LA arson suspect also faces German fire probe

January 5, 2012 - 9:25 AM
Los Angeles Arson

In this courtroom sketch, Harry Burkhart, a native of Germany who has been living in Los Angeles and is suspected in a series of arson fires, appears during his arraignment in Los Angeles Superior Court, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012 in Los Angeles. Burkhart was charged with 37 counts of arson in connection with a rash of fires that terrorized Los Angeles over the New Year's weekend. (AP Photo/Mona Shafer Edwards)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Harry Burkhart's problems didn't start when he allegedly ignited more than 50 fires that terrorized Los Angeles last week. He's under investigation in Germany for a house fire near Frankfurt, and investigators searching his Hollywood apartment turned up news articles about the Los Angeles fires and a series of car blazes in Germany last year.

The disclosures Wednesday came on a day when Burkhart made an awkward first court appearance in Los Angeles, where he appeared dazed with his long hair matted on the front of his face, and alternated between sitting and standing.

The ponytailed Burkhart was arrested Monday near the Sunset Strip in a van with Canadian license plates loaded with fire-starting materials, and he has stonewalled investigators while being placed on a suicide watch. His mother, Dorothee Burkhart, appeared disoriented in federal court Tuesday after being arrested on a fraud warrant from Germany, where she referred to Nazis and questioned if her son had died.

Their family history remains murky, but documents reveal both mother and son struggled with mental illness. They had a vagabond lifestyle, with addresses at various times in Germany, the U.S. and Canada, and the son holds a German passport but authorities say he was born in Chechnya.

Medical records dated March 2010 and submitted in a lengthy dispute over commercial space the mother rented in Vancouver say she suffered from depression, anxiety, severe post traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks. A separate note, also dated March 2010, says Harry Burkhart suffered from autistic spectrum disorder since his childhood, and he has severe anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and "is not stable mentally because of increase stress due to fear."

His mother said in court Tuesday that he is mentally ill.

Harry Burkhart was charged Wednesday with 37 counts of arson as part of a rash of fires that caused more than $3 million in damage, while his mother was being held without bail after being detained on 19 counts of fraud from Germany, including failing to pay for a 2004 breast-augmentation surgery and pilfering security deposits from renters and landlords.

In requesting Harry Burkhart be held on no bail, investigators said in court documents that a search of Burkhart's 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. His bail was set at $2.85 million.

The fire at the German house that 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.

Neighbors say they kept mostly to themselves in a second-floor apartment across from a supermarket in Hollywood, where doors in the apartments are shielded by steel gates.

Their lives in the U.S. began unspooling last week.

Harry Burkhart watched as his mother was arrested on fraud charges from Germany, and a day later he exploded in a profanity-laced rant against the U.S. at her court hearing, saying "F--- the United States!" or "F--- all Americans," authorities said.

The next day, police say, he began setting car fires at night, many in the Hollywood area near his apartment. Authorities believe he began the rampage after being outraged by his mother's legal troubles.

Court documents give "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," said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Harry Burkhart was taken into custody after authorities received a tip from federal officials who recognized him in a security video that showed a ponytailed man emerging from a garage where a car was set ablaze.

Burkhart's nonimmigrant visa is set to expire Jan. 18, authorities said. His mother last entered the country lawfully in January 2007 and she left four months later, officials said.

A website offering appointment-only sensual massage is registered to Dorothee Burkhart, though her name is not mentioned on the site.

Frankfurt court spokesman Guenther Meilinger told the AP that Dorothee Burkhart will go on trial for the fraud charges once she is extradited back 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.

The extradition request has yet to be drawn up and sent to the German Justice Ministry for relay to U.S. authorities, said Doris Moeller-Scheu, a spokeswoman for Frankfurt prosecutors.

Asked about the discovery of news articles in Harry Burkhart's Los Angeles apartment about a series of car fires in Frankfurt last September, Moeller-Scheu said that there was no active investigation of him in Frankfurt.

Dorothee Burkhart faces only the fraud charges, but that it was not unusual for an international arrest warrant to be issued in such a case, Meilinger said.

She was originally scheduled to go on trial in September 2007, but she fled before the proceedings opened, prompting the international arrest warrant, Meilinger said.

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Associated Press writers Dorothee Thiesing in Frankfurt and Bradley Klapper and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report. Rising reported from Berlin.