Inside Los Angeles Arson Suspect Harry Burkhart’s Arrest

Christine Pelisek reports on how a quick-thinking agent at the State Department recognized the suspect.

AP Photo

The call came in around 7 p.m. on Sunday night to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ 24-hour tip line in Washington, D.C. A State Department agent had recognized a surveillance video of a suspect wanted in a series of arson fires in Los Angeles. The agent had been in federal court on Dec. 29 when a young man became enraged and began spouting anti-American remarks at a deportation hearing for his mother, a German citizen. He had to be detained briefly and was escorted out of the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Harry Burkhart, 24, resembled the dark-haired, ponytailed man with a receding hairline and unusual gait who was seen on the surveillance video leaving a car fire in the garage of the Hollywood and Highland Entertainment complex the day before.

The State Department agent reported his suspicions to an ATF special agent and an arson investigator at the Los Angeles Fire Department. The two investigators, both members of the ATF/Los Angeles Fire Department Arson/Counterterrorism Section, interviewed the tipster and shortly afterward the information, which included the type of car Burkhart drove, was relayed to local Los Angeles law enforcement.

“The information passed along to the investigators was instrumental in arresting Burkhart,” said Christian Hoffman, a special agent with the ATF’s Los Angeles field division.

A huge manhunt for Burkhart ensued.

Police soon learned that Burkhart’s 53-year-old mother was in custody on a provisional arrest warrant at the request of German police. The U.S. Marshals Service had picked her up the week before after German authorities alerted American law enforcement officials that she flew into Las Vegas from Frankfurt on Oct. 20, 2011. U.S. immigration officials, however, said Burkhart last entered the U.S. in 2007.

Dorothee Burkhart, who authorities said could have gang ties, had been evading German authorities since Sept. 24, 2007. In Germany, she was accused of 19 counts of fraud, including skipping out on a $10,000 bill for breast augmentation surgery. According to federal court papers, in 2004 Burkhart “falsely told [a doctor] who owned a clinic in Frankfurt am Main that an advance payment for Burkhart’s breast augmentation surgery in the amount of 7,680 euros was made by Burkhart’s husband through a bank transfer.”

The doctor performed the surgery the following day, but the funds were not transferred to the doctor’s account.

In addition, Dorothee Burkhart was accused of running a rental scam through which she allegedly bilked renters out of their security deposits and masqueraded as a tour guide and owner of a number of apartment buildings, collecting rental fees and security deposits “for these apartments that she was not entitled to receive.”

At the time of her arrest, she was residing with her son in a second-story Sunset Boulevard apartment he had been living in on and off for at least two years. In recent months, she had accompanied her son to the German consulate in Los Angeles, where he planned to renew his passport.

While she was living in Los Angeles, Burkhart 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.”

The website touts a “doctor sexologist and tantra goddess for more than 16 years” who “have the lives of many men who had various types of sexual (erection, ejaculation) problems, changed completely.”

It looks like mother and son also spent time in Vancouver, British Columbia, over the last three years. According to an article in the Vancouver Sun, a Dr. Blaga Stancheva wrote a letter dated March 23, 2010, claiming that Harry Burkhart “suffered from autistic spectrum disorder since he was a young child and is ‘not stable mentally.’” The doctor wrote that, “together with autism, he has severe anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and a sleeping condition.”

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The newspaper reported that Stancheva wrote the letter as part of a “motion to move the date of a trial for a small claims case in which [Dorothee] was involved in B.C provincial court.”

The Vancouver Sun also reported that the immigration and refugee board of Canada denied a refugee claim for Burkhart and her son in November 2009. In denying Harry Burkhart’s claim, immigration officials said he was “not a person in need of protection.” An appeal was filed, but it was dismissed in May of 2010.

While in Vancouver, Dorothee Burkhart also had a run-in with a landlord who allegedly “terminated without reason” the lease of her office business called Ariane Beauty & Wellness, located near Granville Island. She filed a claim for $4,576. The landlord filed a counterclaim stating that Burkhart 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.

The Burkharts’ Los Angeles apartment, located above Le Figaro Hairstyling in the Russian quarter of Los Angeles, was in the area where the arson spree began on Dec. 30.

The fires began the day after Dorothee Burkhart made her first court appearance in federal court. At the hearing, her son was ushered out of the building by security personnel after making anti-American remarks. Police will not say whether the incident was the impetus for the arsons Burkhart allegedly committed.

The ensuing fires quickly put the residents of Los Angeles on edge. Early Friday morning, 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 residence, which was built in 1922. All of the Friday fires, which began after midnight, occurred within a two square mile radius. One firefighter was injured while fighting one of the blazes and was taken to a local hospital.

The following night, 14 vehicles were set on fire in North Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, the Wilshire district of Los Angeles, Los Angeles’s Westside, and the nearby city of Lennox. Seven additional arson fires were set on New Year’s Eve.

At 3 a.m., eight hours after the tip from the State Department agent was broadcast to law enforcement across the city, Shervin Lalezary, a Beverly Hills real estate lawyer and part-time sheriff’s reserve officer spotted Burkhart driving a dark blue minivan with British Columbia license plates. Lalezary, a 30-year-old Iranian-born American citizen, recognized Burkhart and pulled him over on a routine traffic stop near a drugstore on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. Two LAPD patrol officers, who were in the area at the time, assisted Lalezary. According to a witness, as Burkhart was stepping out of the van, he told officers: “I hate America.”

Harry Burkhart, who is reportedly a German national with immigration papers from the Russian republic of Chechnya, was taken into custody on Monday morning, shortly after he allegedly set 11 fires within a two-hour span across Hollywood. Later that day, he was charged with one count of arson; he is being held in lieu of $250,000 bail.

It is believed that Burkhart used a fire accelerant similar to charcoal to start the fires.

Meanwhile, Dorothee Burkhart remains in federal custody pending extradition to Germany to face the fraud charges. In court today, the short stout blond matriarch, who was ushered into court wearing wrist and leg chains, repeatedly demanded to know what happened to her son, seemingly unaware that he had been arrested early Monday morning.

“My first question is where is my son?” she said in heavily accented English. “What did you do to my son?”

“Where is he?” she added. “Dead? Maybe the German Nazis know about our address. He is mentally ill.”

Dorothee Burkhart refused the aid of a federal public defender and asked for a private attorney to represent her. Her next federal court appearance is set for this Friday. Her son, who is being held at the Inmate Reception Center in downtown Los Angeles, next door to where his mother is being detained, is scheduled to appear in Los Angeles superior court Wednesday.