Mother unaware son arrested for LA arson fires
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shackled in handcuffs and flanked by three U.S. Marshals, Dorothee Burkhart scanned a Los Angeles courtroom looking for her son.
"Can you bring my son inside?" she pleaded with court officials. "Where is my son?"
Apparently she was unaware that less than two miles away, her 24-year-old son Harry Burkhart, also was behind bars suspected of more than 50 arson attacks over New Year's weekend that caused $3 million in damage.
Authorities believe Burkhart, angry over his mother's legal troubles, went on a nighttime rampage of burning parked cars a day after she made an initial court appearance last week.
On Tuesday, court documents were unsealed that revealed Burkhart's mother is charged in their native Germany with 19 counts of fraud, including failing to pay for a 2004 breast-augmentation surgery and pilfering security deposits from renters.
In a brief court appearance, she appeared perplexed, wondering aloud if her son had disappeared or was dead. At one point, she said, he is mentally ill and questioned whether Nazis knew where she and her son lived.
"What did you do to my son?" she asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle.
"I'm not here to address anything related to your son," Nagle responded.
Both mother and son are being held without bail. Her next court hearing was delayed until Friday so she can hire an attorney, and charges could be filed against Burkhart as early as Wednesday.
Harry Burkhart was taken into custody after authorities received a tip from federal officials who recognized him in a security video that showed a pony-tailed man emerging from a garage where a car was set ablaze.
"When they saw the security footage, they recognized him and they contacted the arson task force," a State Department official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigations are ongoing.
Burkhart arrived in the U.S. in October and his non-immigrant 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 federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the case, said Harry Burkhart was present when his mother was arrested Dec. 28 on a provisional arrest warrant.
Provisional arrest warrants are normally issued when there are criminal charges pending overseas against someone. Ordinarily, U.S. authorities then obtain an arrest warrant through the State Department and the Justice Department.
Burkhart had been in court Thursday afternoon at his mother's hearing when he launched into an obscenity-laden tirade, saying "F--- the United States!" said Thom Mrozek, spokesman at the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
Mrozek said Burkhart was detained and later escorted out of the courthouse. He said Burkhart did not make any specific threats against anyone or property at his mother's court hearing.
A law enforcement official, who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said authorities believe Burkhart went on the arson spree because he was angry over his mother's legal troubles.
Outside Harry Burkhart's Hollywood apartment, some neighbors described him as a loner who loitered around the busy commercial strip at night and could be heard arguing with his mother.
But Shlomo Elady, a hair stylist who regularly trimmed Burkhart's long hair, recalled someone who spoke three languages, dreamed of visiting Jerusalem and cared for a sickly mother who had trouble walking.
Elady said he was stunned that the man who lived with his mother above his Sunset Boulevard shop is suspected of torching vehicles, some just steps from his home.
"He loved his mom, the way every son loves his mom," Elady said. "He's not a creepy guy."
Galina Illarionova, who lives in the same apartment complex as the suspect, said 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.
A domain name for a website offering appointment-only sensual massage is registered to Dorothee Burkhart. Her name is not mentioned on the website, which states the service is not prostitution.
The series of fires appeared to have stopped with Burkhart's arrest. The onslaught of intentionally set fires kept residents anxious over the holiday weekend in some of the most densely populated areas of the city.
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.
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 fires forced many apartment dwellers from their homes. There were no serious injuries.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper and Pete Yost in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.