Burning Ambition

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN 1990, AFTER NEARLY TWO DECADES AS A firefighter, John Orr decided to write a psychological thriller. After all, who knew more about fires—and firebugs—than he did? Writing in his spare time, while working as chief arson investigator for the Glendale (Calif.) Fire Department, Orr finished his book, Points of Origin, a year ago. Still unpublished, it is the story of an arson investigator who moonlights as an arsonist. "He was a loner and insecure.... His fires gave him the much-needed attention he craved," wrote Orr. "He was, after all, the only one who knew how the fires started, and didn't that make him a very important person?"

Orr hoped the novel would be his ticket to the money and attention that he craved. Instead, he has been convicted of arson—and his book was a key piece of evidence against him. Last November, Orr, 43, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for setting fires in three stores in California's San Joaquin Valley as he traveled to and from an arson investigators' conference in Fresno five years ago. Though no one was hurt in the fires, $300,000 worth of property was destroyed. A suspect in 25 other fires around the state, Orr is currently on trial in Los Angeles on eight additional arson charges involving California stores between March 1989 and December 1991. Meanwhile, Glendale firefighters, many trained by Orr, have been trying to sort through the emotional wreckage of seeing a top-notch investigator betray a professional trust. "His arrest shocked the department," says Glendale's assistant fire chief Chris Gray.

During Orr's trial for the San Joaquin Valley fires, assistant U.S. attorney Patrick Hanly said he had found striking similarities between the crimes Orr was accused of and the ones he had written about in his book. For one thing, the arsonist in Points of Origin, like Orr himself, set several fires in retail stores while traveling to and from arson-investigation conferences. According to Hanly, the fictitious arsonist also used a delay incendiary device very similar to the one Orr used. "A typical serial arsonist uses a signature device," says Hanly. "It's highly unlikely for two arsonists to have the same pattern."

Currently confined to the Metropolitan Detention Facility in L.A., Orr still professes his innocence and is appealing his conviction. "I used the fires I studied as material for my book, not the other way around," Orr says. "Points of Origin is a work of fiction."

Orr might have never been caught had it not been for a crucial piece of evidence recovered after the San Joaquin Valley fires. At a CraftMart store in Bakersfield, a manager spotted smoke in a dried-flowers display and extinguished the blaze so quickly that investigators were able to recover a fingerprint from the partially) burned incendiary device. "We had a print, but no idea whose it was," says assistant U.S. attorney Carl Faller.

The identity of the arsonist remained a mystery until April 1991, when investigators noted a similarity between the San Joaquin Valley fires and fires set in retail stores in L.A. Using state-of-the-art imaging techniques, they ran the fingerprint through the L.A. County Sheriff Department's computerized print bank, one of the most sophisticated in the country. In a random search of 1.2 million fingerprints of criminals and law enforcement officials, the computer kicked out Orr's name.

Hoping in vain to catch Orr in the act, investigators placed him under surveillance and alerted his superiors that he was an arson suspect. In October 1991, assistant fire chief Gray told authorities Orr had asked a secretary in the department to type a letter pitching his novel to publishers. "Points of Origin is 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," the letter read. "He has not been identified or apprehended, and probably will not be in the near future. As in the real ease, the arsonist in my novel is a firefighter." Federal investigator Michael Matassa, who subsequently obtained a copy of the book from one of Orr's friends, was amazed at how closely it mirrored the circumstantial evidence he had gathered against Orr. "I cannot imagine who Orr's unidentified arsonist firefighter might be other than Orr himself," Matassa has said.

When Orr was arrested at his house on Dec. 4, 1991, it stunned the 200-member Glendale Fire Department. "Some of us who had known John a long time said, 'No way could he be guilty,' " says Orr's former partner, Joe Lopez. "I still find it hard to believe."

In prison Orr speaks regularly by phone with his two grown daughters and his fourth wife, Wanda. "He's never been anything but a kind, loving and trustworthy person," Wanda says. Every week, Orr sends his wife reams of handwritten manuscript pages of a new novel so she can type clean copies on a word processor. The book, a sequel to Points of Origin, focuses on a series of robberies in Southern California. "I wrote the first three chapters in a week," Orr says. "This time, arson is just a minor theme."

DORIS BACON in Los Angeles

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