The Arson Investigator Who Set Deadly Fires

“I’m bored with knitting. I’ve taken up arson.” —Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry

In A Nutshell

In the 1980s and early ’90s, southern California experienced a spate of arson fires, including a blaze at a hardware store that killed four people. In a bizarre turn, the culprit turned out to be a fire captain and arson investigator named John Orr. The final circumstantial nail in Orr’s coffin was the fact that he’d written a novel called Points of Origin—the story of a fireman who commits arson.

The Whole Bushel

Sixty-four-year-old John Orr is behind bars for arson and mass murder. This in itself would be horrifying enough without considering Orr’s history. This man set hundreds, if not thousands, of destructive fires and was an expert at burning things down—he was a fire captain and arson investigator.

In October 1984, Ole’s Home Center in South Pasadena, California burned to the ground. Four people were killed. Investigators deemed the fire an accidental electrical blaze, but fire captain John Orr was certain that it had been a case of arson. He ought to know; he’d set the fire himself. Over the course of a decade, he was responsible for hundreds of such cases, burning homes and parcels of wilderness. He was even known to set fires in remote locations to draw emergency personnel away from the big stores he truly enjoyed setting alight. The mysterious arsonist was known as the “Pillow Pyro,” so called for his tendency to torch bedding, which often contained highly flammable polyurethane.

Orr’s campaign of terror might have continued for decades more, if it were not for his own hubris. Whenever arson investigators held conventions, fires would follow, leading them to consider the suspect was one of their own. Orr even published articles about firebugs. In an ultimately strange twist, he wrote a novel called Points of Origin, a bizarrely autobiographical tale of a fireman who is also an arsonist.

The investigator was tied to so many fires that his vehicle was eventually fitted with a tracking device by authorities, and after being present at yet another blaze, he was finally taken into custody on December 4, 1991. HBO produced a television movie about his exploits called Point of Origin where he was played by Ray Liotta, and in 2002, true crime writer Joseph Wambaugh published Fire Lover, the story of Orr’s deadly obsession. Although he continues to proclaim his innocence, John Orr was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: A Firefighter Unable to Resist the Flame
Arson Investigator-Novelist Is Charged With Setting Fires
Inside the Mind of the Serial Arsonist