As editor for the Pasadena Star-News and a reporter for the fabled Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Frank Girardot spent 30 years getting the scoop on all manner of investigations. His transition to writing true-crime books has been the perfect career move following his 2015 retirement from the Star-News, and has already resulted in the highly successful “Name Dropper,” which told the story of notorious serial imposter Christian Gerhartsreiter.
Now he’s back with an even more explosive book, “Burned: Pyromania, Murder, And A Daughter’s Nightmare,” which details the incredible story of John Orr, a Glendale Fire Department veteran who was considered one of the best arson investigators in the country until it was learn that he was perhaps the most prolific arsonist of the 20th century. For “Burned,” Girardot teamed up with Orr’s daughter Lori Orr Kovach, who provided him with a unique insider perspective on her father’s dual life. They will be appearing together at Vroman’s Bookstore Friday night to discuss and sign the book.
“Lori offers a powerful story, because she became a victim of her father’s duplicity herself, and we’ll present in a Q&A before taking questions from the audience,” says Giarardot. “It’s a story that really resonates with women, and we’re in the development stages of a multi-part documentary for TV. We’ll also be doing a presentation on the forensic science of arson at the Cal State LA forensic science lab on Jan. 27, where we’ll be talking about arson and the deaths in South Pasadena.”
Those South Pasadena deaths are a reference to Orr’s most devastating arson, a major fire that broke out at an Ole’s Home Center hardware store in that city. The fire completely destroyed the store, killing four people, including a two-year-old child and his grandmother.
Numerous arson investigators declared the fire was caused by an electrical fire, yet Orr insisted that the cause was arson. Combined with the fact that Orr wrote a novel about an arson investigator who sets fires, it eventually became obvious that he found his primary thrill by hiding in plain sight. Even after landing in prison for life, Orr agreed to be interviewed extensively for “Burned” and also gave Girardot access to the journals that detailed his crimes.
“He was good at it because he really understood fire, how to set them in a way that couldn’t be detected and what was used to do it,” explains Girardot. “It’s a super-complicated science he mastered as an arsonist and perfected as an investigator, and he set fires in office buildings, warehouses, grocery stores and out in the middle of Glendale neighborhoods, where he destroyed 40 homes and damaged 60 others in the College Hills fire of 1990.”
While Orr’s novel ultimately fueled the investigation that brought him down, he also left “a lot of mistakes” at arson scenes, including a fingerprint at one location. Lori’s lifelong trust that her father was a hero initially inspired her to be a character witness for him at his trial and was a key factor in his avoiding the death penalty. But her decision to help Girardot with “Burned” stems from her later realization that Orr was even more glibly evil than anyone had imagined.
“He was a good-looking, James Bond kind of an investigator, and also a serial womanizer,” says Girardot. “Lori originally believed everything he ever said and he was a charming guy, but at the end of the day he was a serial arsonist and killed four people.”
Frank Girardot and Lori Orr Kovach will discuss and sign “Burned: Pyromania, Murder, And A Daughter’s Nightmare” at 7 p.m. Friday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromansbookstore.com.