Crime & Justice

LA arson suspect makes wobbly appearance in court after being charged with 37 felony counts

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney of the Target Crimes Division address the media after a hearing at the Los Angeles County Superior Court for arson suspect Harry Burkhart.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney of the Target Crimes Division address the media after a hearing at the Los Angeles County Superior Court for arson suspect Harry Burkhart.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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The man suspected of setting more than 50 fires in the Los Angeles area appeared wobbly in a hearing at Los Angeles County Superior Court Wednesday afternoon. Harry Burkhart, 24, has been charged with 37 felony counts of arson. His arraignment was postponed to Jan. 24. Bail is now set at $2.85 million.

The Los Angeles District Attorney's Office has charged Burkhart with setting 52 fires over the New Year's holiday weekend that hit 12 addresses in the Hollywood, West Hollywood and Sherman Oaks areas, according to the District Attorney's Office.

In court Wednesday, Burkhart was attended by four Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies and appeared so wobbly he had to be held up at times. He sat with his brown hair tied back in a ponytail, strands falling down covering his eyes and face. Two deputies had to help him hold up his head, which flopped up and down and side to side during the roughly 20-minute hearing.

According to the 18-page charging document, Burkhart was charged with 28 "serious felony" counts of "arson of property of another" and nine counts of "arson of an inhabited structure or property" between Dec. 30 and Jan. 2. The fires primarily affected vehicles and carports, but also sometimes spread to structures. No serious injuries were reported, but the fires caused more than $3 million in property damage, officials said.

The complaint alleges the fires were caused by use of a device designed to accelerate the fire, but the investigation is ongoing, according to the District Attorney's Office.

District Attorney Steve Cooley and LAPD arson investigators sat in on the hearing Wednesday. Afterward, Cooley held a press conference where he said Burkhart should receive life in prison "for the amount of harm he did to the psyche of citizens" and potential harm he could have caused. Cooley said Burkhart acted "bizarrely" in court and wondered if he was "feigning it."

Burkhart, who travels on a German passport, was born in Chechnya, Cooley said. In court Wednesday, a German interpreter translated court proceedings. His mother, Dorothee Burkhart is being detained by federal authorities at the request of the German government for 19 fraud charges there.

Federal officials first noticed Harry Burkhart when he angrily erupted at his mother's initial hearing last Thursday. The fires began early Friday morning. Cooley said Burkhart "was set off by the incarceration of his mother, with whom he appears to be quite close." The two were sharing a Hollywood apartment and she was arrested by authorities Dec. 28.

"And he had latent anti-American views," Cooley continued. "That combination apparently set him off on this binge.”

Arson investigator Nordskog said Burkhart "intended to harm and terrorize as many residents of the city and county of Los Angeles as possible."

Burkhart was arrested by Reserve Deputy Sheriff Shervin Lalezary shortly before 3 a.m. Monday in West Hollywood after a tip from federal officials who recognized him from a surveillance video released to the public. Investigators searching Burkhart's vehicle and apartment found fire-starting materials and newspaper clippings of coverage of the Hollywood arson fires and similar car fires in Frankfurt from September 2011.

"It is highly likely the defendant has a history of setting arson fires in Germany before he came to the United States," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's arson investigator Ed Nordskog in court documents arguing Burkhart continue to be held without bail because of the danger of more fires.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has issued "immigration detainers" for both Burkharts.

If convicted, Burkhart could face a maximum sentence of up to 341 years in state prison, according to the charging document. A person found guilty of a felony charge of arson of an inhabited structure according to the California penal code 451 (b) could face up to eight years in state prison. For a felony charge of arson of property, Burkhart could face up to three years in prison under penal code 451 (d). Each charge also includes an up to five year sentence enhancement under penal code 451.1 (a), according to the charging documents.

"Arson of an inhabited structure is a violent felony punishable by state prison, not a state prison offense punishable by county jail," Cooley said.

The arraignment was postponed to Jan. 24 at the request of Burkhart's attorney, public defender Gustavo Sztraicher, who told the judge he needed more time to review boxes of documents. Sztraicher declined to comment on the case after the hearing.

Tami Abdollah can be contacted by email and Twitter (@LATams).