Harry Burkhart, who is charged with 37 felony counts of arson, is taken into… (OnSceneTV / Associated…)
Reporting from Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada -- Once Dorothee Burkhart had squeezed through a window and escaped, only two things mattered: Finding Harry and getting out of Germany.
It was September 2007 in Frankfurt. Four months earlier, police had arrested Burkhart in a string of thefts and sent her to a woman's prison to await trial. Separated from Harry, her 19-year-old son who suffered from a slew of mental disabilities, she had grown increasingly anxious. Without her, Harry was alone and unprotected in a city that she believed was filled with people set on hurting them.
So, when Burkhart developed chest pains in prison, she didn't resist being brought to a nearby hospital, she later told authorities in an account of the escape. When left alone and uncuffed in a bathroom, Burkhart squeezed through a tiny window and ran to a nearby train station. Once safely away, she called Harry and told him to come with their passports and cash. They drove to Amsterdam and boarded a plane, landing 5,000 miles away in Vancouver, Canada.
It was the start of a journey by a mother and her son that came to a calamitous end this week in Los Angeles, when Harry was arrested and charged with setting ablaze dozens of vehicles and a few buildings in a four-night arson rampage that set the city on edge. The fires, investigators say, were a son's twisted, angry response to seeing his mother captured by federal authorities intent on extraditing her back to Germany.
Indeed, as investigators have begun to unravel the Burkharts' tightly intertwined lives, they have happened upon a story perhaps more incredible than the fires themselves. It's a tale of massage parlors, small-time con games, neo-Nazi conspiracies, and investigations into mysterious fires set in three countries.
With much of the details coming from Dorothee and Harry themselves — in volumes of convoluted testimony filed in a failed attempt to gain political asylum in Canada — it is harder yet to know where truth blurs into fiction.
Those who encountered them along the way describe a quiet, introverted child-like man who kept largely to himself and depended heavily on a mother who swung unpredictably between pleasant and nasty.
"They were somehow like one, that one could not exist without the other, all they had was the other one," said Michael Koch, Dorothee Burkhart's court-appointed attorney in Germany, who spoke with Harry after his mother's arrest. "He was like in the cloud, he was looking to my face but his eyes were running from left to right. His questions were not really connected with what I said before. His question was: 'When will my mother come out?'"
Their story began in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya in the former Soviet Union, where Harry was born in July 1987. His parents never married and Dorothee told Canadian officials she raised Harry and an older daughter by herself. According to court filings, Dorothee recognized early on that her son didn't behave like a typical child and likely had some type of mental disability. He was 7 in 1994, when Russian forces laid siege to the city to put down a Chechen push for autonomy. The brutal fighting claimed tens of thousands of lives, mostly civilians.
Dorothee and the two children fled to Germany, a nation that gave refuge to many victims of the Russian crackdown. They settled in Frankfurt and received citizenship after showing German ancestry. Burkhart made her living driving taxis and in real estate dealings that, for a while at least, were legitimate, according to Canadian and German court records. Eventually, however, she turned to scamming tenants and landlords, racking up at least $35,000 in misbegotten proceeds over several years, according to charges filed by German prosecutors. Along the way in 2004, she deceived a Frankfurt plastic surgeon into believing she had made a nearly $10,000 bank transfer for breast enhancement surgery, German officials say.
Early on, there were signs of the extremely protective, us-against-the-world relationship that would continue to develop between mother and son over the years. Dorothee clashed often with teachers and school officials who she said were not providing Harry with the special attention and instruction his disabilities required. Educators, in turn, urged her to take Harry to a child psychiatry clinic.
It was during these years in Germany that the conspiracy theories and sense of constant danger that would come to envelope Dorothee and Harry Burkhart's world took root, court records show. With her daughter living on her own, Dorothee became convinced she and her son were being targeted by their neighbors, police, and most anyone who crossed their path.