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Arrest in arson rampage reveals enigmatic mother and son

Harry Burkhart is accused of setting at least 50 fires shortly after his mother, Dorothee, had a hearing on being extradited to Germany to face numerous fraud charges.

January 04, 2012|By Victoria Kim, Carol J. Williams and Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times
  • Arson suspect Harry Burkhart, 24, was arrested Monday by a reserve sheriff's deputy who spotted his minivan near the Sunset Strip.
Arson suspect Harry Burkhart, 24, was arrested Monday by a reserve sheriff's… (OnScene TV / AP Photo )

For months, authorities scoured West Hollywood, carrying a photo of a squat, green-eyed woman through a bustling hive of Russian-language social clubs and cafes selling borscht and vareniki dumplings. She was Dorothee Burkhart, a fugitive wanted on a host of fraud charges in Germany.

Dorothee Burkhart was eventually arrested here and, last Thursday, she was in a courtroom for a hearing to extradite her to Frankfurt to face the charges.

Within hours, an arsonist began setting fires across a wide, significant portion of Los Angeles in a four-day assault that caused millions of dollars in damage and left many residents on edge.

PHOTO: Southland arson fires

The man police arrested on suspicion of starting more than 50 fires turned out to be another resident of that Russian-language nook of West Hollywood: Dorothee Burkhart's 24-year-old son, Harry.

On Tuesday, authorities were investigating the relationship between the son and mother — a relationship that appears to be mutually protective, fraught with legal troubles and laced with virulent anti-American sentiment.

Court records unsealed Tuesday only added another layer of mystery to Harry Burkhart's background, as detectives in Los Angeles try to determine whether Dorothee Burkhart's legal problems played a role in the arson rampage. Her routine criminal charges, which included falsifying the down payment on her breast augmentation surgery, received an unusual amount of attention from German and U.S. authorities, as well as Interpol, the international policing organization.

FULL COVERAGE: Southland arson fires

It was unclear from the records why Dorothee Burkhart became such a high-priority target in an international dragnet after her arrest warrant was issued in 2007 by a Frankfurt judge.

According to interviews with numerous law enforcement officials, Harry Burkhart lived with his mother in West Hollywood and appears to have been incensed at the aggressive, international effort to send his mother to Germany to face fraud charges.

Indeed, officials said, Harry Burkhart's strident, obscenity-laced outburst at his mother's extradition hearing last week, much of it focused on anti-Americanism, appears to have preceded the arson rampage and led to his capture.

The son "made quite a disturbance" at that hearing, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. It left enough of an impression that a law enforcement official who had worked on the case against Dorothee Burkhart viewed LAPD images of a "person of interest" Sunday and reported that the person looked "exactly like Ms. Burkhart's son," Mrozek said. The officer was an agent in the Los Angeles field office of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, officials said.

Once identified, Harry Burkhart was arrested at 3 a.m. Monday by a reserve sheriff's deputy who spotted his minivan near the Sunset Strip.

By Tuesday, Harry Burkhart, a German national who had lived in California for several years, had been dubbed the "Hollywood Feuerteufel" by the German media: the Hollywood Fire Devil. Booked on arson charges, he was being held without bail. And his 53-year-old mother, coincidentally, was back in court fighting her extradition, and appeared disoriented without her son at her side.

"He should come into the court," she insisted to the U.S. marshals and other law enforcement agents in the courtroom.

She grew more agitated when the hearing began in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle.

"My first question is: Where is my son?" Dorothee Burkhart shouted. She said her son was mentally ill, adding: "What did you do to my son?… Where is he? Dead?"

"I'm not here to address anything related to your son," Nagle replied. The judge assured her: "I'm sure he has not disappeared."

Dorothee Burkhart also made statements indicating her animosity toward the authorities, suggesting at one point that she and her son might have been the targets of "German Nazis."

She refused to be represented by a public defender, glaring at a federal prosecutor while telling the judge: "I don't want an attorney from this government."

A seven-page complaint filed against Dorothee Burkhart by Assistant U.S. Atty. Cathy Ostiller said the United States was "informed through diplomatic channels" that Burkhart was charged in state court in Frankfurt with 19 counts of fraud "committed on a commercial basis and as a member of a gang."

The complaint details about $45,000 worth of alleged embezzlement of renters and landlords with whom Dorothee Burkhart did business between 2000 and 2006.

The largest sum listed in the complaint was for 7,680 euros, or about $10,000, allegedly owed to a clinic in Frankfurt where she had breast augmentation surgery in the summer of 2004.

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