It appears that serving firefighters, trained and committed to putting out fires and saving lives, who actually set fires themselves in serial arson attacks are more common than once thought.

The National Volunteer Fire Council published an extensive report on firefighter arson with the support of the United States Fire Administration. “The aftermath of having an arsonist within the ranks can cause irreparable damage,” they said. Research into firefighting arson has been carried out, although to date it is difficult to draw any solid conclusions from their findings. The data they have collected, however, does give some indication of the scale of the problem.

One of the most famous cases which received a great deal of media attention was that of John Orr, a seasoned and highly experienced fire investigator who was eventually caught for setting a number of fires in department stores and one which claimed the lives of four people. John Orr was a man who many firefighters in California had worked closely with and was someone they respected.

He worked for the Glendale Fire Department in Southern California and had spent countless hours training and advising less experienced investigators, but turned out to be a person that was secretly betraying them all. 42-year-old John Orr was leading a double life as a serial arsonist and was only able to continue for so long due to a mistake in fingerprint analysis which failed to identify him early on.

One factor which contributed greatly to his final conviction was the novel he wrote called ‘Points Of Origin’ about a firefighter who was also an arsonist. In it he detailed many of the fires he had started himself, including details that were not known to the public, details only the arsonist himself would know. His book was actually published after his conviction and although fictional in genre, the connection with his own crimes and the author being a disgraced firefighter helped push up sales, the proceeds of which go directly into a restitution fund for the victims of his crimes.

John Orr was a fire investigator with the Glendale Fire Department in Southern California

John Orr was a fire investigator with the Glendale Fire Department in Southern California.

On 10 October 1984, a large fire overtook a hardware store in a shopping centre in South Pasadena, California. The blaze took hold quickly and was ferocious in taking the lives of four people.  A young employee Jimmy Centina was just 17-years-old and was unable to escape the flames.  Another of the four victims was a 2-year-old little boy. The fire was initially believed to have been caused by an electrical fault. John Orr, who helped on the investigation, was insistent this classification was wrong and the fire was arson. Years later, it became clear why he was so insistent. This fire was his own work and he wanted people to know it had been purposely set and not an accident, even if his identity as the arsonist still remained hidden.

Orr would often set fires in locations where he was attending conferences, giving talks to firefighters and investigators. He would sneak off and set a fire nearby before returning and acting surprised and shocked at yet again a large-scale fire had broken out. Soon, fire investigators became concerned that whoever was setting these fires knew what they were doing and may have been one of their own.

In 1987 John Orr attended a conference in Bakersfield, California and, true to his pattern, a number of fires broke out nearby. Two years later, in 1989, coinciding with a firefighter’s convention in Pacific Grove, once again a number of suspicious fires occurred.

At one location a fingerprint was identified from the remains of the incendiary device used to start the fire. A cigarette attached to a book of matches which was then wrapped in paper and material.  When the cigarette was lit it would take time to burn down, allowing Orr to escape the area before the matches ignited and the fire began to spread. Despite running the fingerprint found through numerous databases including serving firefighters in the area, no matches could be found and the fire remained unsolved.

John Orr in court

John Orr in court.

It took another two years before the fingerprint was identified. On the suspicions of a chief fire investigator that one serial arsonist was responsible for these fires and it was someone in attendance at these conferences, the fingerprint was checked again against serving firefighters and this time it came up with a match to John Orr. Rather than make an arrest immediately, Orr was put under surveillance by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms who followed him trying to obtain further evidence against him before they made the arrest. By the end of 1991, they thought they had enough and John Orr was arrested.

After his arrest, John Orr maintained his innocence. He was doubtful of the evidence against him and claimed he was being set up for the fires. In July 1992 he went on trial, charged with three counts of arson. Found guilty, he was sentenced to 10 years for each count to run consecutively.  Six years later, after further investigation, John Orr was charged with four counts of first-degree murder after the 1984 fire at the hardware store in South Pasadena was reclassified as arson. Orr was found guilty on all four counts and after narrowly avoiding the death penalty he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Police believe John Orr could be responsible for up to 2000 fires across the 1980’s and 1990’s that destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of property.

The Times-Tribune reported in 2010 on the common profile of a firefighting arsonist according to the FBI and the South Carolina Forestry Commission, “Typically, they have been white men ages 17 to 25 who come from dysfunctional homes, lack stable social relationships, work in menial jobs, and become firefighters for excitement more than public service,” they said. They also highlight how hard it is to find a ‘fits all’ profile for this type of crime with motivations which vary from simple excitement to ‘hero syndrome’ to revenge and financial gain.

Looking at some of the cases of firefighting arson show how varied the individuals and motives for the crime can be. A report published by the US Fire Administration and Homeland Security in January 2003 details one particularly horrific case that took place in March 2000. 41-year-old Memphis firefighter Frederick Williams murdered his new wife before setting fire to his home.  When two of his own colleagues arrived in response to the fire, Williams shot them both dead and killed a Sheriff’s Deputy in the same manner. Williams was eventually shot by police and arrested at the scene. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity at trial in 2006.

One year later in Dearborn, Michigan, 26-year-old volunteer firefighter Jason Hendrix set fire to a barn. As two of his colleagues traveled to the scene, their truck crashed, killing 30-year-old Travis Brown and seriously wounding the driver. Hendrix confessed to setting the fire and setting a number of other fires in the area. He was charged with second-degree murder and second-degree arson, due to laws allowing for a murder charge if a death occurs as a result of committing a felony. Hendrix eventually accepted a plea deal for 12 years imprisonment for arson and property damage, avoiding a trial for murder.

“The ability to create a situation requiring the response of the fire service and law enforcement provide some people with a feeling of empowerment over society”

Accurate statistics on firefighting arson are hard to obtain with no official database or source of record for these cases. In research published in 2011, Assistant Professor of Fire Science, Dr. Matt Hinds-Aldrich, examined historical newspaper archives, uncovering 1,213 firefighters who had been arrested for starting fires since the 1800’s, with the majority of arrests occurring within the period of 1986 to 2011. Surprisingly, this research also found that just over 50% of the arrests were of firefighters who worked with other firefighters to set fires, often from either within their same unit or neighboring fire stations. Joseph Wambaugh who wrote the book ‘Fire Lover: A True Story’ on the John Orr case told CBS NewsIt’s power and control. They’ve not only created a living thing, they’ve created a living thing that is the object of massive attention.”

The idea of the very people we trust to protect us being out there setting fires themselves is a frightening thought, however, as highlighted by the National Volunteer Fire Council, “With over one million volunteer and paid firefighters the number of those who cause fires represents only a fraction of the number who otherwise serve honorably.”