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He Investigated Fires. And Set Them All Over California.

·5-min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

In April 1991, a manuscript titled Point of Origin made the literary-agency rounds. It told the story of a serial arsonist who derives great psychological and sexual satisfaction from igniting various types of conflagrations. The book, according to an accompanying letter penned by its author, was “a fact-based work that follows the pattern of an actual arsonist who has been setting serial fires in California over the past eight years. He has not been identified or apprehended. He probably will not be in the near future.” The novel did not find a taker. Yet shortly thereafter, it did attract national attention when it was discovered in the home of a man suspected of committing real-world crimes that eerily resembled those described in its pages.

[Spoilers Follow]

Host Kary Antholis’ new podcast Firebug revisits the hunt for that arsonist, and though it treats its narrative as a mystery, the identity of its culprit is well-known in true-crime circles: John Orr, the fire captain and famed arson investigator for the Glendale Fire Department. Orr’s saga has been the focus of numerous books and TV shows, as well as a 2002 HBO film starring Ray Liotta. Nonetheless, his guilt goes unmentioned in the first three episodes of Antholis’ series (which were all that was available at the time of this review). Instead, it details the string of terrifying fires that plagued California during the latter part of the 1980s, which left experts baffled, and which were only solved after shrewd investigators deduced that the individual behind the infernos was one of their own.

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Available now, Firebug begins its tale on Oct. 10, 1984, with Ole’s Home Center hardware store in South Pasadena going up in flames. The building’s roof quickly collapsed due to the blaze, and while most escaped unharmed (including employee Ruben Ayala, who relays his ordeal in an archival interview), four people did not, including a woman and her 2-year-old grandson. Anguished commentary from that boy’s other grandmother, who was in the parking lot when the establishment caught fire, hammers home the intense personal cost of such calamities. Compounding those survivors’ and loved ones’ grief, few conclusive answers were forthcoming about the cause and perpetrator of this disaster, which was deemed an accident by local police, much to the chagrin of new arson investigator Jim Allen.

As Allen recounts in Firebug, despite being a rookie, something smelled fishy about the Ole fire, and that hunch was supported by his partner and mentor Jim Orr, a decorated veteran who was respected throughout the community for his skill at analyzing scenes and, in particular, at studying flame patterns in order to determine a fire’s point of origin. In old interview clips (that aren’t presented as such, to maintain the series’ eventual bombshell about its fiend), Orr authoritatively states that the South Pasadena police force’s decision to classify the Ole tragedy as an accident was “totally bogus. Totally wrong. That was not an accidental fire.” Left unsaid, at least by host Antholis, is that Orr would know, since he was the one responsible for it.

Antholis revisits this and later catastrophic conflagrations via interviews with both investigators and individuals who narrowly avoided fiery death, all while juxtaposing those incidents with correlating passages from Point of Origin. Listening to that written tale, which concerns Aaron Stiles, an arsonist who gets palpable erotic pleasure from setting stuff ablaze, it’s impossible not to recognize the book as a thinly-veiled confession—one that, by explaining in detail its criminal author’s thought process, motivation, and methods, served as a veritable taunt to the world. It’s truth masquerading as fiction, and Orr’s attempt to sell this embellished mea culpa to publishers is the sort of insanely bold (and reckless) venture that one would normally expect to find in a cheesily over-the-top Hollywood thriller.

“We have to have the fire talk to us,” explains Orr about his investigative approach, and that process of recreating the past in search of revelation is also central to podcasts such as Firebug. Each episode of Antholis’ series boasts new conversations with those who barely survived their arson experiences, including a woman who briefly spoke to a suspicious individual upon finding her Lexus roasting in the alley behind her store, and another woman who barely exited a burning fabric store where, moments earlier, she had encountered a dead-eyed man in a monk’s robe who tried to give her a card that read, “I am death. I am hungry.” That latter 1987 episode soon proved central to the quest to stop this “trail of ashes,” since it and other similar fires took place during—and not far from—a Fresno arson investigators conference, thus suggesting to some, including California State Fire Marshall Scott Baker and Bakersfield Fire Department Captain Marvin Casey, that someone from that get-together was doing these destructive deeds.

Casey struck gold when, at a craft store fire scene, he recovered the arsonist’s incendiary device, which involved a cigarette that, when fully burned, would trigger a collection of matches tied together with a piece of paper and a coin (for weighting purposes). This indicated that the madman was possibly the “Coin Tosser” arsonist that had been sought in earlier crimes. Analysis of a discovered fingerprint didn’t initially lead to a hit, either in the criminal database or in a list of potential conference attendees who might have been traveling from Fresno to Los Angeles along the same path that the fires had been set. Yet later scrutiny of that same print would turn up a surprising match: Orr.

The investigation of Orr—which resulted in his December 1991 arrest and subsequent conviction—will undoubtedly be fodder for Firebug’s upcoming episodes. The sheer brazenness and deviousness of Orr’s conduct is only matched by his apparent heartlessness, as evidenced by a Point of Origin passage in which he blames his victims’ demises on their own incompetence for not escaping the fatal fires he set. He was, as Antholis’ series contends, an arrogant and cold-blooded criminal, as well as a smart one—although given the existence of his damning book, perhaps not smart enough to heed his own opinion that the only way arsonists are caught is “to make a major mistake somewhere along the line.”

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