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Interview: May 17, 2002

May 17, 2002

A former detective for the LAPD himself, Joseph Wambaugh has been writing stories about the lives of cops and the criminals they encounter for over 30 years. From his nonfiction works like THE ONION FIELD to the fictional THE CHOIRBOYS, his bestselling books are still the criteria by which others in the genre are measured. After a six year hiatus, Wambaugh reveals to's Ann Bruns what inspired him to write THE FIRE LOVER, the bizarre but true story of John Leonard Orr.

BRC: In the early 1990s the investigation of John Leonard Orr was reaching a fever pitch, but was competing for headlines with other high profile cases taking place in Los Angeles. When and how did you first become aware of the John Orr serial arson case?

JW: There was a lot going on in LA with the Rodney King riots and all. When the Orr arson case happened I had read a little about it, but not much, because I was living in San Diego at that time. It didn't get much coverage there. I actually came across the story, with any understanding at all, a year ago. A fan sent me the Nova tape and said, "You should write this story." I saw the tape and thought WOW --- especially about Orr writing a novel and wanting to be a novelist. I found out who the case investigator was --- Mike Matassa --- and I dedicated THE FIRE LOVER to him. He helped me more than anybody. I talked to him a year ago in April. Matassa told me [HBO] was shooting a movie from Orr's book, and that it bears no resemblance to reality. The more I found out about Orr I thought: why hasn't somebody written a book?

I spent last April gathering all the court transcript, about 8000 pages, and I studied it. Then I wrote to Orr and he was very eager and excited about it. He sent me "Points of Origin," his novel, and his autobiography called "Baptismal Fire." Both are unpublished, about 700 - 800 pages long. So I had this material and I started interviewing people --- 2 or 3 dozen cops, lawyers, everybody connected with the case --- all in the month of April. And I went to visit Orr in Lompoc Federal Penitentiary.

I hadn't done anything in six years; I was just vegetating. But somehow I had this enormous burst of energy pouring forth. Within 100 days I had a 650 page manuscript --- 30 days research, 100 days for first draft --- and by last summer I had a book. Morrow, my publisher, convinced me to trim it a lot. The thing that really fascinated me, that made it irresistible, was when I found out that he'd written a novel. Here was a guy that wanted to get on the LAPD, where I was, and he wrote a novel. I'm thinking: the guy wants to be me.

BRC: In FIRE LOVER Orr is revealed to be a psychopathic personality and a pyromaniac. Yet, despite all the evidence at the time and the final outcome of his trials, there were still many who would not accept that "one of their own" could have committed such egregious acts. Are there still those who believe in his innocence?

JW: Oh god, yes...YES! Some of the firefighters he worked with still believe it. I interviewed his arson investigator partner who's in the book, Joe Lopez, and he is very uneasy talking about it. It's fairly clear that Joe doesn't want to believe it to this day because if he believes it, and he was John Orr's partner, what does that make him think about himself? That he was used and manipulated by a psychopathic criminal? That's very, very hard to swallow. Joe Lopez is a dedicated arson investigator, but he has never said that he believes John Orr is guilty. He avoids any commentary on that question.

BRC: The statistics you quote in FIRE LOVER are mind-boggling. At one point brush fires were averaging 67 per year, but after Orr's arrest they dropped to one a year. Do they have any statistics today as to the number of fires or the total dollar amount of destruction that John Orr caused?

JW: The profiler I spoke to thought it was 2000 fires, easily, over 10 years. If you take 67 brush fires times 10 years, that's almost 700 right there. Those brush fires are incredibly dangerous, all those homes going down proved that. There was an incredible number of fires going on all over the Los Angeles area during those years.

BRC: In researching your book, you mentioned interviewing John Orr. Was he any more forthcoming with you than he was with the investigators?

JW: I had known a hell of a lot about John Orr before I interviewed him, thanks to his novel and autobiography, all the letters we'd written, and all the phone calls. John was phoning me two or three times a week from Lompoc. We had lots of conversation before the face-to-face. I wasn't expecting a confession or a revelation. In fact, when I interview people accused of capital offenses, I never even ask if they did it. That would be a question I would never ask. I would consider that unprofessional. When I was a detective I had to do it for the record but I didn't even like to do it then. I know what the answer is going to be, so it's sort of demeaning to even ask it. I didn't editorialize in the book and say John Orr did this, or accuse him of something I couldn't prove. I won't even say that in interviews.

He immediately said: of course you know I didn't set any fires, and I'm a victim of overzealous investigators, if not corrupt state and federal officials, incompetent prosecutors, and incompetent defense council. He had one request --- that I be fair. I said, okay John, I'll be fair. Does that mean I go with the evidence? And he said, "Absolutely," so that's what I did. There's a mountain of evidence.

BRC: Is there anything in his childhood indicating he was a pyromaniac?

JW: In his autobiography he talked about being interested in firemen and I portrayed a bit about that in the book. He saw trash fires being set and he wanted to be the one to notify the fire department. He got very frustrated when the fire department didn't come in and put it out the way he thought they should. There was some fascination with fire even then. But to this day, he denies ever setting any fires --- ever.

In Orr's novel, some people think the two halves of John Orr are portrayed. There's the good firefighter/arson investigator, Phil Langtry. John probably thinks of himself as Phil Langtry on a conscious level. But then there's the other guy, a firefighter/arsonist named Aaron Stiles. When Aaron set a fire at a hardware store, just like the one in real life, and five people die in that fictional fire, Aaron says to himself, "That's not my fault. That's just stupid people who should have gotten out. Stupid people doing what stupid people do. It has nothing to do with me." He choses the locations in the daytime because that's the time when it's most exciting. People running and screaming, and all the fire engines coming. Aaron is sexually stimulated to the extreme, and it's constant when fire is involved. That's really the only sexual satisfaction that he derives --- from fire.

BRC: Sexually deviant behavior sometimes accompanies pyromania and one investigator for the fire department attempted to link Orr with a sexual assault/murder case. Has anyone pursued any investigation into other criminal acts he might have committed?

JW: Only the one portrayed in THE FIRE LOVER, the Mary Duggan case. In fact, I couldn't write the last pages of the book until the DNA test came back. The book was finished and ready to go, but the authorities are agonizingly slow. Civil servants take forever to do anything. That DNA test had been going on since before I started the book up until January of this year. They were messing around with it, losing the evidence, misplacing the evidence and having pressure put on them until finally, in January of 2002, they said no, that's not John Orr's DNA that was found on the murder victim, Mary Duggan. And it took cajoling from the D.A., Mike Cabral, to get that much out of them. And they haven't compared it with anybody else. But I'm sure one of these days Mary Duggan's murder is gonna be solved when some rapist/killer is arrested for something else and his DNA goes into the databank. He'll get caught --- mainly because of the dedicated, diligent firefighter, Steve Patterson, who was obsessed with having her murder solved because he thought John Orr did it.

If I had written this as fiction I might have had a lot of trouble with my editor and publisher, because they might have said, this is so over the top. Back off and make it more credible. No one I know of has ever had this experience that I've dealt with --- where you had to sit and wait and wait for a DNA test to come back, just so you can write the last page of the book.

BRC: Have you had any feedback from him since THE FIRE LOVER was published?

JW: No, so I knew he was unhappy. He's a guy who wants communication with the outside. I could tell he was disappointed when I told him I didn't need any more phone calls, that I had all the information I could handle for the book. He just wanted to call and chat. He still wrote and wanted a copies to give to this person or that, but when I sent him the books and didn't hear from him by mail, I knew he was unhappy.

I knew that personality type. I knew from his letters and some of the things he said that he was getting a bit delusional --- thinking I'd been totally manipulated like some others have been that have been involved with him. He thought the book that I was going to write would allow him to obtain a successful reversal of his federal conviction. And he believed that if the federal conviction got reversed, then the state conviction would also fall because it's based so much on the federal case. That's what he lives for now. He and his jailhouse lawyer write legal briefs to people to try and obtain an acquittal. We were on "Good Morning America." I was in NY and was supposed to be on live, but they taped it because they got a jailhouse interview with Orr. They got permission from Lompoc to interview him, then they cut it all together. He stated that he's never committed a fire, and he's NOT a fire lover. I could tell he wasn't happy.

BRC: In more than one instance, prosecution of John Orr was limited under the theory that further state investigations and trials would not be cost effective as it wouldn't increase his jail time. Do you agree with that theory? Or do you believe every victim should have their day in court?

JW: I agree with Steve Patterson. He kept running up against that attitude: he's already gonna get life, and maybe even the execution chamber, so why drag in this murder victim? It's the incredible bureaucratic attitude of why do extra work and, in their opinion, waste taxpayers money. He's already gonna be punished. But Steve had the idea that everybody's worth something. Just because Mary Duggan's dead, doesn't mean she's not entitled to justice. She's entitled to justice just as if she was alive and he was determined to find it for her. Because of his work, they will solve this crime; they've got the killer's DNA in the database.

BRC: Early in the investigation one of the unsuccessful fires was overlooked as part of the serial arsons even though they found what turned out later to be a key piece of evidence at the scene. Have police and fire investigators increased their vigilance about maintaining that chain of custody?

JW: It was the firefighters that were heroic in this book. Like Marv Casey from Bakersfield who preserved the fingerprint and actually solved the case. He knew that it was one of 10 guys and couldn't convince people. It was the firefighters who were intent on getting the serial arsonist and finding justice, more than the cops. I thought the firefighters emerged really heroic in this story. The cops were dumping on the firefighters and saying they were amateurs, but they were on the right track.

LAPD and LAFD have always been strict with chain of custody, even back in my day. Today the difference is that lawyers are attacking more; they're attacking everything. A good example, of course, is the O.J. Simpson case when that whole incredible deluge of evidence was attacked bit by bit by bit. That sort of thing happens a lot more now, it seems to me. In years past people would except the authorities' forensic analysis. Defense attorneys would kind of throw in the towel when good forensic evidence came in. Now they will attack those forensic scientists who work for police departments or federal agencies as vigorously as they would any other witness. In years past those people pretty much got a pass.

In the John Orr case, it went the other way. The department of justice fingerprint expert said that fingerprint did not belong to John Orr. In an extremely unusual move, the prosecutors had to attack a government forensic specialist. This case had so many twists and turns it was just an incredible experience to try to get through it and understand it all. There is no direct evidence, there is only circumstantial evidence A strong piece of circumstantial evidence is that fingerprint. However, John Orr could rightly say: Your specialist back then, when that fingerprint was fresh, said that's not my fingerprint. Now, all these years later, it's suddenly my fingerprint? Doesn't THAT look fishy! As though someone's been tampering with the evidence.

BRC: You've written four other nonfiction works and eleven works of fiction. Do you enjoy writing one more than the other?

JW: I enjoy doing the research of nonfiction; that gives me some pleasure being a detective again and doing investigation. When all is said and done, though, I'm not sure. When I look back I think maybe the novels contain more of my DNA, I carried them like a mother carries a child. I delivered them. The nonfiction story belongs to other people and doesn't carry much of my DNA. They're like foster children.

Except for THE ONION FIELD. That one got pretty close to me because I was a cop when it happened. I saw some of the indifference that my police department showed to the surviving officer. I was just a young cop when he was fired from the department as a thief and a crook. I found out he was shoplifting and I started asking questions back then. People described his shoplifting. I wasn't a writer then --- or maybe I was a writer but didn't know it --- but I said, wait a minute, this sorta sounds like guilt crying out for punishment. Something is going on here. I felt like a part of that one. It felt more like a novel to me than nonfiction.

BRC: Without question, THE ONION FIELD has become a literary classic. Was that book the pivotal moment when you knew you had to make a choice between writing and police work?

JW: I wrote two fiction novels before I wrote THE ONION FIELD, but I was still a cop. When I wrote THE ONION FIELD, I realized that my first two novels were just practice. THE ONION FIELD made me a real writer. And then I knew it was over, I couldn't be a cop anymore.

BRC: THE FIRE LOVER raises the question of the need for a professional jury system. How do you feel about that?

JW: I'm sure I took some licks at the system, and at trials and lawyers in general. I've seen enough of them for so many years both as a cop and a defendant in defamation cases. Every time I write a nonfiction book I get sued. I certainly believe it's over for the jury system, but we won't admit it for a while. Jury selection is strictly an emotional process. They're looking for people they can manipulate. Both sides are. You've got people who are looking at DNA evidence and other evidence like that and they're ignoring it. Again, The O.J. Simpson case is a case in point. They had no understanding of that evidence and didn't want to. And juries are nullifying verdicts for all kinds of reasons --- emotional, ethnic. Johnny Cochran said "you've got to right the wrongs of 200 years in this case." That's jury nullification spelled out. The time has come for professional jurors.

BRC: You've been credited with pioneering the modern police shows on television with your work on NBC's Police Story. Will you be involved in any more television writing in the future?

JW: I would like to write this story for TV if someone asked me to. The thing that might keep this from happening --- I hope it doesn't --- would be the John Orr movie. They might say it's already been done. But of course, it hasn't. That one is pure fiction, it's not the story of John Orr. 9/11 caused that movie to be shelved. HBO shelved it, but I've heard it's going to be shown next month. I've read the script, and they've taken great liberties, whereas in my book, I don't directly portray that John Orr committed any crime. I respect the true story. The movie is all mixed up with fact and fiction, and invented characters. It'll probably be entertaining, however it won't be entertaining to John Orr.

BRC: Are you already working on a new book than you can give us a hint about? Any more movie adaptations in the works?

JW: I think THE BLOODING should be a TV movie. I've written the script, but the problem I keep hearing is that they don't like to do stories that take place in England. I was actually asked if I couldn't rewrite it and make it happen in Kansas. Rewrite history! This is the story of genetic fingerprinting --- come on. Apart from my writing it, it's a historic occasion and I think it deserves to be shown on TV. I'd love to do it. I enjoy adapting my own work, or anybody's work. I like to adapt books. I've done some other people's books, been hired to adapt them, but they never made it to the screen. That happens you know. Probably 95% of the things that are written never get on the screen. As for a book, not at the moment. I'm hoping something will happen; that lightening strikes again the way it did with this one.