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Arson suspect left clue at German Consulate

An image taken by a guard in L.A. shows a fire-starting device left on the floor by Harry Burkhart, officials say.

January 12, 2012|By Richard Winton, Andrew Blankstein and Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times
  • Harry Burkhart, suspected in a series of arsons, allegedly left a fire-starting device during a stop at the German Consulate, but took it when he left.
Harry Burkhart, suspected in a series of arsons, allegedly left a fire-starting… (Gene Blevins/Reuters )

Hours after a series of arson fires erupted across Los Angeles last month, Harry Burkhart walked into the German Consulate looking for help in freeing his mother from a Los Angeles jail where she was being held on a German criminal warrant.

As he walked down a hallway of the building on Wilshire Boulevard, he placed a fire-starting device on the floor. A security guard spotted the object. He took a closer look, and decided to snap a photograph. That photo is now considered key evidence linking the 24-year-old German national to a four-day arson rampage that kept parts of Los Angeles on edge, according to law enforcement sources who described the scene at the consulate.

Since Burkhart's arrest last week, a team of detectives has been tracing his steps, going to more than 50 fire scenes in search of patterns and evidence.

The first night of fires was concentrated in areas close to where Burkhart and his mother had lived in the Hollywood and West Hollywood areas. Over the next three nights, the arson fires spread into the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood Hills.

"He chose places just off the beaten path. He literally looked for the first dark spot," said one law enforcement official, who, like the other sources, spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.

The vast majority of the fires were started by what authorities described as a common briquette easily found in stores. The devices are normally used to start fires in a fireplace or grill.

The sources said there is a delay between the time the briquette is lit and when it burns hot enough to produce flames, allowing an arsonist to leave the scene before the blazes are detected.

The photo of the device found at the consulate is similar to those that detectives have collected as part of the arson probe, one source close to the investigation said.

It is unclear why Burkhart placed the device in the hallway and why he later retrieved it.

Los Angeles Fire Capt. Jamie Moore said the arson task force is still gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses but declined to provide specific details about what the team has found.

Burkhart has been charged in connection with 13 of the 51 fires. Prosecutors say he was motivated by his hatred of America after federal officials jailed his mother.

He has not entered a plea, and his attorney declined to comment when asked about the German Consulate incident.

Prosecutors said they intend to file additional charges, and Moore said the investigators are continuing to "build a case against Mr. Burkhart."

One source said the evidence detectives have gathered includes Burkhart's DNA , which was found at one of the fire scenes. Several witnesses have also identified Burkhart as being near the scene of several fires, the source said.

Authorities allege that Burkhart began his rampage Dec. 30.

But there were several fires in his neighborhood the night before.

One of those fires was set in a dumpster at an apartment building near the one where Burkhart and his mother once lived on Poinsettia Place. Brad Carter once lived next to them and remembered Burkhart as a quiet man who kept to himself.

Within minutes of the fire on Dec. 29, two other fires were set a few blocks away.

Authorities said at least some of those Dec. 29 fires were set by 22-year-old Sunland resident Samuel Arrington.

Officials have said they don't believe Burkhart was responsible given the evidence, which they declined to specify. Arrington has pleaded not guilty to arson charges.

Ken McLeod, the manager of the apartment building on Poinsettia Place where the Burkharts briefly lived last year, was surprised that the fire next door was attributed to someone else.

McLeod said he got into a dispute with Burkhart's mother, Dorothee, over rent money. At one point, she wrote him a letter calling him a "monster." On another occasion, he said she yelled at him, accusing him of extortion.

Burkhart was charged last week with 37 felony arson counts. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Upinder S. Kalra set bail at $2.85 million.

Prosecutors said in court papers that Burkhart torched cars, garages and homes across a significant portion of Los Angeles "to harm and terrorize as many residents" as possible.

On Monday, Dorothee Burkhart was ordered detained pending a hearing on her extradition to Germany. She faces 19 counts of fraud and other charges in Germany, including non-payment of fees for breast augmentation surgery and cheating renters and landlords out of payments.

The German government has 40 days from the date of her arrest in late December to formally request extradition.

German Vice Consul Julia Neblich said she could not discuss the case or comment on Harry Burkhart's visit to the office.

richard.winton@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.

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