Before 24-year-old Harry Burkhart became what police describe as one of Los Angeles’s most prolific serial arsonists, he lived a relatively normal life with his mother, Dorothee, above a hair salon in the Russian quarter of Los Angeles.
Neighbors described the younger Burkhart, a German national who carried travel papers from Chechnya, as childlike and reclusive. He liked to listen to heavy-metal music and eat pastries at a local bakery. But one topic that seemed to really get him going was politics. “He could be outspoken,” said hairstylist Shlomo Elady, who discussed global affairs with Burkhart while cutting his hair. “He wanted to know why there wasn’t peace between Israel and the Arabs.”
Dorothee, an impeccably dressed bleached blond with piercing green eyes, seemed to be the polar opposite of her shy son. She had a flamboyant personality and was often seen driving around the neighborhood blasting her car stereo. She was also described as a verbal bully, and an outrageous storyteller who would switch her identity as rapidly as her addresses, masquerading on different occasions as a German-Canadian psychologist, a physical therapist, a secretary, and a clothing exporter.
Those who crossed their paths over the years described Harry as an extremely loyal son and highly reliant on a mother who seemed to be just as dependent on him. In a letter describing her son’s numerous mental disabilities to Canadian immigration officials, she wrote: “He is intelligent, but his brain sends signals of fear and he feels that he is in danger except in my presence. He trusts only me and becomes very nervous when I am not around.”
Today, mother and son sit behind bars in separate jail cells in Los Angeles. She is facing deportation to Germany, accused of 19 counts of fraud there, including skipping out on a $10,000 bill for breast-augmentation surgery. He is on suicide watch in another jail nearby. Police say Burkhart, who was seemingly distraught over his mother’s pending extradition to Germany, began an arson rampage that terrorized L.A. over the New Year’s weekend. More than 50 fires were set over a five-day-period, many of them to cars that then ignited the homes they were parked at, causing at least $3 million in damage.
Presently, federal and local authorities are trying to sort through the Burkharts’ bizarre saga, which stretches across four countries, starting at their birthplace in Chechnya and ending on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. It is a tale of fascist conspiracies, run-ins with the law, a daring escape across Europe, pleas for political asylum in Canada, and the lurid online sex trade in Los Angeles.
As the story goes, Dorothee was born in the Soviet city of Grosny on December 31, 1958, to Otto and Ingrid Burkat. She claimed to have graduated from the University of Grosny with a teaching certificate in 1987. Seven years later, the single mother of two children fled to Germany when the war in Chechnya broke out. Because they were considered ethnic Germans, they were granted German citizenship within a few months.
She masqueraded on different occasions as a psychologist, a physical therapist, a secretary, and a clothing exporter.
There, Dorothee carved out a living as a taxi driver and soon began to run afoul of the law. In 2000, she was accused of renting out apartments and failing to return the security deposits at the end of the leases, keeping the funds for herself. She later told Canadian immigration authorities that she skipped out on the payments because she “had to run away all the time.”
“The fascists who were persecuting me arranged to have criminal charges brought against me,” she wrote.
Her grasp on reality soon seemed to slip even more. She claimed that another group of fascists harassed her while she was driving her cab one night and called her a “Russian swine.” She said that same group discovered her home address and began sending her hateful letters.
She also alleged her neighbors drew a swastika on her fence with a message that read “Russians Go Away,” accused another set of neighbors of spraying poison on the berries in her yard and killing four of her six dogs (as well as making her sick and turning her toenails black), and clashed with her son’s teachers who she claimed singled him out because of his autism.
One day, she said, a man showed up at her home saying that he was coming for an “erotic massage” in response to an advertisement in a local paper. “I was shocked and asked to see the ad,” she wrote in her asylum claim. “I phoned the number, and a woman’s voice on an answering machine directed me to my address. These advertisements must have been placed by the fascists, as part of their campaign against me.”
In June 2004, she skipped out on a $10,000 bill for breast-augmentation surgery after she “falsely told [a doctor] who owned a clinic in Frankfurt that an advance payment for breast-augmentation surgery in the amount of 7,680 euros was made by her husband through a bank transfer.”
Again, she was accused of ripping off tenants and refused to pay the rent and security deposits in Frankfurt from July 2005 to June 20, 2006. Authorities said she also passed herself off as a tour guide, making 2,700 euros a month.
In May 2005, Burkhart said German police broke down her door and searched her home, and discovered neo-Nazi fliers containing threats to her neighbors. She told Canadian immigration authorities that she was taken to a police station where she was drugged, beaten up, and given electric-shock treatment.
“They humiliated me, making me go on my hands and knees and bark like a dog before they would give me water,” she said. “They demanded that I acknowledge that I am crazy, and for that reason I had distributed statements against my neighbor. They told me I had to agree to undergo a psychological assessment.”
Mother and son seemed to bounce back and forth from Frankfurt to Las Vegas and Los Angeles for the next couple of years. On March 4, 2006, Dorothee filed a missing-persons report with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, claiming that Harry ran away after he “battered her.” She told police he was lost in the mountains and broke his arm. The police department sent out a search-and-rescue team to scour the mountains but never found him, said police spokesman Marcus Martin. “We spent a lot of money looking for him,” he said. Dorothee informed the police the next day that her son had returned home.
She showed up in Los Angeles in early 2007 and rented a two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, telling the apartment manager that she was a secretary and had recently relocated from Las Vegas. Her stay was short-lived. She was evicted three months later after the manager discovered she had transformed the apartment into a dormitory and was renting out the rooms to German and Russian immigrants. “She had seven or eight men living there,” said the manager, who didn’t want to be identified. “She was collecting $300 to $700 a month from each of them.”
She told Canadian authorities that she returned to Germany later that year because her son was not happy in the United States. “He told me that if I didn’t agree to move back to Germany, I would never see him again,” she said.
In May 2007, a month after they returned to Frankfurt, she was arrested by the police and sent to a woman’s prison to await trial for the earlier fraud charges. After four months in jail, she told Canadian immigration officials she developed heart problems from the torture she suffered at the hands of prison guards. She was transported to the Cardiology Centre in Frankfurt, where she escaped through an open bathroom window. Once outside, she ran to a nearby Metro and hopped a train. She contacted Harry and ordered him to meet her with their passports. The duo drove to Amsterdam and boarded a plane to Vancouver.
There, they applied for refugee status in December 2007, alleging persecution by fascists, and that they would be tortured and killed if they were sent back to Germany. “My son suffers from autism, and is seen by them as mentally defective and thus a disgrace to the race,” she wrote to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. (Oddly, part of their package for asylum included a letter from a Vancouver clinic stating that Harry had received a vasectomy.)
“I’m several disabled, we are alone, I have no father, no family members or friends, they could help us,” stated Harry’s refugee application, likely written by his mother. “We are here in Canada just to save our life. I ask you herewith, please help us, please look our case very serious. You decide about our life or dead. Please help us stay alive.”
While in Vancouver, they received financial assistance from local churches, which also helped them obtain subsidized housing next door to each other. Dorothee, who claimed she was a former schoolteacher, also had a run-in with a landlord who allegedly “terminated without reason” the lease of her office business called Ariane Beauty & Wellness. She filed a claim for $4,576. The landlord filed a counterclaim stating that Dorothee owed him three months’ rent, and that she intentionally “turned off a number of breakers that inconvenienced tenants on her floor and that tenants had complained about her aggressive manner.”
Her claim was dismissed by a provincial court adjudicator, after she didn’t show up for a hearing.
Their refugee claim was denied in late 2009, and after reviewing the application in May 2010, the Federal Court denied their appeal, arguing that there was zero evidence to support their claims, and that they should have asked for state protection in Germany before seeking help from Canada.
Then, it appears the Burkharts’ next move was to return to Los Angeles where Dorothee soon started a massage business called Hollywood Tantra Massage, which offered among other things “full body hot oil body to body sliding massage” and “sensual tantric loving erotic touch in combination with deep tissue, incl. g-spot and hotspots massage.” (According to a friend who didn’t want to be identified, Dorothee did not work as an escort but employed two Russian women.)
In October 2010, she moved into a $1,195 per month one-bedroom apartment on Poinsettia Place in Hollywood. She told the apartment manager she was a Russian-Canadian psychologist. Because she had little credit, she agreed to fork over double the damage deposit and first month’s rent. At the same time, she rented a single apartment on nearby Sunset Boulevard for Harry, telling that landlord that she was a physical therapist from Canada.
However, things went sour quickly at her Poinsettia Place apartment. Three days after she moved in, she threatened to call the police when the apartment manager notified her that he needed to install a bathroom mirror. A few days later, Harry showed up at the apartment at 2 a.m. to unload stacks of plywood, blocking the back entrance. Dorothee was evicted the following month after she refused to pay a $2.96 city tax. After she left, the landlord discovered that she had attempted to build separate rooms in the apartment.
“She was in and out of here quick,” said the landlord who didn’t want to be identified. “She found out she couldn’t set up shop here so she moved to an easier place. She didn’t like the fact that I was nosy.”
Things began to unravel for Dorothee and her son after she took him to the German consulate to renew his passport in October 2011. Soon, federal agents began appearing in the neighborhood, showing a picture of a woman with short, dark hair they said was Dorothee. One of the people they showed a photo to was parking attendant Nyoman Wijaya. He didn’t recognize her at first because her hair was blonde and much longer. Wijaya said he began to study her face when she picked up her car from the lot. After a few good looks, he said he was “100 percent sure.”
He immediately contacted federal agents and several days later they picked up Dorothee while she was driving around Hollywood in a blue minivan with her son. “She gets arrested and the son is mad,” he said.
At a recent court hearing, Dorothee displayed her usual penchant for the dramatic, claiming once again that she and her son were victims of “Nazi persecution.”
She also insisted she was beaten by the U.S. Marshals, and railed against a media sketch artist for drawing a bad picture of her. She also told reporters that they would be sued for suggesting she was a prostitute.
“I didn’t do anything, and my son didn’t do this arson,” she said. “My son is mentally ill. We are the victims, we are not criminals … If you see my son, tell him I love him. Never leave him alone to die here.”
As she left the courtroom in shackles, she made a last swipe at the assistant U.S. attorney who is fighting to extradite her: “How much money are you getting for my head and for the head of my son?”