LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A German citizen was charged on Wednesday with setting dozens of fires across Los Angeles over the New Year’s weekend in a spree an arson investigator said was motivated by a “rage against Americans.”
Harry Burkhart, 24, who is also wanted in Germany on suspicion of burning down his home, was charged with 37 counts of arson stemming from the three-day wave of fires that caused an estimated $3 million in damage and left residents of Los Angeles and surrounding communities shaken.
Burkhart, who was guarded closely by three sheriffs deputies and at times appeared disoriented during a brief hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court, was ordered held on $2.85 million bail.
Prosecutors asked the judge to order Burkhart, who was born in Chechnya, held without bail, citing his German citizenship and saying he posed a danger to the community.
Police arson investigator Edward Nordskog said most of the more than 50 fires were set late at night, while the occupants of apartment buildings were sleeping.
“It is my opinion that the defendant’s criminal spree was motivated by his rage against Americans and that by setting these fires (the) defendant intended to harm and terrorize as many residents of the city and county of Los Angeles as possible,” Nordskog wrote in court papers.
Nordskog did not say what he believed touched off the anti-American rage in Burkhart, whose mother is facing possible extradition to Germany on fraud charges.
A law enforcement official said Burkhart has been held on suicide watch at the Los Angeles County jail since his arrest on Monday.
State prosecutors in Germany said Burkhart was suspected of starting a fire that burned down his family’s home in Neukirchen.
“He is accused of serious arson and suspected fraud. In the early hours of October 14, a timbered house went on fire in the Schwalm-Eder district and this person came under suspicion,” said German state prosecutor Annemarie Wied.
Burkhart’s 53-year-old mother, Dorothee Burkhart, was arrested last week in Los Angeles on a provisional warrant issued by German authorities and was facing extradition.
The elder Burkhart, who has been living in a Los Angeles apartment with her son, faces multiple charges of fraud and embezzlement in Germany, according to court documents.
She is accused of failing to pay a bill for breast augmentation, failing to return security deposits on rental properties she leased, and accepting money for apartment units she did not own, the court documents showed.
Dorothee Burkhart, also a German citizen, seemed unaware during a court appearance on Tuesday that her son had been arrested and asked a judge if the “German Nazis” were responsible for him disappearing.
There was conflicting information on how long Dorothee and Harry Burkhart have lived in the Los Angeles area.
A website for an erotic massage service based in Los Angeles is registered to a Dorothee Burkhart who shares the same address as Harry Burkhart. The site advertises topless but non-sexual sessions by appointment only.
Harry Burkhart was arrested after a tip from a member of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security field office who recognized him on surveillance videotape from an outburst during his mother’s initial court hearing, a state department spokeswoman said.
According to the declaration filed by Nordskog, Harry Burkhart was ejected from the courtroom during December 29 extradition proceedings for his mother after angrily shouting a profanity against Americans.
A man resembling Burkhart was captured on security cameras leaving the scene of several of the fires, which caused no fatalities. One firefighter was injured and another person suffered from smoke inhalation.
One of the fires damaged a house in the Hollywood Hills where late rocker Jim Morrison was inspired to write the 1968 song “Love Street” about his girlfriend.
Additional reporting by Hillel Aron in Los Angeles and Sarah Marsh in Berlin; Editing by Cynthia Johnston