John Leonard Orr
the Pillow Pyro
John Leonard Orr
Throughout the mid-1980’s and early-1990’s, Los Angeles was plagued by a series of fires which claimed the lives of four people in 1984, and cost the state millions of dollars in damages. Investigators concluded the arsonist, who they nicknamed the Pillow Pyro, started the fires by using incediary timing-devices that were left inside stores during daytime when populated with customers and employees. The Pillow Pyro Taskforce was set-up and detectives suspected the arsonist was possibly one of their own, because the perpetrator displayed an intimate knowledge of setting fires. Fingerprints recovered from one of the crime scenes was compared to several arson investigators in 1989, without success. By 1991, fingerprint technology had advanced to the stage where a positive matched was confirmed, revealing the suspect’s identity which would shock even veteran police investigators, who suspected his involvement in almost 2,000 fires, making the Pillow Pyro the most prolific arsonist in American criminal history.
California is no stranger to fires, and with such windy, dry and often hot weather conditions from spring through to late autumn, there can be moderate to devastating wildfires which can cause immeasurable damage to life, property and nature. Each year the “Devil Winds”, as the Sanat Anas are called, can turn the entire region into a tinderbox. During the mid-1980’s, a series of fires began to plague Los Angeles in Southern California, which caused millions of dollars worth of damage. On 10 October 1984, a large fire broke out at an Ole’s Home Center hardware store located in a shopping plaza in South Pasadena, California.
By the time fire crews arrived at the scene the building was almost completely destroyed and four people had died in the blaze. Those who perished were 50-year-old Ada Deal and her grandson, 2-year-old Matthew Troidl, 26-year-old mother-of-two Carolyn Kraus and Jimmy Cetina, a 17-year-old employee. The next day arson investigators across Southern California attended the scene and concluded unanimously that the cause of the fire was attributed to an electrical fault. All except John Leonard Orr, who disagreed with that finding and expressed his frustration, insisting the cause was deliberate and claimed they were dealing with an arsonist.
Orr was the former fire captain and arson investigator for the Glendale Fire Department in Southern California. Growing up, he always wanted to join the police department, but failed the entrance exam and instead became a career fire officer and arson investigator. He would often arrive at the scene of a fire, stroke his moustache whilst looking up at the sky and then point to an area, declaring it to be the point of origin. Considered an expert by his peers with an uncanny ability to determine the cause of deliberate cases of arson, he was right more often than not about the circumstances of where the fire began and how it spread so quickly. The findings of the hardware store investigation showed that the fire caught very quickly, less than five minutes after starting, and spread across the entire Pasadena hardware store in highly-flammable polyurethane products which caused the fire the flashover rapidly.
More fires followed at an alarming rate, that were soon suspected to be the work of the same individual, primarily because of the numerous similarities. The arsonist used incendiary timing-devices, which involved a lit cigarette that ignited three matches wrapped in lined yellow writing paper, which was secured by a rubber band. These devices were usually deposited in densely populated linen stores and left to slowly burn. The subsequent fire would spread quickly through the linen pillowcases resulting in uncontrollable fires which caused devastation. Other smaller fires were then started in open grassy hills to draw firefighters away from those set in congested areas, which would be left unattended.
One particular fire destroyed a piece of television history, when a blaze was started at a Warner Brothers lot, which burnt down the set of the “The Waltons” television show. Fire Captain Orr was active with the first investigation team and attended the majority of these arson investigations. He was able to conclude how each one had been started, and where, and was always on hand to talk to reporters after a fire broke out, or reassure the public that his investigation was doing everything to catch the culprit.
Orr would often write articles for magazines about the recent rash of fires, and when a fire broke out he often spoke on local television with a clam and experienced voice, explaining his findings to the citizens of Southern California. In January 1987, a convention for arson investigators from all over California was held in the city of Fresno. During the meeting an unusual number of suspicious fires broke out in and around both Fresno and further south in Bakersfield. The first such incident was started in a Fresno drugstore, when a sleeping bag display was set alight, whilst across the street another fire engulfed a fabric shop.
In the nearby town of Tulare, another drugstore and fabric shop went up in flames, followed by a fire which broke out in a display of dried flowers in a Bakersfield crafts shop. Investigators found the charred remnants of what appeared to be a simple incendiary device of a filter-tipped cigarette and matches, all held together with a rubber band, the tell-tale sign of an arsonist they dubbed the Pillow Pyro, because of his fondness for setting fires in fabric shops.
One of the devices found was partially wrapped in yellow paper, and Captain Marvin Casey, of the Bakersfield Fire Department, held suspicions that it was the work of one of the experts attending the convention. But without further evidence Casey could not prove his theory. In March 1989, another meeting of arson experts in Pacific Grove, California, coincided with an outbreak of fires in the towns between the site of the conference and Glendale. Fire Captain Casey investigated these fires and found that the same strange, yet simple device of cigarettes, matched and yellow lined paper had been used to start the fires. However, this time he was able to locate a small additional clue, that of a partial fingerprint. Acting on his hunch that the arsonist was a fellow fire expert, Casey compared the list of attendees from the previous Fresno conferece with the list of atendees at the newly held Pacific Grove conference, and was able to compile a short list of ten possible suspects. Amongst the names on the list was John Leonard Orr, the Glendale fire Captain.
The fingerprints of those on the list was compared with the fingerprint recovered by Casey from the piece of notebook paper found at one of the arson crime scenes, and all ten suspects were cleared of suspicion. Orr continued with his career, and uncanny ability to sniff out the root cause of accidental fires and deliberate cases of arson. In an article in the local paper dated 5 July 1990, he told how he had sacrificed his Independence Day holiday for the 11th year in row, so he could patrol the streets, looking for what he described as “firecracker scofflaws”, who flouted the law. “‘You just drive around the park,’ he said, rolling to a stop as he peered out an open window, and listen,'” as observed by a journalist from the Los Angeles Times.
By the late 1990’s and early 1991, another series of fires began in Southern California, this time centred in and around the Los Angeles metropolitan area. In response to this, a large task force known as the Pillow Pyro Task Force was formed to identify and apprehend the arsonist. Tom Campuzanno of the Los Angeles Arson Task Force, attended a meeting on 29 March 29, 1991, of the Fire Investigators Regional Strike Team (FIRST), which had been formed by smaller cities in an around Los Angeles County that did not have their own staff of arson investigators. There he handed out a flier which described the modus operandi of the suspected Pillow Pyro serial arsonist who was responsible for the Los Angeles fires.
At that same meeting was Scott Baker of the California State Fire Marshal’s Office, who told Campuzanno about the series of arsons investigated by Casey. Campuzanno and two of his colleagues met with Casey, who shared his belief that the perpetrator was an arson investigator from the Los Angeles area. He provided them with a copy of the fingerprint that he had recovered from one of the crime scenes, and Campuzanno used improved fingerprint technology to locate a suspect. On April 17, 1991, the print was matched to the Glendale arson expert John Leonard Orr. He would now be the focus of an intense investigation.
He was placed under investigation for several months, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabbaco and Firearms placed a tracking device on his car, in an attempt to catch him in the act. In May 1991, Orr discovered the tracking device hidden in his vehicle, but he did not become aware of a second tracking device later installed in November 1991 inside his city vehicle. By December, investigators had accumulated enough evidence to warrant and arrest, when Orr was present at a suspicious fire. A federal grand jury handed down an indictment, and he was arrest on December 4, 1991.
During a search of his home investigators found a 350-page manuscript for a novel Orr had written, which read almost like a confession. He had titled it “Points of Origin: Playing with Fire”, which was the story of an arsonist named Aaron Stiles who also worked as an arson investigator. One of fires in Orr’s book had taken place at a K-Mart shopping centre, the same place where the Pillow Pyro had burnt down. Stiles preferred incendiary device of choice was made of a cigarette and matches held together with rubber bands, exactly the same as those found at the real Californian fires. With the “Points of Origin” evidence, however circumstantial, investigators had reason to suspect that Orr was responsible.
Orr’s defence attorney’s decried the notion of using a work of fiction for evidence as ludicrous, however, sections of the book were used during his 1992 trial. Of great interest to the prosecution was the author’s inclusion of a fire started in a department store called Cal’s, in which four people, including a grandmother and her 2-year-old grandson perished. That particular detail of the story mirrored a real fire from 1984, at Ole’s Home Centre in South Pasadena, in which four people had died, including 50-year-old Ada Deal and her grandson, 2-year-old Matthew Troidl, which had originally been ruled an accident.
The defence read out a position of his manuscript which read, “Aaron wanted the Cal’s fire to be called arson. He loved the inadvertent attention he derived from the newspaper coverage and hated it when he wasn’t properly ‘recognized'”. Orr wrote, “The deaths were blotted out of his mind. It wasn’t his fault. Just stupid people acting as stupid people do.” Orr’s defence attorney’s Peter Giannini and Edward Rucker argued that the South Pasadena fire was ruled an electrical blaze and dismissed Orr’s manuscript as “pure fiction”, comparing it with the 1991 movie “Backdraft”, which had also been written by a firefighter.
Giannini presented evidence from a UCLA forensic psychiatrist who said Orr was driven to torch buildings by a compulsion that he was powerless to control. His lawyers said, “He had no choice in the matter.” Yet more damning evidence was presented from his book. Orr wrote in his manuscript that the ficitional grandmother was going to take her toddler grandson out for mint chocolate chip ice cream after their trip to the hardware store. This detail turned out to be true, and was known only to the child’s grandfather, who was present at the store during the fire and only narrowly escaped.
It was concluded that Orr must have been in close proximity to the fire to have known such details. In his defence, Orr said he had based the arson incidents of the novel on real life cases in which he had investigated, but it was entirely fictional. The jury disagreed with this defence and found him guilty of murder in connection with the Ole’s fire. He was also found guilty of committing upwards of 20 other crimes, including setting a blazing fire in the College Hills section of Glendale, which destroy 67 residential homes.
At his federal trial, John Leonard Orr was convicted of three counts of arson in a five count indictment, and the Judge in that case sentenced him to three consecutive terms of ten years in prison. He continued to protest his innocence, despite his guilty plea on March 24, 1993, to three more counts of arson, including a 1990 fire at a Builders Emporium in North Hollywood, and two others near Atescadero in 1989. His guilty plea was pursuant to a plea bargain agreement, for an eight count indictment that would see him eligible for parole from federal prison in the year 2002. He was also ordered to pay $90,000 in restitution.
On June 26, 1998, a jury in a California state court convicted Orr of four counts of first-degree murder, in relation to the 1984 hardware store fire, with special circumstances in a 25 count indictment, deadlocking on only one of the 25 counts, which was subsequently dismissed at the request of the prosecution. As he had during five-week trial, 49-year-old Orr had show no emotion during the brief hearing, and had declined to address the court. He was facing the death penalty, however his daughter Lori had testified on behalf of the defence, and it was her testimony that prevented him from being sent to death row.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Cabral and Sandra Flannery presented evidence that showed Orr had engaged in what they described as a distinctive pattern of criminal behaviour, in which he set fires during daytime hours in polyfoam materials in the rear of occuid businesses and used a “signature” time-delay device. Cabral said, “the lesson that this case teaches us is that no one should be above suspicion when it comes to criminal activity.” Jurors were later deadlocked 8-4 in favour of the death penalty, and State law requires a death penalty recommendation to be unanimous. The same state court judge split eight to four in favor, and the judge in that prosecution, Robert J. Perry, said Orr’s crimes showed “Great violence and sophistication”, and sentenced him to life plus 20 years in prison without the possibility of parole. This sentence was to begin upon his release from Federal custody.
His 240-page paperback book “Points of Origin: Playing with Fire” was published on August 1, 2002, whilst Orr was behind bars, and has afforded detectives a rare insight into the possible motive behind the crimes, that being the sexual thrill of watching things burn. The main character in “Points of Origin”, Aaron Stiles, was a firefighter for whom the fixation of starting fires was more exciting than sex. Joseph Wambaugh wrote a book on the case, “Fire Lover”, and quipped that after reading Orr’s novel, the investigators of the Pillow Pyro Task Force concluded that you couldn’t find that many erections at the Playboy mansion on New Year’s Eve. Orr has consistently claimed the novel is a work of fiction, and has no relation to any real-life events. In an interview, Orr defended his manuscript, and expressly stated; “The character of Aaron Stiles was a composite of arsonists I arrested.”
With Orr’s arrest, arson investigators determined that the number of brush fires in the nearby foothill areas around Los Angeles had decreased by over ninety percent. Federal ATF agent Mike Matassa believes that Orr set nearly 2,000 fires between 1984 and 1991, and some arson investigators and an FBI criminal profiler have suspected Orr could possibly be one of the worst American serial arsonists of the 20th century. Investigator Scott Baker of the California Fire Marshall Office spoke of his disappointment with Orr, who he considered a once trusted fireman and declared, “He betrayed the honor of the brotherhood of the gals and the guys that’ll work in this career field.” Orr’s daughter Lori spent many years maintaining her father’s innocence, however she eventually realised his guilt and subsequently broke off all contact with him. John Leonard Orr, the Pillow Pyro, is currently serving his life sentence at California State Prison, Centinela.