A man accused of setting a series of fires that terrorized Los Angeles over New Year’s weekend needed the help of deputies to stand at his first court appearance as new information surfaced about his home life.
Harry Burkhart, 24, appeared pale and unwell at the hearing at the state criminal courthouse in Los Angeles. He didn’t enter a plea on the 37 counts of arson that he’s charged with, saying only “yes” through a German interpreter when the judge asked whether he understood he had a right to be arraigned yesterday and when he agreed to a postponement.
California Superior Court Judge Upinder Kalra rescheduled the arraignment for Jan. 24 and set bail at $2.85 million, denying a request by prosecutors that Burkhart, a German citizen born in Chechnya, be held without bail. Burkhart’s public defender, Gustavo Sztraicher, said after the hearing that it was unlikely his client would be able to post bail.
Sztraicher declined to comment on the charges.
After Burkhart’s mother was arrested on Dec. 29, he went on an arson spree that lasted until his own arrest on Jan. 2, Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney said at yesterday’s hearing. Burkhart may have set as many as 52 fires by putting incendiary devices under the engines of parked cars, many of which were parked in carports of apartment buildings, Carney said.
‘Hatred of Americans’
“He has a hatred of Americans,” Carney told the judge. “This defendant engaged in a campaign of terror.”
Carney said Burkhart experimented with ways of setting the fires during the four-night spree and got more sophisticated. When police searched his residence, they found newspaper articles about the fires from the Los Angeles Times as well as articles from German newspapers about similar car fires in Frankfurt in September, according to a court filing.
Burkhart was picked up Jan. 2 after images of him, taken by a security camera, were distributed to the public and a reserve sheriff’s deputy stopped his minivan. The fires caused more than $3 million in damage, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said.
The 37 charges filed yesterday pertain to only 12 arson incidents and more charges will follow, Carney said at the hearing.
Burkhart’s mother, Dorothee, is also in detention, facing deportation to her native Germany on 19 counts of fraud, according to a complaint filed against her in federal court in Los Angeles.
Dorothee Burkhart, 53, is accused of not paying 7,680 euros ($9,930) owed for a 2004 breast augmentation, skipping out on rent on at least five apartments in Frankfurt and collecting rent and security deposits to which she wasn’t entitled, according to the complaint.
After she was charged in Germany, a Frankfurt court scheduled a trial in 2007. When Dorothee Burkhart didn’t appear, an arrest warrant was issued and international law enforcement agencies were asked to look for her, Doris Moeller-Scheu, spokeswoman for Frankfurt prosecutors said in an interview today.
A man who identified himself as her son was briefly detained Dec. 29 after shouting obscenities about the U.S. at her deportation hearing, according to Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles. She appeared in court again on Jan. 3, saying her son was mentally ill and asking if “German Nazis” were holding him.
Harry Burkhart is being probed for arson and fraud by prosecutors in Marburg, Germany, in connection with a fire set on Oct. 14 at an uninhabited house in the countryside, said Annemarie Wied, a spokeswoman for prosecutors in the city.
“The insurance company for the building was contacted on the same day and asked to cover the damage,” she said. “That’s why we are also looking into fraud.”
Harry and Dorothee Burkhart were listed as residents of two apartments in Los Angeles, according to public records. A phone number associated with one of the addresses was also used by someone offering massages who described herself in an online advertisement as a “beautiful, blonde, busty, sweet and very professional Tantra Goddess and Doctor Sexologist.”
A call to the number indicated that the voice-mail box was full.
The domain name hollywoodtantramassage.com is registered to Dorothee Burkhart, according to register.com.
The case is People v. Burkhart, BA392381, Los Angeles County Superior Court (Los Angeles).
To contact the reporters on this story: Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles at firstname.lastname@example.org; Edvard Pettersson in Los Angeles at email@example.com; Karin Matussek in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org