Former LAPD detective sergeant and best-selling writer Joseph Wambaugh tells the shocking story of John Orr, an arson investigator who might have also been the most prolific American arsonist of the 20h century, in his new book The Fire Lover.
Chapter One: Calamity
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, especially during 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 …
The foregoing is excerpted from "The Fire Lover," by Joseph Wambaugh. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers