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Los Angeles arson suspect charged with 37 counts

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 9:30 PM EST, Wed January 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Arson investigator says fires were "motivated by ... rage against Americans"
  • NEW: Fires follow arrest of defendant's mother on charges from her native Germany
  • Prosecutors file 37 arson charges against Harry Burkhart on Wednesday
  • Burkhart is suspected of arson and insurance fraud in Germany, an official says

Los Angeles (CNN) -- A German man arrested in Los Angeles early Monday after a string of 52 fires -- mostly in parked cars -- was charged Wednesday with 37 counts of arson, prosecutors said.

Harry Burkhart, 24, appeared in a Los Angeles court Wednesday in connection with one of the worst arson sprees in the city's history.

He is also under investigation for arson and fraud in his home country, a prosecution official in Germany said.

"After reviewing the available evidence, we filed 28 counts of arson of property and nine counts of arson of an inhabited structure," Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon. "The current charges relate to arson fires at 12 locations in Hollywood, West Hollywood and Sherman Oaks between December 30 and January 2."

The criminal complaint filed Wednesday also alleged that the fires were "caused by use of a device designed to accelerate the fire," Cooley said. "If found true, the allegation could mean additional custody time for the defendant."

In court Wednesday, Burkhart appeared unable to stand on his own. Three deputies tried to steady him as he appeared to be leaning back with his eyes closed. Burkhart was wearing a special "suicide gown" designed to prevent him from harming himself, according to one of the deputies who escorted him.

A sworn affidavit from a Los Angeles arson investigator detailed Burkhart's behavior a day before the fires began, when he was in a federal courtroom during extradition proceedings for his mother.

"While in the audience the defendant (Burkhart) began yelling in an angry manner, 'F--k all Americans.' The defendant also attempted to communicate with his mother who was in custody. Shortly thereafter, the defendant was ejected from the courtroom by Deputy U.S. Marshals," investigator Edward Nordskog wrote in the affidavit.

A day later, on December 30, the arson fires began.

"The defendant set the fires by placing an incendiary device under the engine area of the cars," Nordskog wrote in the affidavit.

"It is my opinion that the defendant's criminal spree was motivated by his rage against Americans and that by setting the fires the defendant intended to harm and terrorize as many residents of the city and county of Los Angeles as possible," Nordskog wrote.

Superior Court Judge Upinder Kalra rejected the prosecution request for no bail for Harry Burkhart and set his bail at $2.85 million He must also surrender his German passport.

No one was hurt in the fires, but property damage costs are likely to reach $3 million, authorities said.

On Wednesday, a German official said Burkhart was also under investigation in relation to a fire in Neukirchen, near Frankfurt.

A house owned by his family burned down in October 2011, said Annemarie Wied, the spokeswoman for the state prosecutor's office in Marburg.

"The evidence points to arson," Wied said, "because the complete inside of the house was devastated by the fire and two sources for the fire were discovered inside the building."

"No one was inside the house when the fire department was called and a claim was made with the insurance company only a day later," she added.

Wied said the investigation for arson and attempted insurance fraud was still in the early stages.

The fires began after police arrested his mother, 53-year-old Dorothee Burkhart, during a traffic stop December 28.

She was the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by a district court in Frankfurt, Germany, said court spokesman Gunther Meilinger, and is wanted on 16 counts of fraud and three counts of embezzlement.

The charges include an allegation that Dorothee Burkhart failed to pay for a breast enhancement operation performed on her, Meilinger said. U.S. court documents show she allegedly told the Frankfurt clinic in June 2004 that an advance payment of 7,680 euros was made by her husband through a bank transfer. As a result, the breast augmentation surgery was performed the next day.

However, the court documents said, no money had been transferred and the clinic was not paid for the surgery.

Most of the German charges, however, stem from phony real estate deals that Dorothee Burkhart allegedly conducted between 2000 and 2006.

In many cases, Meilinger alleged, she pretended to rent out an apartment she did not own, collected a deposit and then broke off contact with the prospective renters. In other cases, he said, she allegedly lived in apartments without paying rent. The embezzlement charges refer to instances in which she allegedly collected deposits for apartments and could not pay them back when they were due.

Under German law, the alleged crimes constitute "severe fraud," Meilinger said. They typically carry a minimum sentence of six months in prison, although some defendants can receive suspended sentences.

The international arrest warrant is valid for the European Union and also in countries with bilateral agreements with Germany, including the United States, he said.

The Frankfurt court is readying paperwork for an extradition request, which should be filed in the next few days, he said.

The day after her arrest in California, the first of the fires began in Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, Dorothee Burkhart appeared before a U.S. magistrate judge and did not appear to know that her son had been arrested.

"What did you do to my son?" she yelled at the judge during the hearing. "My son is disappeared since yesterday. Perhaps the German Nazis know of our address."

The mother left Germany in October for California, where she lived with Burkhart in a Hollywood apartment, according to court documents and authorities.

Wied said authorities have not determined whether Dorothee Burkhart could be involved in the German fire.

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

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

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