01.03.12

Los Angeles Serial-Arson Suspect Charged

Are the arson attacks terrorizing L.A. over? A 24-year-old Hollywood man, said to be from Germany, is in custody. Christine Pelisek on why the police say they have their man.

Los Angeles police arrested a 24-year-old Hollywood man who they say is the serial arsonist responsible for 53 fires that besieged the City of Angels for four days over New Year’s weekend. Harry Burkhart was charged with one count of arson and is being held in lieu of $250,000 bail at the Inmate Reception Center in downtown L.A.

“He is the most dangerous arsonist in Los Angeles County that I can recall,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca at an early-evening news conference.

Burkhart’s arrest may bring an end to a rampage that has caused more than $3 million in damage to cars and property in Hollywood and the surrounding cities. Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said Burkhart, who has been living in a Sunset Boulevard apartment near where the fires occurred, became a “person of interest” two days earlier. A State Department official said he recognized Burkhart in a surveillance video that showed a heavyset man with a receding hairline and ponytail walking away from a car fire that was set in the parking garage of the Hollywood & Highland entertainment complex, the home of the Academy Awards. Apparently Burkhart had caused a stir at a Los Angeles Immigration Court hearing a few weeks earlier. The State Department official, who was at the hearing, saw the footage of Burkhart and alerted the police.

Burkhart was taken into custody on Monday morning, shortly after he allegedly set 11 fires within a two-hour span across Hollywood.

“A long four-day nightmare is over,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “We will all have a good night’s sleep tonight.”

So far, little is known about the alleged serial arsonist or his motive. Some local media reported that Burkhart, who told police he was born in Frankfurt, Germany, was in a dispute with the U.S. government over his mother’s immigration status. Another news agency said Burkhart was in the country on a work visa that was set to expire. One police source told The Daily Beast that Burkhart may have a Russian or Chechen connection. Police declined to release any information on the suspect.

Burkhart’s alleged reign of terror may have continued if not for the quick thinking of a Beverly Hills real-estate lawyer who’s also a part-time sheriff’s reserve officer and was on his fourth shift as a deputy. Shervin Lalezary, a 30-year-old American citizen who was born in Tehran, spotted a man fitting a description of the suspect at 3 a.m. Monday morning near the corner of Sunset and Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood. The man, who turned out to be Burkhart, was driving a dark blue minivan with British Columbia license plates. Lalezary, who was privy to the information passed on by the State Department, recognized Burkhart and pulled him over on a routine traffic stop near a drugstore. Two LAPD patrol officers, who were in the area at the time, assisted Lalezary with detaining him.

According to a witness, as Burkhart was stepping out of the van, he told officers: “I hate America.”

The arson spree began early Friday when 21 cars and small trucks were set ablaze in Hollywood and West Hollywood. Most of the cars were set afire in carports or underground parking structures. Flames ignited nearby homes, including Jim Morrison’s former $1.19 million Hollywood Hills home, which was built in 1922. All of the Friday fires, which began after midnight, occurred within a two-square-mile radius in an area filled with sleeping residents.

Local media had been reporting that the arsonist was using some kind of Molotov cocktail to smash through the car windows. Fire department officials are not saying what they suspect Burkhart used to ignite the fires.

According to a witness, as Burkhart was stepping out of the van, he told officers: “I hate America.”

Police said they believe two additional people were involved in the  fires. On Thursday, the LAPD arrested 22-year-old Samuel Arrington as he was attempting to torch a fuel tank on a pressure washer. Police suspected that Arrington was also involved in a trash-bin fire and a nearby carport fire where four vehicles and an apartment were damaged along a five-block stretch of Sunset Boulevard. He was booked on suspicion of attempted arson, and is being held in lieu of $75,000 bail.

The following morning, police arrested Alejandro Pineda for starting a garbage fire in the same area as the other attacks. He was booked for arson of property and is being held in lieu of $50,000 bail.