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Los Angeles County Reserve Deputy Sheriff Shervin Lalezary (L) talks to reporters after he is introduced as the officer who arrested a serial arson suspect, at a press conference on January 2, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca (2nd R) and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (R) look on.
"Our long, four-day nightmare is over," L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told reporters Monday evening. No additional arson fires were set in the Los Angeles area after a reserve sheriff’s deputy detained 24-year-old Harry Burkhart of Hollywood on Monday morning.
The German national was identified by a federal official who recognized him from security footage released by police on Sunday night. The official was involved in a Los Angeles Immigration Court hearing at which "Burkhart lost his cool," Yaroslavsky said Tuesday. Burkhart had been battling the U.S. government over the immigration status of his mother and was allegedly furious over her pending deportation.
Los Angeles Fire Department information officer Brian Riley reported a total of 52 arson fires, one in Burbank, nine in West Hollywood and 42 in the city of Los Angeles. They were set in mostly residential areas, with two reported injuries and resulting property damage estimated to be around $3 million. Despite hundreds of law enforcement officers on the case, the arrest was made by a reserve deputy, Shervin Lalezary, his fourth night on the job. Police said they were confident about the arrest, but Chief Charlie Beck added a reminder that an "arrest is not a prosecution."
Joel Dvoskin, assistant clinical professor at the University of Arizona Medical School, has researched the psychological motivations behind arsonists. He said that the second most common stimulus is anger or revenge. "Not everybody is good at tolerating anger," he said. "The more anger, the more destructive the acts it might engender." According to Dvoskin, profit ranks as the highest incentive; arsonists may burn down certain residences or company buildings for personal gain.
Still, Dvoskin said that it's hard to make generalizations about arsonists. "The idea that there's sort of a profile of an arsonist is very dangerous," he said. "A lot of what people believe to be true about arson is based on the people who happen to get caught, and they may not be representative."
L.A. County Supervisor Yaroslavsky lives 3 blocks away from where one of the fires occurred. "The drone of fire engine sirens going through the communities all during the night was just the eeriest thing," he said.
Opposed to criminals that target a certain group or person, there was no evident pattern in the fire-setting. Yaroslavsky said that the randomness of crimes like these shakes up communities.
"You think 'It could be me, it could be anybody,'" he said. "Those are the kinds of things you can't explain, and when you can't explain it, it raises the level of anxiety."
How well did authorities respond to the string of arson fires? How safe do you feel now that an arrest has been made?
Brian Riley, inspector and information officer, LA County Fire Department
Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles County Supervisor representing the 3rd district
Joel Dvoskin, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona Medical School