German national arrested in string of L.A. arson fires

LOS ANGELES — Authorities arrested a German man Monday in connection with dozens of suspected arson attacks that destroyed parked cars, scorched buildings and rattled much of the nation’s second-largest city over the New Year’s weekend.

Harry Burkhart, 24, was booked for investigation of arson of an inhabited dwelling and was being held without bail, authorities said. He is a German national, but authorities said they didn’t know how long he’s been in the United States. Police said he told arresting officers he’s from Frankfurt.

Burkhart was arrested earlier in the day because he resembled a “person of interest” captured on surveillance video. He was stopped by a reserve sheriff’s deputy in a van being sought by arson investigators, who did not rule out the possibility that others may be involved.

More than 50 blazes have flared since Friday in Hollywood, neighboring West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, causing about $3 million in damage. Firefighters have not responded to any other suspicious fires since Burkhart was detained.

Police declined to reveal any motive for the fires. When asked at a news conference about reports that an immigration problem with Burkhart’s mother may have been a factor, authorities declined to comment.

“We are very confident in this arrest, but we have a long way to go,” said Police Chief Charlie Beck, who mentioned receiving information from federal authorities who recognized Burkhart from the video. They believed he had been involved in removal hearings in immigration court, but they didn’t specify how he was involved.

Galina Illarionova, who lives in the same apartment complex as the suspect, told reporters through a Russian trans­lator that an agitated Burkhart visited her Sunday and said his mother was having some kind of legal trouble. He told her his mother was in trouble with authorities and wanted Illarionova to attend a legal hearing with him, but he later said he didn’t need her help.

The blazes forced many apartment dwellers from their homes. But there were no serious injuries — one firefighter was hurt in a fall from a ladder, and another person suffered smoke inhalation.

Most of the fires began in cars, and authorities have not said how they were started.

One of Saturday’s fires occurred at the Hollywood and Highland entertainment complex, a popular tourist destination bordered by the Walk of Fame in a neighborhood that includes Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Damaged buildings included a former home of Doors singer Jim Morrison in Laurel Canyon.

The onslaught of intentionally set fires left residents on edge over the holiday weekend in some of the most densely populated areas of the city. Hundreds of investigators, police officers and firefighters raced to deal with the blazes. Police conducted extra patrols all weekend, and the noise of helicopters and sirens persisted virtually nonstop in Hollywood.

Even longtime firefighters struggled to recall an arson outbreak involving so many fires. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Division Chief James Lopez recalled a notorious case from a generation ago, when California arson investigator John Orr was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 1984 killings of four people in one of multiple arsons he set over the course of years.

“Sometimes it’s pathological in nature,” Lopez said. “I think motives are going to be hard to come by. We may never know.”

Investigators were still busy Monday mapping out the sequence of the blazes, examining more than 100 clues and inter­viewing witnesses.

The fires left behind a trail of smoldering debris. Police urged residents to check their cars for any signs of tampering and to take simple precautions such as locking vehicles, keeping garage and carport lights on at night and reporting suspicious activity.

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