Jan. 03, 2012
State Department tip leads to arson suspect
Richard Winton, Ari Bloomekatz and Joe Mozingo | McClatchy-Tribune News Service
LOS ANGELES — They erupted almost simultaneously, a sudden barrage of fires about 1:30 a.m. that signaled the fourth night of the city's arson rampage. In 90 minutes, nearly a dozen vehicles had gone up in flames on both sides of the Hollywood Hills.
But this time, early Monday, police finally had an edge.
Hours before the fires began, the U.S. State Department officials had alerted authorities to a Los Angeles man connected to arson fires in Germany, according to law enforcement sources. The man had recently made a scene at a Los Angeles Immigration Court hearing and looked much like a "person of interest" caught earlier on a surveillance tape in a Hollywood parking structure.
Patrol officers were told he would be driving a blue Dodge minivan.
Police swarmed the area and set up a roadblock on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
At 3 a.m., a reserve sheriff's deputy spotted the minivan in West Hollywood and pulled it over near the Sunset Strip. The driver appeared to match the grainy video and inside his minivan, officials found fire starter sticks, police said. He was taken into custody, and the outbreak of fires came to a sudden halt.
"I feel very good that we've got the right guy," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said in an interview. "He had the right stuff in his van and I am confident in the arrest."
At a news conference Monday evening, Beck emphasized that the investigation was ongoing and that it could take some time to present the case to prosecutors. "We are confident in our investigation but we have a long way to go," he said.
The chief said the big break in the case came late Sunday, when federal officials recognized the image from the video and called the Los Angeles arson task force.
Law enforcement sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing, first said the suspect was a 55-year-old named Harry Burkhart.
They later said he was actually a 24-year-old German national who carried travel papers from Chechnya. He had spent time in Germany, they said, but had lived in Southern California for the last several years. They weren't clear on his alleged motives but speculated that he might have been furious over his mother's pending deportation.
A senior LAPD official said the suspect had attended a recent immigration hearing regarding his mother's case and erupted in a tirade, spewing angry anti-American statements.
He said the suspect has "some kind of arson connection" in his past in Germany.
The police are working closely with the State Department in Washington to learn more about the suspect, several sources said. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Monday that the U.S. Marshals Service also assisted Los Angeles police in identifying Burkhart.
TV footage showed Burkhart after his arrest, dressed in black and wearing his hair in a ponytail. He is seen grinning in an expression one witness described as "creepy."
Investigators are trying to determine if other people were involved in the arson rampage that had parts of the city on edge for four days.
Since Friday morning, at least 50 fires were set, mostly in the Hollywood area, but also on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. Many of the blazes were in carports and driveways, and spread to apartment buildings and homes.
Officials say the fires caused at least $3 million in damage to vehicles and structures, and the city spent considerable money shifting officers into the area to capture the arsonist.
Despite the hundreds of law enforcement officials on the case, the arrest was made by a reserve deputy, Shervin Lalezary. Sheriff Lee Baca said Lalezary is a Beverly Hills attorney who work as a reservist for $1 a year.
Over the holiday weekend, residents were on edge, peering out windows into the dark, keeping porch and garage lights on, and fixating on sirens in the distance. Los Angeles police and firefighters concentrated efforts in areas around Hollywood and North Hollywood, and surrounding agencies were on alert. The mode of attack was clear: throw some type of incendiary device under cars parked on street or in carports.
Still, the arsonist managed to avoid capture night after night.
Dennis Nanney, an actor, spent Sunday night peering out the window of his apartment. His neighborhood on Laurel Canyon Boulevard is crammed with small apartment buildings that have carports in back.
"I just knew these apartments were vulnerable, and from the news reports, this guy hits carports," Nanney said. "All night, I had trouble sleeping. I just had a weird feeling. I was stepping outside."
Nanney fell asleep shortly after 1 a.m.
Suddenly, Nanney was awakened by his neighbors' screams of "fire!" He jumped from his bed and ran outside.
A vehicle was engulfed in flames in the carport. Firefighters arrived quickly and put out the flames before they spread to other cars.
Nanney was furious that with all his vigilance, the arsonist pulled it off. "It happened right under my nose," he lamented.
But within an hour, less than a half-mile away, the suspect was sitting in the back of a squad car at Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.
A small group of bystanders gave him the middle finger - and he returned the gesture with a smile, according to one witness.
"It was creepy," said Rick Savage, a music producer.
Savage said he had been so nervous about the arsons that he downloaded a police scanner application onto his iPad. He started hearing reports that authorities had tracked down "a person of interest," so went to see for himself.
"For the past three nights, it's been freaking me out," he said.
Richard Winton, Ari Bloomekatz and Joe Mozingo write for the Los Angeles Times. Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com.
(Andrew Blankstein, Paloma Esquivel, Jason Felch, Sam Quinones, Joel Rubin and Garrett Therolf contributed to this report.)