Los Angeles police probe motive in arson spree

January 3, 2012 - 11:43 AM
Los Angeles Arson

Los Angeles firefighters battle an arson car fire under a carport in Los Angeles Monday, Jan. 2, 2012. Twelve suspected arson fires broke out early Monday in the Los Angeles area. A "person of interest" was taken into custody for questioning in connection with the dozens of suspicious car fires that have hit the city during the past week. (AP Photo/Mike Meadows)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The arrest of a 24-year-old German man halted a series of overnight arson blazes that caused more than $3 million in damage and put Los Angeles residents on edge during the long holiday weekend.

But police have said nothing about a possible motive in the fires set across Hollywood, neighboring West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. A neighbor said the suspect's mother was having legal problems, but authorities wouldn't confirm reports that she may have faced deportation.

"We are very confident in this arrest, but we have a long way to go," said Police Chief Charlie Beck.

The suspect, Harry Burkhart, is being held without bail. Authorities didn't know how long he's been in the United States and said he isn't cooperating with them. Sheriff Lee Baca called him the "most dangerous arsonist in Los Angeles County that I can recall."

The onslaught of intentionally set fires kept residents anxious over the holiday weekend in some of the most densely populated areas of the city. Hundreds of investigators, police officers and firefighters raced to deal with the blazes. Police conducted extra patrols all weekend, and the noise of helicopters and sirens persisted virtually nonstop in Hollywood.

The blazes forced many apartment dwellers from their homes. But there were no serious injuries — one firefighter was hurt in a fall from a ladder, and another person suffered smoke inhalation.

The arrest came after another night of firefighters scrambling to snuff out the series of arson attacks. A tip came in about a German man who matched the description of someone with a shoulder-length ponytail captured on a surveillance video near where a car fire was reported.

Five hours later, Burkhart was pulled over by a reserve sheriff's deputy and later booked for investigation of arson of an inhabited dwelling. Since the arrest, firefighters have not responded to any other suspicious fires.

While the investigation is ongoing — authorities haven't ruled out the possibility that others may be involved — Burkhart's arrest was a measure of relief to anxious residents who had grown fearful after several nights of seemingly random blazes.

"Our long four-day nightmare is over," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Galina Illarionova, who lives in the same apartment complex as the suspect, told reporters through a Russian translator that an agitated Burkhart visited her Sunday and said his mother was having some kind of legal problems. He told her his mother was in trouble with authorities and wanted Illarionova to attend a legal hearing with him, but he later said he didn't need her help.

One of Baca's reserve deputies, Shervin Lalezary, pulled over Burkhart's van sought by arson investigators shortly after 3 a.m. Lalezary, who works as an attorney and gets paid $1 a year to serve as a reserve deputy, said was glad he helped out.

"I'm ecstatic that law enforcement gets to shine a little bit," he told reporters.

Most of the fires began in cars, and authorities have not said how they were started.

One of Saturday's fires occurred at the Hollywood and Highland entertainment complex, a popular tourist destination bordered by the Walk of Fame in a neighborhood that includes Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Damaged buildings included a former home of Doors singer Jim Morrison in Laurel Canyon.

Despite the arrest, authorities continued to urge vigilance.

"We're not resting, and we're not stopping" the extra patrols, police Cmdr. Andrew Smith said. "If you have lights in your carport area, keep them on tonight."

Some other deliberately set fires were reported Thursday in Hollywood, and two people were arrested. But police said Monday that those suspects were not connected with the 52 other blazes.