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Prosecution Wraps Up Case Against Former Fire Captain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prosecutors wrapped up their case Monday against former Glendale fire-captain-turned-arsonist John Leonard Orr, arguing that he described in a manuscript for a novel just how he set a South Pasadena hardware store ablaze, killing three adults and a 2-year-old boy.

Revisiting five weeks of evidence and testimony relating to fires that broke out from the South Bay to the San Joaquin Valley, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Cabral told jurors in closing arguments that Orr employed the same technique repeatedly. In each case, the prosecutor said, he set fires during the day, in the back of occupied businesses, using a distinctive time-delay device made from a cigarette, matches, a rubber band and yellow legal paper.

Orr, serving 30 years in federal prison on other arson charges, faces more than two dozen state charges, including 21 counts of arson in connection with fires in Burbank, Glendale and La Canada-Flintridge in 1990-91.

The state charges include four first-degree murder counts stemming from a 1984 blaze at Ole’s Home Center in South Pasadena that killed a 50-year-old woman, her grandson and two employees. If convicted of those charges, he could be sentenced to death.

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With jurors listening attentively, Cabral read a chapter of an unpublished novel Orr wrote, “Points of Origin,” the tale of a firefighter who becomes an arsonist. The manuscript details how the protagonist employs a slow-burning incendiary device to set fire to a Pasadena hardware store, killing a woman, her young son and several employees.

Cabral read aloud a segment detailing the victims’ final moments as they are engulfed by flames and smoke.

“The last thing she heard was a tremendous roar as the fire burned through the roof and vented to the outside,” Cabral read. “The smoke momentarily lifted but was then replaced by solid fire as the entire contents of the annex exploded into flames. Their last breaths were of 800-degree heat that seared their throats closed . . . “

Defense attorneys Peter Giannini and Edward Rucker, who will finish their case today, have called “Points of Origin” a purely fictional account, comparing it to the 1991 movie “Backdraft,” which also was written by a firefighter.

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They contend there is no physical evidence linking Orr to the fires he is charged with setting and maintain that the Ole’s Home Center blaze was started by electrical wires in the ceiling.

In 1992, Orr was convicted in federal court of three arson counts stemming from a series of hardware store blazes in the San Joaquin Valley around the time of a state arson investigators convention in Fresno in 1987. The following year he pleaded guilty to three additional blazes, including the 1990 fire at a Builders Emporium in North Hollywood and two others near Atascadero in 1989.

Orr was arrested at his home Dec. 4, 1991, by federal investigators who began tracking his movements after suspecting him of involvement in the San Joaquin Valley fires.


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