It was another night of firefighters scrambling across the nation’s second largest city to snuff out a series of arson attacks when a tip came in about a German man who matched the description of someone with a shoulder-length ponytail captured on a surveillance video near where a car fire was reported.
Five hours later Harry Burkhart was pulled over by a reserve sheriff’s deputy who works for $1 a year and later booked for investigation of arson of an inhabited dwelling. Since the arrest, firefighters have not responded to any other suspicious fires.
While the investigation is ongoing – authorities haven’t ruled out the possibility that others may be involved – Burkhart’s arrest was a measure of relief to anxious residents who had grown fearful after several nights of seemingly random blazes.
“Our long four-day nightmare is over,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Police declined to reveal any motive for more than 50 fires that have occurred since Friday in Hollywood, neighboring West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, causing about $3 million in damage.
However, the 24-year-old who told officers he’s from Frankfurt may have been upset about his mother’s legal woes. When asked at a news conference about reports that an immigration problem with Burhkart’s mother may have been a factor, authorities declined to comment.
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 problems. 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.
“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.
Burkhart is being held without bail and was called by Sheriff Lee Baca as the “most dangerous arsonist in Los Angeles County that I can recall.” Authorities didn’t know how long he’s been in the United States and said he isn’t cooperating with them.
One of Baca’s reserve deputies, Shervin Lalezary, pulled over Burkhart’s van sought by arson investigators shortly after 3 a.m. Lalezary works as an attorney and he said was glad he helped out.
“I’m ecstatic that law enforcement gets to shine a little bit,” he told reporters.
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.
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.
Despite the arrest, authorities continued to urge vigilance.
“We’re not resting, and we’re not stopping” the extra patrols, police Cmdr. Andrew Smith said. “If you have lights in your carport area, keep them on tonight.”
Some other deliberately set fires were reported Thursday in Hollywood, and two people were arrested. But police said Monday that those suspects were not connected with the 52 other blazes.