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Former Fire Investigator Sentenced in Fatal Arson

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying the crimes were of “great violence and sophistication,” a judge sentenced former Glendale arson investigator John Leonard Orr to life in prison without parole Thursday for setting a fire that killed four people at a South Pasadena hardware store.

Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry ordered the 17-year firefighting veteran to spend four consecutive life terms in prison for the 1984 fire at Ole’s Home Center, in addition to 20 years for other fires that damaged or destroyed dozens of homes in La Canada Flintridge and Glendale in the early 1990s.

“The enormity of the defendant’s crimes should not be understated,” Perry said in handing down the maximum sentence. “He embarked on a campaign of setting arson fires that is remarkable in the number of fires he set in the expert way he set them.”

As he had throughout the five-week trial, the balding grandfather and Air Force veteran showed no emotion during the brief hearing. Orr, 49, also declined to address the court.

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Orr’s silence prompted outrage from the brother of a victim, who called Orr a coward who “showed no remorse throughout his trial.”

“He’s a shell. He fails to be human,” Luis Cetina said of Orr. “He’s sentenced our families to a life of pain and grief.”

Last June, Orr was found guilty of more than two dozen crimes, including the Oct. 10, 1984, fire that killed Jimmy Cetina, 17; fellow employee Carolyn Kraus, 26, and customer Ada Deal, 50, and her 2-year-old grandson, Matthew Troidl.

Orr also was convicted of 20 arsons including a devastating firestorm that damaged or destroyed 67 homes in the College Hills section of Glendale in June 1990.

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Jurors deadlocked 8 to 4 in favor of death in the case, which by state law requires unanimity for a judge to impose a death sentence.

“We felt that we had about as good a jury as we were likely to get in that first jury,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Cabral who decided last month not to try Orr again on the death penalty. “We felt that the likelihood of getting a different verdict from a new jury was very slim.”

During the five-week trial, Cabral and Deputy Dist. Atty. Sandra Flannery presented evidence that Orr engaged in a distinctive pattern of criminal behavior: setting fires during daytime hours in poly-foam materials in the back of occupied businesses and using a “signature” time-delay device consisting of a cigarette, matches, a rubber band and legal paper.

Prosecutors presented as evidence a manuscript titled “Points of Origin,” that Orr wrote detailing the activities of a firefighter-turned-arsonist who uses his knowledge to outwit authorities. The novel’s protagonist named Aaron uses a slow-burning incendiary device to set fire to a Pasadena hardware store called “Cal’s,” in which several employees die as well as a woman and her young grandson.

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“Aaron wanted the Cal’s fire to be called arson. He loved the inadvertent attention he derived from the newspaper coverage and hated it when he wasn’t properly ‘recognized,’ ” Orr wrote in the manuscript. “The deaths were blotted out of his mind. It wasn’t his fault. Just stupid people acting as stupid people do.”

Defense attorneys Edward Rucker and Peter Giannini argued the South Pasadena blaze was an electrical fire and dismissed Orr’s manuscript as “pure fiction,” comparing it to the 1991 movie “Backdraft,” also written by a firefighter.

Giannini cited testimony by a UCLA forensic psychiatrist, who said Orr was driven to torch buildings by a compulsion he was powerless to control. “He had no choice in the matter,” the lawyer said.

Orr, who has been in custody since 1991 and is serving a 30-year federal prison sentence, was convicted in 1992 of federal crimes stemming from a series of hardware store blazes in the San Joaquin Valley around the time of a state arson investigators convention in Fresno.

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The following year he pleaded guilty to setting three additional blazes--a 1990 fire at a Builders Emporium in North Hollywood and two others near Atascadero in 1989.

Prosecutors said he will be transferred from federal to state prison in 2002. He was ordered to pay $90,000 in restitution.

“The lesson that this case teaches us is that no one should be above suspicion when it comes criminal activity,” said Cabral. “There were many instances where other investigators felt that something wasn’t right, and for a long period of time overlooked it because of his position in fire service.”


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