Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Fire Lovers and Fire Monsters

“Always keep the hose’s stream of water between the fire and you,” I recall my Navy fire instructor telling me so many years ago.

If you let the flames get around you, I learned, they’ll reach out and hit you like a boxer’s jab. That’s what happened to me when I was an 18-year-old sailor attending the U.S. Navy Fire Fighting School in San Diego.

After the deadly fire that killed 134 sailors and injured many more on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in1967 all carrier sailors were ordered to attend two or more firefighting schools. 

In 1970 I was among a small group of sailors from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk that crowded into a square cement structure that simulated a ship’s compartment at the firefighting school. I held the nozzle of a long hose and I began to wave the hose in short left to right movements. As I waved the hose too sharply to the left, I allowed the fire to slip past me on my right. The flicker of flame seemed almost human — perhaps even supernaturally evil — as it lashed out like a whip and struck my right arm.

The pain and shock of getting burned caused me to drop the hose’s nozzle and jump back. Fortunately, the instructor grabbed the discarded nozzle quickly and he ordered me out of the burning structure. To my further embarrassment, the heavy smoke and the hood of my poncho impaired my vision and I hit my head on the oval hatchway as I was exiting the structure. The other instructors rushed to me, as they believed I was seriously injured.

As it turned out, my burns were superficial and the head injury was only a bump, but my pride received some serious blows that day. I returned to the fire a while later and completed the course without further incidents.

After graduating from firefighting school I went on to fight some real fires during my Navy days, but thankfully the fires were nothing along the lines of the fire on the USS Forrestal.

I learned to respect the power and fury of fire at the Navy’s firefighting school and I came to truly respect firefighters.

I thought of my Navy firefighting experiences as I read about the New York fireman who was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison last week for setting a fire that killed a mother and her three children.

Prosecutors said that Caleb Lacey, a volunteer fireman, committed the arson so he could act the part of a hero.

The firefighter/arsonist is not a new phenomenon. I've covered fires and arson as a reporter and I’ve heard firemen and investigators speak of other cases where bent firemen have set fires in the hope they will be acknowledged as a hero when they first arrive on the scene. 

This recent case brings to mind another case involving a California fire investigator turned arsonist named John Orr.

Joseph Wambaugh’s Fire Lover: A True Story chronicles the strange case of Fire Captain John Orr, who was once a respected fire investigator.

Orr, currently incarcerated for life for the crimes of arson and murder, is considered to be the most prolific arsonist in American history.

In addition to causing millions of dollars worth of damage to private homes and businesses, one of his fires caused the deaths of four people.

Wambaugh, a Los Angeles detective sergeant turned crime novelist and true crime author, received his second Edgar Award for Best Crime Fact Book from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) in 2003 for Fire Lover. The following year the MWA gave Wambaugh a Grand Master Award.

In Fire Lover, Wambaugh describes Orr as a “cop-wanna-be” and a “head-case who does not know it.” Initially rejected by both the LA police and fire departments, Orr became a Glendale, California fireman and part-time security guard. Wambaugh wrote about Orr’s aggressive crime fighting as a Sears’ security guard and on the job as a fire inspector. Wambaugh wrote about Orr’s near-comical chasing of criminals in his fire department vehicle. His antics caused some contention, and a good bit of ridicule, from the real cops.

Orr would go on, Wambaugh tells us, to become a respected arson investigator. He wrote articles for trade and professional journals and held seminars for other arson investigators. He was known for his uncanny ability to be the first on the scene of a fire and for finding arson devices and “points of origin.”

Of course investigators would later discover that Orr had the inside track on the arsons, having set the fires himself. Wambaugh estimates that Orr set more than 2,000 fires over a ten year period.

Orr wrote and shopped around his novel called Points of Orgin, which was about a fire investigator who hunted a serial arsonist. HBO based a disappointing movie on the unpublished novel. Orr’s novel was so close to the reality of his two sides — fire inspector and arsonist — that prosecutors used the novel as evidence at his trial.

Wambaugh paints Orr as a pyromaniac and psychopathic personality and calls him a “fire monster.” Wambaugh wrote of his sexual deviant attraction to arson and his odd relationships with several women.

In Fire Lover Wambaugh also details the relationship between cops and firemen (unlike cops, everyone loves a fireman) and he covers what he calls the “Balkanization of American law enforcement.”

Balkanization is his term for the lack of communication between clannish, competitive and suspicious law enforcement officers. Although the horrific terrorist attacks on 9/11 have made law enforcement communicate more, this problem still has to be resolved, especially in the light of the possibility of another terrorist attack.

Wambaugh tells how an arson task force investigated Orr after his fingerprint was found on one of the arson devices, which was made from a cigarette, a rubber band, paper matches and a piece of notebook paper. 

In the last part of Fire Lover Wambaugh chronicles the lengthy state and federal trials and he utilizes 8,000 pages of court transcripts. The passages offer the reader a primer on the American justice system and Wambaugh makes the case that the time has come for professional jurors. I’m inclined to agree.

There is also a great passage in the book I'd like to share. 

He wrote that "the vast-government-conspiracy theories floated in hundreds of books and films have never failed to produce howls of laughter when mentioned at law-enforcement gatherings, especially in the aftermath of JFK, when the vast government conspiracy included the FBI, CIA and all the other three-letter agencies staffed by bureaucrats who are mostly loathed and distrusted by street cops. Those with an alliterative flair call them grandstanding government geeks in penny loafers or bumbling back-stabbing bureaucrats who wouldn’t conspire to peek inside a girlfriend’s underwear without the approval of a U.S. attorney and a search warrant." 

"But what really brings down the station house," Wambaugh continued, "is when, in order to make the JFK conspiracy work, all the revisionists had to include the Dallas Police Department. And that does it every time. Cops get to knee slapping and falling out of their chairs over the thought of it. Because everyone who’s ever worn a badge knows the moment a cop gets a real secret, the drums start beating and the asphalt jungle wireless starts humming, and the first leggy news chick with tits out to here will be blabbing the secret on the news at ten even before the cop wives get to tell it to the gang at the office and the girls at the gym." 

Fire is one of the most destructive forces on earth. Wambaugh’s Fire Lover offers a tale of what happens when a monster like John Orr uses the destructive power for his personal gratification.

You can read my review of Wambaugh's last novel, Hollywood Moon, and link to my Q&A with Joseph Wambaugh via the below link: 


  1. Great review...One of my fave non fictions books since Lines and Shadows of JW's...very interesting to read this review especially from your background...Thanks!!!

  2. Teddy,

    Thanks. I also like "Lines and Shadows." I like all of Joseph Wambaugh's novels and true crime books. I think he is a great writer.