to a more literary form -- needed a break. "I thought I was retired, or just tired," says Wambaugh, 65. But that was before he came across the case of John Orr, a California arson investigator-turned-serial arsonist, who is currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years.
Wambaugh turned this bizarre story into Fire Lover, his first book in six years. For the bestselling author of 11 critically acclaimed novels and 4 nonfiction books, it's the 5th true-crime exposé, but it's his first to focus on the fire department rather than the police.
"This case is truly a situation of fact being stranger than fiction," says Mike Matassa, the lead investigator at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who assisted Wambaugh with research after helping to crack the case. (Orr was eventually apprehended after leaving a fingerprint at one of his crime scenes.)
Wambaugh recalls seeing newspaper reports of pyromaniacal activities that would later prove to be Orr's -- the U.S. government calls him the most prolific arsonist of the 20th century -- but the writer didn't become interested in the case until well into the arsonist's trial. It took a tape of an episode of Nova about the case -- sent to Wambaugh by a fan -- to kindle his interest. He started researching the story and got in touch with Matassa. "I helped to fill in the gaps from the official court records on the prosecution and give him a feel for what was happening day to day in the investigation," Matassa says. "I put him in touch with the key figures so he could develop a sense of what they were like as individuals."
Wambaugh reached out to firemen who had fought Orr's blazes, his former partners in arson investigation, and relatives of the victims. (One particular fire -- which Wambaugh discusses in the book's opening chapter -- claimed four lives.) But the single most illuminating element may have been the firebug's unpublished novel, Points of Origin, which was made public during the trial. In it, an arson investigator is pitted against a serial arsonist who finds bizarre connections between sex and fire -- a conceit that ultimately gave rise to the title of Wambaugh's book.
Wambaugh says that serial arsonists are among the least understood of all serial offenders. ("Only a handful have ever been captured, let alone profiled," he points out.) But after decades of exposing the inside of police departments, he has now succeeded in shedding light on the equally complex world of firefighters and fire investigators -- and along the way he's provided insight into the passion for committing arson. (Adam Dunn)