Police probe motive in LA arson spree

Jan 3 2012 - 11:10am

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Los Angeles Police Department officers evacuate residents of an apartment building as multiple cars burn in a carport in the Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011. For the third night in a row, a rash of arson fires has sent firefighters scrambling to extinguish car fires in various neighborhoods in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters extinguishes numerous cars on fire in a carport in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles on Monday, Jan. 2, 2012. For the fifth night in a row, a spate of arson fires has sent firefighters scrambling to extinguish car fires in the Hollywood, Hollywood Hills, Studio City, and Sherman Oaks neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Fire Department confirms a person of interest has been detained and is being questioned in connection with the arson spree. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
Los Angeles firefighters battle an arson car fire under a carport in Los Angeles Monday, Jan. 2, 2012. Twelve suspected arson fires broke out early Monday in the Los Angeles area. A "person of interest" was taken into custody for questioning in connection with the dozens of suspicious car fires that have hit the city during the past week. (AP Photo/Mike Meadows)
A car owner tries to retrieve possessions from his vehicle as it burns due to arson early Monday, Jan. 2, 2012, in a parking lot in Los Angeles. Eleven more suspected arson fires broke out early Monday in Los Angeles. A person of interest was taken into custody for questioning in connection with the dozens of suspicious car fires that have hit the city since last week. (AP Photo/Mike Meadows)
Thirty-year-old real estate attorney and reserve Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff Shervin Lalezary, left, is applauded by Los Angeles County Sheriff Le Baca, center, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, right, and the rest of the attending officials at a task force news conference for his arrest of prime suspect Harry Burkhart, sought in a series of 53 blazes in the Los Angeles Area, Monday, Jan. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)
Los Angeles Police Department officers evacuate residents of an apartment building as multiple cars burn in a carport in the Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011. For the third night in a row, a rash of arson fires has sent firefighters scrambling to extinguish car fires in various neighborhoods in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters extinguishes numerous cars on fire in a carport in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles on Monday, Jan. 2, 2012. For the fifth night in a row, a spate of arson fires has sent firefighters scrambling to extinguish car fires in the Hollywood, Hollywood Hills, Studio City, and Sherman Oaks neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Fire Department confirms a person of interest has been detained and is being questioned in connection with the arson spree. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
Los Angeles firefighters battle an arson car fire under a carport in Los Angeles Monday, Jan. 2, 2012. Twelve suspected arson fires broke out early Monday in the Los Angeles area. A "person of interest" was taken into custody for questioning in connection with the dozens of suspicious car fires that have hit the city during the past week. (AP Photo/Mike Meadows)
A car owner tries to retrieve possessions from his vehicle as it burns due to arson early Monday, Jan. 2, 2012, in a parking lot in Los Angeles. Eleven more suspected arson fires broke out early Monday in Los Angeles. A person of interest was taken into custody for questioning in connection with the dozens of suspicious car fires that have hit the city since last week. (AP Photo/Mike Meadows)
Thirty-year-old real estate attorney and reserve Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff Shervin Lalezary, left, is applauded by Los Angeles County Sheriff Le Baca, center, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, right, and the rest of the attending officials at a task force news conference for his arrest of prime suspect Harry Burkhart, sought in a series of 53 blazes in the Los Angeles Area, Monday, Jan. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

LOS ANGELES -- 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.

 

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