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Reports: Mother's arrest may be L.A. arson motive

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 8:34 PM EST, Tue January 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Harry Burkhart's mother has no lawful immigration status, ICE says
  • Dorothee Burkhart is wanted in Germany on 19 fraud counts
  • LAPD arrests her during a traffic stop on an extradition warrant a day before the first Hollywood fires
  • 52 fires cause $3 million damage in the Los Angeles area

Los Angeles (CNN) -- The mother of a German national suspected of one of the worst arson sprees in Los Angeles history appeared before a U.S. magistrate judge Tuesday in the German government's effort to extradite her on fraud charges.

Harry Burkhart, 24, may have been motivated to set the fires by his mother's arrest, according to officials and CNN affiliates.

His mother, 53-year-old Dorothee Burkhart, was arrested by Los Angeles police during a traffic stop on December 28, a day before the first of 52 fires, mostly in parked cars, that investigators suspect were part of a series of arsons.

The son, who was arrested Monday, was charged with one count of arson of an inhabited dwelling. He is likely to face additional charges as the investigation moves forward, said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Harry Burkhart remains jailed without bail and is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday.

"What did you do to my son," Dorothee Burkhart, yelled at the judge during her hearing Tuesday. "My son is disappeared since yesterday. Perhaps the German Nazis know of our address."

It did not appear that she knew her son had been arrested a day earlier on the arson charge.

She turned down an offer of a court-appointed lawyer and was given until her next hearing Friday to hire a defense attorney.

A federal extradition complaint said she is wanted in Germany on 19 counts of fraud, including an allegation that she defrauded the doctor who performed breast augmentation surgery on her in 2004. The other fraud charges center on rent and security deposits for apartments in Frankfurt, Germany, the complaint said.

A website advertising "sensual tantra massage" and offering "full body hot oil body to body sliding massage" is registered to Dorothee Burkhart using a Hollywood address, according to a domain registry database. She lived with her son in a Hollywood apartment, according to the complaint.

Investigators seized press clippings of arson attacks in Germany from the apartment, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Dorothee Burkhart last entered the United States lawfully in January 2007 and left the country four months later, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She currently has no lawful immigration status and ICE has lodged an immigration detainer against her, it said.

A court document released earlier on Tuesday incorrectly stated that Dorothee Burkhart had most recently entered the United States in October, according to ICE.

Harry Burkhart was in the United States lawfully at the time of his arrest on a non-immigrant visa, which expires on January 18, ICE said. The agency has similarly lodged an immigration detainer against him.

Arson investigators counted 52 fires, most starting in parked cars, since Friday morning, but none since the suspect was detained at 3 a.m. Monday, according to officials.

No one was hurt in the fires, but property damage is likely to reach $3 million, said Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that after Los Angeles police released a surveillance video of a man seen near the scene of one fire, agents in the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security field office recognized Burkhart.

Multiple CNN affiliates reported the alleged arson spree could have stemmed from a deportation battle between the suspect and immigration officials involving Burkhart's mother.

After his arrest, Burkhart told investigators, "I hate America," according to CNN affiliate KABC.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said officials believe -- and hope -- the fires were set by one person. But they will proceed as though others may be involved until they know for sure, Beck said.

"I feel very good that we've got the right guy. (The suspect) had the right stuff in his van, and we are confident in the arrest," Beck said.

Neighbor Galina Larimoda told KABC-TV through a Russian translator that Harry Burkhart knocked on her door Sunday and seemed angry and not "completely normal."

Los Angeles County Reserve Sheriff's Deputy Shervin Lalezary, who draws a salary of $1 a year, was hailed as a hero for arresting Burkhart.

Lalezary, an Iranian-born lawyer who moonlights as a deputy, pulled over a van in Hollywood driven by a man who resembled the person seen on the surveillance video. With the help of backup officers, he then arrested the driver, Burkhart.

CNN's Chuck Conder, Alan Duke, Paul Vercammen, Mike Ahlers, Ashley Hayes, Lateef Mungin, and Irving Last contributed to this report.

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