Suspect faces life term in arson rampage

Victoria Kim, Richard Winton and Carol J. Williams
LA Times
Jan 5, 2012

Hollywood arson suspect Harry Burkhart terrorized Los Angeles residents with a four-day rampage over New Year's weekend because he was "motivated by his rage against Americans," prosecutors alleged in court papers filed Wednesday.

Burkhart appeared in court briefly to be arraigned on 37 felony counts of arson that could send him to prison for life. He looked disheveled and distracted as jail authorities have him under suicide watch.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Upinder S. Kalra set bail at $2.85 million and agreed to postpone arraignment until Jan. 24 at the request of Burkhart's public defender. The judge, who declined to hold Burkhart without bail, said the government could bring more evidence at the next hearing to back its contention that the defendant poses a flight risk or could resume setting fires if freed pending trial.

MAP: Southland arsons

Burkhart torched cars, garages and homes across a significant portion of Los Angeles "to harm and terrorize as many residents" as possible, authorities wrote in a court filing asking that Burkhart be denied bail.

Deputy Edward M. Nordskog of the sheriff's arson unit wrote in a declaration filed with the court that Burkhart would be a danger to the public if released because of his hatred of Americans and the U.S. government.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney told the court that charges filed against Burkhart so far are probably "less than half of the charges we plan to file," noting that they covered 12 of the 52 suspected arsons authorities attribute to Burkhart.

PHOTOS: L.A. arsons

Burkhart appeared in court in a green jail jumpsuit, wearing his long brown hair loose and unkempt. He is being closely monitored in custody, the Los Angeles Police Department reported, to ensure that he doesn't harm himself. He moved languidly in Kalra's courtroom, his gaze wandering and his body slumping and twitching.

The charging documents also accused Burkhart of using an acceleration device, which could lead to a longer prison term if he is found guilty of the special circumstance. If convicted on all 37 counts and ordered to serve the maximum terms consecutively, Burkhart could be facing up to a 341-year sentence.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley told reporters after the bail hearing that Burkhart faces "an awful, awful lot of time in prison" because of the trauma inflicted on the community, and that he thought a life sentence was warranted, calling the offenses "almost attempted murder."

FULL COVERAGE: Southland arsons

Prosecutors disclosed in court papers that Burkhart had previously been arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon but that no charges had been filed. . A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, Jane Robison, declined to provide a declination on the incident, citing policy on older cases that are closed without charges.

Earlier on Wednesday, prosecutors with the Hesse state government in central Germany disclosed that a 24-year-old named Harry Burkhart was being investigated in connection with a suspected arson at his family's home in the Schwalm-Eder district about an hour's drive north of Frankfurt.

A half-timbered house belonging to the Burkhart family suffered major damage in a fire three months ago that local investigators said left evidence of having been deliberately set.

Owners of the vacant home near the Medieval fortress town of Marburg filed an insurance claim after the blaze caused about $50,000 in damage and the incident is being investigated as a case of arson and insurance fraud, said Annemarie Wied, spokeswoman for the Marburg regional office of the Hesse state prosecutor.

Burkhart's mother, Dorothee, who is also in custody in Los Angeles, is wanted on a Frankfurt court warrant alleging that she defrauded about $10,000 from a plastic surgeon who performed a 2004 breast augmentation procedure, and defrauded at least a dozen renters and landlords of an additional $35,000, according to a complaint filed last month in Los Angeles by the U.S. attorney's office.

Harry Burkhart, a 24-year-old who authorities said travels on German documents but was born in the restive Russian region of Chechnya, reportedly came to the attention of Los Angeles law enforcement because he erupted into a rage at his mother's extradition hearing Dec. 29 in federal court. Burkhart was evicted by federal marshals after an expletive-laced diatribe against Americans and the U.S. government. A federal official who witnessed his tirade recognized him in security camera images from one of the weekend fires.

In the court documents filed in Los Angeles, prosecutors disclosed that sheriff's detectives searching the Hollywood apartment rented by Burkhart and his mother found newspaper clippings about the Los Angeles fires as well as German newspaper articles about other suspected arsons in Frankfurt.

Judge Kalra prohibited the media from taking video or photographs of Burkhart after prosecutors said investigators were continuing to interview possible witnesses. A Times photographer took photos of Burkhart's attorney, who was standing directly in front of his client. But Kalra ordered that those images be deleted because two images included part of the defendant's biceps.