A daughter’s love and trust were the last things he burned.
But before Lori Kovach Orr was singed by her father’s penchant for fire, real people and places met destructive and painful endings because of his devious designs.
Talk about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. John Leonard Orr was, for a time, an arson investigator. He was, for a much longer time, the most prolific serial arsonist of the 20th century.
Frank Girardot, a former editor at the Pasadena Star-News, first got to know the hidden John Orr while covering his trial for a 1984 fire set at Ole’s Home Center in South Pasadena. A fire which left the structure a pile of cinder that included the bodies of four innocent people.
Orr was convicted of the crime in 1998 and was looking at the death penalty were it not for the testimony of his daughter, Lori.
“It was pretty compelling,” Girardot explained in a Jan. 17 interview. “She told the jury that her dad was a hero. That there was no way he could have done any of these things and that it was horrible to think that she might lose him forever when there was a possibility that he was innocent.”
John Orr got a life sentence, Girardot continued writing and reporting, and Lori Orr went on with what was left of her life.
When Orr’s daughter was diagnosed with a mental illness, she contacted her father in jail and asked if there was a family history of such things. He was incensed and, ultimately, cut off relations with her. Orr began to reconsider the impassioned defense of her father she had made during the OIe’s fire trial.
Orr’s daughter had kept a diary throughout the trial. She was turning it into a book and approached a publisher, Girardot’s publisher, WildBlue Press. Girardot, who was the author of such books as “A Taste for Murder,” and “Betrayal in Blue,” received a call from the imprint.
“They said, ‘We think this is good for you,’ and I’m like, wow, I covered this trial, I remember her testimony,” he recalled. “So Lori and I hit it off and we think it’s a pretty good story.”
That story was helped along by Dr. Jekyll. The writing team contacted John Orr who cooperated fully, handing over his notes, his unpublished autobiography, and access to some 60,000 papers related to his crimes.
“He thought that he would end up being exonerated through the retelling of the story,” Girardot explained. “But the more you dig into it, the more you realize that John was a guy who showed one face to the world – hero firefighter – but wore another in private, that of an arsonist.”
To say Orr was tricky is to understate the matter. He was actually on the scene at the Ole’s fire, which was ruled an accident at the time. “It enraged him that they didn’t find the fire to be arson, so he made a fire almost exactly like it in Pasadena a couple of weeks later,” said Girardot.
Later, Orr took advantage of a warm June day in 1990, Santa Ana’s blowing hard, to start another conflagration in Glendale that destroyed 40 homes and damaged 60 more. That became known as the College Hills fire. Still working as an arson investigator, Orr asked Channel 11 news for its footage as part of his investigation.
“Their managing editor realized later on that what he wanted was to make sure they hadn’t caught him on film starting the fire,” said Girardot.
A California judge told Girardot that Orr got away with serial arson for so long because he came to court as, “probably the best and most prepared witness he’d ever seen. He was sharp, never had to refer to his notes. His testimony was always consistent.”
But however clever or devious, Orr was not a well man, at least mentally, and he made some mistakes. Twice after returning from firefighters conferences, he unleashed a chain of infernos in two different parts of the state. The second raised some eyebrows as part of a potential, serial pattern and the hounds were set loose on his trail.
He also wrote a book, “Points of Origin” about, yes, a serial arsonist. “In this book,” said Girardot, “he details cases including the Ole’s fire, even to the point of giving information about it that only an arsonist would’ve known.”
And, finally, he left a fingerprint that would lead to his downfall.
The finer points of the complex narrative, which ends with Orr’s imprisonment at a California penitentiary in Mule Creek, are in the book which is entitled, “Burned: Pyromania, Murder, and a Daughter’s Nightmare.”
The text itself collates Girardot’s tying together of the investigative timeline with entries from Horvack Orr’s diaries. “And it’s wild because you get this tension between the two stories that are both working their way toward the climax, which is the trial,” he noted.
In addition to “Burned,” the Girardot/Orr collaboration has yielded a multi-part documentary to be screened on the Discovery Channel. The duo will also make an appearance at the Los Angeles County crime lab on Feb. 27, to talk about the science of fire investigation.
Both Girardot and Orr will be at Vroman’s Bookstore Friday, Jan. 18 at 7 p.m. to discuss the story and sign books, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320. vromansbookstore.com