Detective Publishes Book Debunking Firebug Myths

Jan. 13--Edward Nordskog's colleagues couldn't believe the good timing when his book on serial arsonists came out two weeks before a firebug burned a swath of terror through Hollywood and beyond.

They joked that maybe the sheriff's detective, who is heading the investigation into the New Year's weekend rampage, lit 52 fires himself to kindle interest in his exhaustive study of dozens of serial arsonists

"The guys in the office said, 'Where were you again two weeks ago?' " Nordskog said, laughing.

Serial arson, like serial murder, is one of Los Angeles' signature noir crimes, and the Hollywood fire frenzy was one of the most intriguing. For four days, a faceless entity crept through the heart of what is still known to the world as movieland -- and beyond -- torching buildings and vehicles, including Jim Morrison's one-time home, with speed, precision and seeming impunity.

"Nobody in the U.S. has set that many fires in that short a period of time," Nordskog noted.

Nordskog, 52, said he received dozens of emails proposing exotic theories before an arrest was made. People speculated it was a crime of sexual deviance, of European-inspired anarchism or an homage to "V for Vendetta," the 2006 cult movie in which revolutionaries blow up landmarks in a dystopian future.

The truth was more mundane, Nordskog said. In a court declaration, the investigator said Harry Burkhart, who has been charged with setting dozens of fires, was motivated by rage against Americans after his Russian-born mother was threatened with deportation.

Burkhart, like most arsonists, was "just really, really mad," Nordskog said during an interview this week.

Nordskog writes that his book, " 'Torchered' Minds: Case Histories of Notorious Serial Arsonists," is designed to dispel myths based on "antiquated pseudo psychiatric opinions and Hollywood over-dramatizations." The title and cover -- a throbbing orange illustration of an old-fashioned firebug -- evoke the pulp fiction sensationalism of the 1940s.

But the text, while popping with lurid details, consists of sober case histories and analysis of his own investigations and others across the country.

Most serial arsonists are not archvillains armed with ingenious trigger devices and primed to match wits with detectives, he said. Many are physically disabled and/or mentally disturbed, and on drugs -- legal or illegal. They walk or ride their bikes and pick their targets at random. The palm tree is the No. 1 favorite in Southern California "because it burns so cool."

But the misconceptions have infected not only public perceptions, but arson investigation itself, Nordskog said.

"I'm very critical of my own field," he said.

Up until the last two decades, arson investigators relied on law enforcement folklore for their investigations. Notions about profiling, burn patterns and ignition sources turned out to be junk science. Fire departments still don't always train their investigators in the highly technical expertise needed to process arson crime scenes, he said.

"The first thing some guys want to do in the arson business is start a surveillance," he said. "What are we surveilling for? He's not going to be carrying a flamethrower down the street."

In his book, Nordskog classifies serial arsons under tantalizing headings like "The Mass Murderers and Spree Arsonists," "Female Serial Arsonists" and "The Firefighter Serial Arsonist." While he finds patterns, his main message seems to be: No two cases are alike.

Christiaan Hallman, a Southern Californian doctor, lit a series of fires in Starbucks bathrooms, Nordskog said.

"Why? Only he knows," Nordskog said. Hallman was convicted in 2010 of arson and vandalism charges.

One of Nordskog's toughest cases involved a retired technical writer in La Crescenta who set fire to a neighbor's house without ever leaving his residence.

According to court records, Gary Glazier had a history of conflict with his neighbors, who found dog biscuits laced with antifreeze and a pile of melted chocolate in their yard. Shortly after, their dog died of kidney failure.

One night, a shaft of light from Glazier's property lit up their property. Glazier took a pressurized paint sprayer and shot gas into the crawl space beneath the house, then set the vapors on fire with a 20-foot flaming torch made out of pipes.

The attack was caught on the neighbors' surveillance cameras, and the paint sprayer containing burnt gas and pipes long enough to stretch to the neighbor's house were found in Glazier's truck and garage, an appeals court said.

"While he was waiting for the firemen, he rakes his yard, so there's no footprints and he puts the devices in his truck to take to another property he owned," Nordskog said. "But we got lucky. The firemen blocked his driveway by accident."

Glazier was convicted of arson and related charges.

"He was very ingenious," Nordskog said.

One Southern California serial arsonist that Nordskog writes about, Glendale fire investigator John Orr, does fit the Hollywood mold. But Nordskog says that's because he based his sprees on the crime novels he loved to read.

Orr was not just a firefighter arsonist but also a well-regarded arson detective who trained law enforcement throughout the state while he was setting more than 1,000 fires, Nordskog writes. Orr was sentenced to life in prison without parole for starting a fire that killed four people in a South Pasadena hardware store in 1997.

He used a signature fire-trigger delay device, consisting of a cigarette, yellow paper and matches, and wrote a manuscript titled "Points of Origin," detailing the activities of a firefighter-turned-arsonist who uses his specialized knowledge to outwit authorities.

In reality, most serial arsonists use matches or lighters and can barely function in the world, much less match wits with detectives, Nordskog said. But Orr managed to convince an entire generation of fire investigators that signature devices were a trademark of the serial arsonist, Nordskog said.

"In the end, Orr was probably only an expert on himself," Nordskog writes. "The only fires he solved were his own."

gale.holland@latimes.com

 

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