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.