Los Angeles Police identified the suspect in more than 50 arson fires as Harry Burkhart, a 24- year-old area resident who may have been motivated by immigration problems.
Burkhart was being held on a single charge of arson, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said yesterday at a press conference, adding additional charges are pending. Damages from the four days of fires amounted to about $3 million, he said.
A Joint Arson Task Force, created as the crisis unfolded, is investigating the fires, which have occurred since Dec. 30 and mostly involved vehicles. The agencies included the Los Angeles Fire and Police departments, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Fire departments and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“We are very confident in this arrest,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said at the press conference. U.S. officials “privvy to removal hearings” recognized Burkhart and alerted the task force, he said.
The suspect was picked up at about 3 a.m. yesterday in the area where fires have occurred. His minivan was stopped by reserve Sheriff’s Deputy Shervin Lalezary, 30, who works for $1 a year, according to officials at the briefing. The deputy was then assisted by two Los Angeles police officers.
Sheriff Lee Baca called Lalezary a “citizen hero.”
No new fires have been reported since Burkhart was taken into custody, Captain Jaime Moore, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman, said at an earlier briefing. The vehicle Burkhart drove contained materials that could be used to start fires, officials said.
Moore said investigators were looking at about 100 clues in the case, now believed to involve 52 incidents.
The van had Canadian license plates. Burkhart is believed to be a German national, Beck said.
A U.S. immigration official helped police identify Burkhart, radio station KFI reported. He may have set fires out of anger after his mother was held for deportation, the radio station said, citing law enforcement sources it didn’t identify.
The alleged arsonist may have employed fire-starting cubes that are often used with charcoal barbecues, the station said. They are sold at drug and grocery stores.
“Thankfully, there have been no lives lost to these criminal acts and only minor injuries to date,” Villaraigosa said. He identified the injured as one civilian and one firefighter who was treated at a hospital and released.
Officials had at first attributed as many as 55 fires to the alleged arsonist. Through the day they reduced the total, saying others were unrelated. The fires were reported in the Los Angeles area, West Hollywood and Burbank, according to Erik Scott, another Fire Department spokesman.
“We had a test run of what happens when we have a domestic terrorist among us,” West Hollywood Mayor John Duran said at the press conference.
Most of the fires were set in vehicles, many under parking structures, according to Scott.
“This frequency is unusual as well as the pattern,” Scott said in a Jan. 1 interview. “There are so many of them in a short period of time. This is one of the largest sprees of arson fires I have witnessed.”
Officials were offering a $60,000 reward, consisting of $25,000 from the city council, $10,000 from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and $25,000 from the county, Scott said.
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