German man charged with arson in New Year fires
Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 10:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 10:59 p.m.
LOS ANGELES — A German man was charged Wednesday with 37 counts of arson in connection with a rash of fires that terrorized Los Angeles over the New Year's weekend.
Harry Burkhart, 24, was charged with 28 counts of arson of property and nine counts of arson of an inhabited structure, District Attorney Steve Cooley said.
The complaint alleged the arson was caused by the use of a device designed to accelerate the fire. Court documents revealed an incendiary device was placed under the engine area of cars.
More charges could be filed when Burkhart returns to court for arraignment on Jan. 24. He was ordered held on $2.85 million bail and could face several dozen years in prison if convicted.
"The amount of harm he did to the psyche of the citizens of these particular communities and all of Los Angeles County, I think it merits a life term," Cooley said.
Burkhart is suspected of setting more than 50 blazes that caused an estimated $3 million in damage. He has refused to cooperate with investigators since his arrest on Monday.
The charges are based on a dozen fires in the Hollywood and Sherman Oaks sections of Los Angeles and the city of West Hollywood.
Authorities said they believe he was angry over his mother's legal troubles and went on a nighttime rampage of burning parked cars a day after she appeared in court last week, when he went on a profanity-laced tirade denouncing the United States.
Court documents gave "a sense that this particular individual was set off by the incarceration of his mother, with whom he appears to be quite close, and he had latent anti-American views. That combination apparently set him off on this binge," Cooley said.
Burkhart had an unusual court appearance, where he alternated between sitting and standing and appeared to be in a dazed state, although he spoke occasionally with a German translator. He wore green sleeveless shirt, his long hair matted on the front of his face as he craned his head and body backward when he stood.
He has been put on suicide watch, a law enforcement official said Wednesday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of privacy issues.
Burkhart's mother, Dorothee Burkhart, said in court Tuesday that her son is mentally ill.
Harry Burkhart's background remains hazy. The Los Angeles district attorney's office statement said he travels on a German passport "but purportedly was born in Chechnya" and was staying with his mother in Hollywood. The statement did not elaborate.
Harry Burkhart is also under investigation in Germany for a house fire north of Frankfurt days before he traveled to the U.S. in October.
The fire at the house, which belonged to the Burkhart family, has been ruled an arson, Marburg prosecutors' spokeswoman Annemarie Wied told The Associated Press Wednesday.
Burkhart did not live in the area, but his name surfaced as a suspect after he filed an insurance claim shortly after the fire, Wied said.
"When one files an insurance claim on a house the same day it burns down, it raises eyebrows," she said.
Burkhart, whom Wied identified only as "Harry B." in keeping with German privacy laws, has not yet been questioned in the case, and no arrest warrant has been issued for him. She said she did not know how long ago he had been identified as a suspect in the arson investigation.
Burkhart was in Los Angeles by Oct. 26 — 12 days after the Marburg area fire — according to U.S. court papers, which say that he went with his mother on that day to the German consulate to renew his passport.
In requesting no bail for Burkhart, investigators said a search of his Hollywood apartment turned up news articles about the Los Angeles fires as well as a series of car fires in Frankfurt last September. Authorities couldn't comment on whether Burkhart is a suspect in the German fires.
During a court appearance Tuesday, Dorothee Burkhart scanned a Los Angeles courtroom looking for her son, apparently unaware he was behind bars less than two miles away.
"Can you bring my son inside?" she pleaded with court officials. "Where is my son?"
Court documents unsealed revealed she is charged in Germany with 19 counts of fraud, including failing to pay for a 2004 breast-augmentation surgery and pilfering security deposits from renters.
In a brief court appearance, she appeared perplexed, wondering aloud if her son had disappeared or was dead. At one point, she said, he is mentally ill and questioned whether Nazis knew where she and her son lived.
"What did you do to my son?" she asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle.
"I'm not here to address anything related to your son," Nagle responded.
Frankfurt court spokesman Guenther Meilinger told the AP that Dorothee Burkhart will go on trial for the fraud charges once she is extradited to Germany.
"We expect and hope that the U.S. authorities will look into the request for extradition ... so that the proceedings against her can continue," he said.
Both mother and son are being held without bail. Her next court hearing was delayed until Friday so she can hire an attorney.
Harry Burkhart was taken into custody after authorities received a tip from federal officials who recognized him in a security video that showed a pony-tailed man emerging from a garage where a car was set ablaze.
Burkhart's non-immigrant visa is set to expire Jan. 18, authorities said. His mother last entered the country lawfully in January 2007 and left four months later, officials said.
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