California is no stranger to fires, but a string of blazes set in the 1980s and early-90s left authorities searching for a skilled arsonist who was right under their noses. John Leonard Orr was a well-respected arson investigator in Southern California — he conducted fire investigation classes, was active with the first investigation team, wrote articles for magazines and often spoke on local TV when a fire broke out.
Of the multiple fires that were set, one of them resulted in death. Ole’s Home Center was set ablaze on the evening of Oct. 19, 1984. The fire took less than five minutes to spread across the entire Pasadena hardware store, and four people were killed, as told on “A Lie To Die For,” which airs Sunday nights on Oxygen.
Investigators agreed the hardware store fire was an accident, but it was Orr who insisted there was an arsonist afoot.
Seven years and many fires later, police arrested Orr at his home. Investigators found a piece of paper that was part of the device that started a Craft Mart fire with a fingerprint that matched Orr’s left ring finger, according to the Los Angeles Times. While the fingerprint was telling, what further pushed authorities to have enough evidence to make an arrest was Orr’s 350-page manuscript that could almost read like a confession.
The fiction book, titled “Points of Origin,” follows an arsonist by the name of Aaron Stiles, who sets businesses ablaze in California. The character also happened to be a firefighter, and the fires he set paralleled with the ones investigators were probing.
For example, one of Orr’s fires took place at a Kmart shopping center, and so did one in the book, the LA Times reported. Additionally, two fabric stores belonging to the same chain were set on fire, which was the case in real life as well. Stiles’ go-to fictional incendiary device was made of a cigarette and matches held together with rubber bands — so were the devices found at the real California fires, AP News reported.
The most alarming connection between the manuscript and the real fires was Ole’s Home Center case. In “Points of Origin,” the protagonist set a Pasadena hardware store ablaze. Five people die, two of which were a woman and her toddler grandson. In the 1984 Pasadena fire, in which four lives were lost, two of them eerily matched the victims in Orr’s book: Ada Deal, 52, and her grandson, Matthew Troidl, almost 3.
There was also a detail that put Orr right at the scene before the actual store fire.
Orr wrote in the manuscript that the fictional grandmother was going to take her grandson out for mint chocolate chip ice cream after their trip to the hardware store. This turned out to be true in real life, and the only person who knew this information was the child’s grandfather, who was at the store at the time and narrowly escaped, Assistant District Attorney Michael Cabral told producers of “A Lie To Die For.” Cabral said they concluded that Orr must have near the fire in order to know such specific information.
Orr insisted that the manuscript was fiction, and in 1991, he wrote a letter to a literary agency described it as a “fact-based work that follows the pattern of an actual arsonist that has been setting serial fires in California over the past eight years,” according to AP News.
The connections and circumstantial evidence held ground, however. John Orr was found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder on June 26, 1998. He has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“He betrayed the trust,” E.R. Scott Baker told producers of “A Lie To Die For.” Baker worked at the California Fire Marshal Office as an investigator, and he shared his disappointment with Orr as a once-trusted fireman. “He betrayed the honor of the brotherhood of the gals and the guys that’ll work in this career field.”
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content.