Fire Lover: A True Story

Fire Lover: A True Story

by Joseph Wambaugh

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On an October evening in South Pasadena, a horrifying wave of flame swept through a large home improvement center, snuffing out the lives of four innocent people, including a two-year-old boy. Firefighters rushed to the scene, even as a pair of equally suspicious fires broke out in two nearby stores. Silently watching the raging inferno in the midst of the heat, smoke, and chaos was a man respected as one of California's foremost arson investigators, a captain in the Glendale Fire Department ...

From Joseph Wambaugh, the critically acclaimed,nationally bestselling author of The Onion Field, comes the astonishing true story of a nightmarish obsession — and the hunt for a brilliant psychopath who lived a double life filled with professional tributes and terrifying secrets.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060095284
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/27/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 212,604
Product dimensions: 4.19(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.04(d)

About the Author

Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective sergeant, is the author of numerous New York Times bestsellers, including The Onion Field, The Blue Knight, The Blooding, The Choirboys, and other fiction and nonfiction works. He has won a number of awards, including the Edgar Award and the Rodolfo Walsh Prize for investigative journalism. He served in the US Marine Corps and later joined the Los Angeles Police Department. With regret he resigned from the LAPD in 1974 after fourteen years of service but continued with his writing. His first four books and his work on the Police Story television series in the 1970s set new standards for subsequent writers, and many acknowledge their debt to him. He lives with his wife in California.

Ken Howard, the Tony and two-time Emmy Award–winning actor, was a working member of the Screen Actors Guild for over forty years before being elected the national president in 2009. He has narrated more than thirty bestselling audiobooks.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


South Pasadena is a small city of some twenty thousand residents who live within three square miles of mostly aging homes and limited commercial property. Many of the houses were built in the 1920s, the heyday of California mission architecture, before the Great Depression stifled home building. Neighboring Pasadena, host to the famous Rose Parade, continued building luxury homes well into the 1930s, some of them gems of California style, all in need of periodic renovation. A good place for homeowners to buy materials to refurbish those old houses was Ole's Home Center on Fair Oaks Avenue, an eighteen-thousand-square-foot building in a strip mall, three blocks from the town's only fire station.

At 7:30 P.M. that October evening, a middle-aged couple, Billy and Ada Deal, and their two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, Matthew William Troidl, arrived in Ole's parking lot. Matthew immediately spotted the neighboring Baskin-Robbins and wanted ice cream. His grandfather promised him they would have their treat after they finished shopping, and they walked through the entry door.

Working in the housewares department that evening was seventeen-year-old Jimmy Cetina. He was a high-school senior and a talented athlete. In fact, this varsity center fielder was being scouted by the Chicago Cubs to play double A ball. He had Latino good looks, and had recently entered a Bullock's department store modeling competition and won it. Doubtlessly, he would rather have been at some other place than Ole's Home Center on that October evening, especiallyduring the World Series, but there were seven children in his family who had to look for empty bottles and cans to exchange for deposits if they wanted to buy sports equipment. He needed this job.

Billy and Ada Deal knew that the near-empty store was about to close, so they decided to split up and shop separately to save time. Billy wanted to buy some cheap two-by-fours, so he headed for the lumber display, which was between the north and south fire doors. Ada said she was going to the paint department.

Carolyn Krause was working in the paint department that evening, so she may well have seen the fifty-year-old grandmother pushing her grandson Matthew William in a shopping cart. Carolyn Krause was married to an LAPD lieutenant and had two young children of her own. She may have heard Matthew asking when he was going to get his ice cream. And someone else who was in that store may have heard him too. Or perhaps not. This issue would be later debated in courts of law.

It had been a long shift for Jim Obdam. The young clerk had been working in the hardware department all day and into the evening. Just after 8:00 P.M. he heard something over the PA system, but couldn't make out what had been said. He was headed for the front of the store, toward the south aisle, and there he was astonished to see a column of dark smoke rising from a display rack, all the way to the ceiling.

Jim Obdam hurried toward the west end of the store, looking for customers. He saw people heading toward the exits, but still was not alarmed when he arrived at the paint department.

"Are there any more people in your section?" he asked Carolyn Krause.

She answered, "I'll check my area!" And then she rushed through the hardware department looking for stragglers.

Still, nobody was alarmed. Nobody had seen any fire, just that column of dark smoke. In fact, Jim Obdam found two people browsing in hardware, looking at tools. He told them to leave the store at once.

And then he encountered a middle-aged woman with a small child in a shopping cart. Ada Deal was looking at merchandise on an end cap at the foot of the aisle.

"We've got to leave the store," Jim Obdam told her. "But don't be alarmed."

Ada Deal put some merchandise into the cart behind her grandson, Matthew. Jim Obdam walked hurriedly down the north aisle toward the main part of the store, but when he looked around, Ada Deal hadn't started to follow, so he went back.

"You should probably leave the cart here," he said, more forcefully. "Take the child and let's go!"

And then he headed toward the front of the store, assuming that Ada Deal and her grandson were following behind him. He was near the north fire door, about two aisles away, when he looked back toward that column of smoke. But it was no longer a cloud. It was a wall of flame. It was bright orange and raging. Then he noticed the north fire door had closed. That steel door had dropped down.

When he turned to look for the woman and child he heard a popping noise and the lights went out. And Jim Obdam suddenly felt alone and trapped.

A bell chimed in the lumber area: "Ting ting ting." That's how Billy Deal described it. And there was an unintelligible announcement. He thought that the store was closing so he looked at his watch. It was 8:05 P.M. Yes, it must be a closing announcement, he thought.

But then a peculiar thing happened. A young man on a forklift jumped off the vehicle and cried, "My God, it's a fire!" And he took off running.

Billy looked around. He couldn't see what the young man was getting excited about. There was nothing. But suddenly some people ran through the fire door and yelled, "Get outta here! There's a fire!"

Billy peered through that door, that fireproof barricade, toward the west side of the store, and he saw a big cloud of smoke in the center of the space. He ran toward the south fire door searching for Ada and Matthew, and when he got...

Fire Lover. Copyright © by Joseph Wambaugh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents


1. Calamity,
2. The Wanna-be,
3. The Big Show,
4. Intuition,
5. Pool of Fire,
6. The Fingerprint,
7. Bird Dog,
8. Points of Origin,
9. The Prisoner,
10. Fire Lover,
11. Conspiracy,
12. Errors,
13. Verdict,
14. Strange Fish,
15. Mary Duggan,
16. The Fire Monster,
17. Redactions,
18. Uncharged Acts,
19. The Manuscript,
20. Death House,
21. Survivors,
22. The Debate,
23. The Quest,


Burning Down the House
From the May/June 2002 issue of Book magazine.

After 33 years of writing about pedophiles, cop killers and rapists, Joseph Wambaugh -- a former Los Angeles Police Department detective whose first novel, 1971's The New Centurions, elevated the pulpy procedural to a more literary form -- needed a break. "I thought I was retired, or just tired," says Wambaugh, 65. But that was before he came across the case of John Orr, a California arson investigator-turned-serial arsonist, who is currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years.

Wambaugh turned this bizarre story into Fire Lover, his first book in six years. For the bestselling author of 11 critically acclaimed novels and 4 nonfiction books, it's the 5th true-crime exposé, but it's his first to focus on the fire department rather than the police.

"This case is truly a situation of fact being stranger than fiction," says Mike Matassa, the lead investigator at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who assisted Wambaugh with research after helping to crack the case. (Orr was eventually apprehended after leaving a fingerprint at one of his crime scenes.)

Wambaugh recalls seeing newspaper reports of pyromaniacal activities that would later prove to be Orr's -- the U.S. government calls him the most prolific arsonist of the 20th century -- but the writer didn't become interested in the case until well into the arsonist's trial. It took a tape of an episode of Nova about the case -- sent to Wambaugh by a fan -- to kindle his interest. He started researching the story and got in touch with Matassa. "I helped to fill in the gaps from the official court records on the prosecution and give him a feel for what was happening day to day in the investigation," Matassa says. "I put him in touch with the key figures so he could develop a sense of what they were like as individuals."

Wambaugh reached out to firemen who had fought Orr's blazes, his former partners in arson investigation, and relatives of the victims. (One particular fire -- which Wambaugh discusses in the book's opening chapter -- claimed four lives.) But the single most illuminating element may have been the firebug's unpublished novel, Points of Origin, which was made public during the trial. In it, an arson investigator is pitted against a serial arsonist who finds bizarre connections between sex and fire -- a conceit that ultimately gave rise to the title of Wambaugh's book.

Wambaugh says that serial arsonists are among the least understood of all serial offenders. ("Only a handful have ever been captured, let alone profiled," he points out.) But after decades of exposing the inside of police departments, he has now succeeded in shedding light on the equally complex world of firefighters and fire investigators -- and along the way he's provided insight into the passion for committing arson. (Adam Dunn)

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Fire Lover: A True Story 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting story but it really slows down when he goes to court.Repetitive.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm a firefighter/EMT in Verde Valley, AZ and loved the book. I like how Wambaugh got into the shoes of a firefighter (not easy for a cop to do) and told the story in a way that kept you entertained throughout. I would reccomend it to anyone!
harstan More than 1 year ago
As a child in Los Angeles, John Orr revered firefighters watching them as if he was sitting in front of a TV set. He relished the way the firefighter risked his or her life in the line of duty. As a young adult, John joined the Glendale, California Fire Department and quickly became one of the best. Over time, he became a fire captain and eventually an arson investigator highly regarded by his peers as one of the foremost experts.

John also moonlighted as an arsonist who remained undetectable for years and whose fires killed four people and caused millions of dollars in damage. When he finally made an error and was caught, the entire firefighting community refused to believe that one of their heroes could be a serial arsonist.

The hardest thing about this true-life crime biography is that it is true crime caused by someone whose dangerous occupation most people respect even more so after 9/11. So chilling is this account this reviewer keeps wanting to paraphrase an old horror movie ad that it¿s only a book. However, Joseph Wambaugh brings the fiery duality of his subject vividly alive so that the reader observes a criminal considered by the FBI as 'the most prolific American arsonist of the twentieth century'. Fans of true crime will want to read this account that never slows down as FIRE LOVER: A TRUE STORY is Mr. Wambaugh at his finest.

Harriet Klausner

Anonymous 7 months ago
It was interesting but long and drawn out. So much was repeated word for word.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LJuneOsborne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is not usually the type of book I like to read, but I read the description and the story seemed so outrageous I had to give it a shot. A firefighter who is also a serial arsonist? This is the type of thing I read nonfiction for.The story is presented in thorough detail, which, while providing interesting details, also makes the experience a bit repetitive. I would describe the story in three parts: First, story that describes John Orr's life leading up to his being arrested and charged with arson; second, the trial, where the story is recounted again; third, the sentencing, where the story is recounted for the third time. Procedure in court and law help break up monotony, though for anyone not interested in all the technicalities I would not recommend this book. Or, rather, I might recommend the first two parts, but by the sentencing trial there's little left to learn about the actual strange events and mind behind them.Wambaugh describes lawyers as "strange fish in the litigation tank," which sums up the customs of court that might seem a bit backwards to the rest of us. Lawyers nit-picking everything until situations become laughable is a bit fun, but if you're not into crime and court books and don't want to give one I try I wouldn't recommend it. However, while this is the only crime book like this I've read, I imagine it's a decent introduction to this genre.
dara85 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
John Orr, an arson investigator is convicted of setting numerous fires in California, including one in which four people died. He also wrote a novel about an arson investigaor that is a serial arsonist that is used in his trial.
jmcclain19 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first half of the book was quite intriguing, the detailing of 'the how', 'the what' and 'the why' of how John Orr became one of the most prolific Arsonists in history. However, the 2nd half is a mind numbingly boring blow by blow account of Orr's travails thru the legal system - an account which probably should have consisted of about one total chapter, rather than half the book.
lady_longhorn More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this novel. As a fan of both this author and television crime procedurals, I like following the protagonist from the beginning, switching between his back story to the investigation. The novel kind of dragged a little in the middle, but then again, so did the initial investigation. That this is a true story makes it even scarier knowing the main character abused his power & knowledge as a fire inspector to escape detection for years. The only thing missing is his motivation. It's alluded to, but never fully addressed. but then again, I suppose one can only delve so far into the mind of a serial arsonist/killer. I'd recommend it as a nice break from police crime novels...
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
Very interesting true story. A lot of it involved the trial of this maniac. I can't believe none of the lawyers spoke of the fact that the arsonist walked right past a toddler and felt nothing knowing what he was about to do. I enjoyed it for the most part, however, the trial part with all the legalese did kinda get to me in some parts, as in my eyes glazed over. But, that's just me. I think it was a great true story and can't believe I've never heard of this guy. Hopefully he reads this and it annoys him. Ha!!! Thanks William Morrow and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.
SpeedReaderBG More than 1 year ago
This book is especially interesting to me. I lived on one of the areas this maniac was setting fires in. Mr. Wambaugh thank you for the information the news and officials didn't tell us.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Growing up, John Orr couldn't wait for the day that he would become a firefighter, yet did he know that he would eventually become a fire captain and arson investigator who was highly regarded by the fire community. As John became an adult, he joined the Glendale, California fire department where he would work his way up to an arson investigator. The love he showed for his job was seen by his fellow peers in the fire community. John was looked well upon for his dedication and love for the job, although the community didn't know that John loved fire more than what they all saw. As the novel continues, John Orr actively becomes an arsonist himself, who killed four people and caused millions of dollars in damage. John managed to reamin undetectable for years, but once the community found out that it was John causing all the fires, no one could believe it. They never thought one of their fire heroes would become the person that he tried to prevent from harming the community. The novel really displayed the job of firefighters to the reader and explained the reasons for all their years of duty. Joseph Wambaugh was able to prove that love for a job can sometimes be taken a little far, but the love is what strived John Orr to do what he did for so long. If you're looking for a good descriptive book on the detailed job of dedicated firefighters, then read Fire Lover, it will captivate your mind and never slow down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read; however, for me, it was not up to the standards already set by Mr. Wambaugh. Background at times tedious. . .didn't keep me wanting to keep turning pages the way his prior books had done.
RC2403 More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read most everything this author has written; both fiction and non. Wambaugh lovers will find his usual clever wit, attention to detail and background information. General 'true crime' lovers will find a fascinating plot full of informative detail about the crime of arson and the personality of the serial arsonist. This book's one that's hard to put down for sure.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As usual, Joseph Wambaugh has done an outstanding job. This book maintained my attention to where I read it in such a short time period. Well written and esay to understand. I'd recommend this book for anyone to read. Hard to believe there are guys like John Orr out there but there are. Wanna be heros in every aspect of life. This is the first actual Joeseph Waumbaugh book I have read but have seen several of his stories in video format. Excellent writer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the best true stories i have ever read. I do not read too many true stories but this was wonderful. lynne from new jersey.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read everything that Wambaugh has written. He handles fiction better than truth although this was quite good reading. I guess I was hoping for a twist at the end that never came. I hope that it does not encourage copy-cat arsonists since the description of the delay mechanism was quite clear. I also hope that the author doesn't wait so long to write his next book. This one came long after The Blooding.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Wambaugh is an excellent writer, altho, this particular story about J.L.Orr was a bit drawn out, and too factual; even though it is impt. to have facts in the story due to it's nature. Is or will there be a movie made about this story? Just wondering? I would've like to have known what Orr was thinking throughout his trial, there was no mention of his thoughts in his words, just how he felt, but, no quotes. Also, I still don't know what this character looks like. Where can I just see a picture of him? Otherwise, keep up the good work Mr. Wambaugh. Sincerely, Marie
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book, especially since I could relate to it since most of it occurred in my city and there were fires in which I tried to help people from it. A lot of fascinating events, both legal and from a psychological point of view.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The reader should be prepared for much in the way of lawyer talk and synopsis and a lot of repetition of incidents. The book is well grounded and tells an important story, but seems drawn out. The story is a reminder that too much protectionsim in the fire service can color how you may view one of your own brothers.