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Los Angeles reserve deputy is reluctant -- and private -- hero

By Ashley Hayes, CNN
updated 7:13 AM EST, Sun January 8, 2012
Reserve Deputy Shervin Lalezary wins praise after arresting an arson suspect in a string of fires in the Los Angeles area.
Reserve Deputy Shervin Lalezary wins praise after arresting an arson suspect in a string of fires in the Los Angeles area.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A reserve deputy arrests arson suspect in a series of Los Angeles fires
  • Shervin Lalezary shuns the spotlight
  • Los Angeles arrest focuses attention on reserve deputies
  • The reservists take on officers' training, risks for $1 a year

(CNN) -- Call it good timing, divine intervention or just dumb luck.

What started out as a wee-hours traffic stop wound up catapulting a 30-year-old California real estate attorney and reserve sheriff's deputy into an unfamiliar -- and uncomfortable -- role: that of hero.

It was Shervin Lalezary who put the cuffs on Harry Burkhart, a 24-year-old German national whom Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca called "perhaps ... the most dangerous arsonist in the county of Los Angeles that I can recall."

Burkhart is suspected of setting a rash of car and building fires across the city. Following his arrest, no more suspicious fires were documented in Los Angeles, authorities said.

Lalezary was working his $1-per-year job as a reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department early January 2. Normally a part-time deputy, the Tehran, Iran, native had been working full time for four days as a spate of arson fires -- more than 50 in all -- had Angelenos on alert.

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"You just got the sense that everyone in the city was on edge, rightfully so, because of what was happening," Lalezary told reporters.

He recalled "seeing residents flee from their homes and basically run for their lives."

Armed with a description of a possible suspect and vehicle gleaned from a surveillance video released by police, Lalezary pulled over a van and shone a spotlight inside.

The man he saw fit the description -- a white male adult with a short ponytail and a receding hairline.

"That was very distinct information about a person," Lalezary said. The sighting "was a big key."

At the same time, two Los Angeles police officers, seeing Lalezary put on his flashing lights to initiate the traffic stop, pulled in behind him.

Questions remain about how much Lalezary knew about the man in the van when he pulled him over. The U.S. State Department said its agents recognized Burkhart on the surveillance video from a separate investigation and shared their knowledge with Los Angeles authorities.

Lalezary and the sheriff's department have stayed mum on that aspect. Asked why he pulled the van over, Lalezary flashed a boyish grin and said only, "Information that we had on him ... on the vehicle he was driving. There was a good deal of information being circulated."

But it was Lalezary who was thrust into the spotlight. Questioned by reporters hungry for more about him, he deftly deflected questions about himself and his personal life, choosing to praise the deputies at the sheriff's West Hollywood station.

"As a reserve deputy, I've seen what they do, and I've sat next to them in the car shift after shift after shift, and I have tremendous respect for what they do," he said. "They take the reserve program extremely seriously, and they treat us as one of them when we're in the car."

He declined to talk about any statements Burkhart may have made at the time, as well as his own emotional state.

Lalezary responded politely to an e-mail request for an interview but referred questions to the sheriff's department. He signed the e-mail, "Warmly, Shervin."

"He is very humble. He's a good kid," said sheriff's Capt. Phil Hansen, who heads the department's Reserve Forces Bureau.

He said Lalezary's reticence to accept accolades and his insistence on sharing credit with other officers may be part of the culture -- especially among the reserves.

"Part of being a reserve is striking that balance, because you're not full time," Hansen said.

Lalezary attended both UCLA and the University of Southern California, Baca said. He received his law degree at USC, according to the State Bar of California, which lists his law office as being on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. He was admitted to the bar in 2008.

"I've been interested in both law and law enforcement for several years, and I think each influences the other," he told reporters.

After moving from Iran with his family, Lalezary grew up in Beverly Hills, said Steve Whitmore, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Lalezary credits his family and upbringing with his desire to give back to the community, Whitmore said.

"He really does just want to provide community service to West Hollywood," Whitmore said.

While reserve deputies are required to work a minimum of 20 hours a month, Whitmore said Lalezary "loves it so much, he's out once or twice a week in a patrol car."

Lalezary's younger brother Shawn is also a reserve deputy and told reporters he now has "big shoes to fill."

"I'll continue to strive to be as good of a brother and deputy as he is," Shawn Lalezary said.

The incident has focused attention on reserve deputies, a program used nationwide to provide support for sheriff's departments.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has 844 reserve deputies in a variety of settings, including mounted patrols on horseback, search and rescue teams, dive teams and helicopter pilots, Hansen said.

The reserve deputies undergo the same training as full-time deputies, except the classes are offered on nights and weekends rather than during the day, he said.

And reserve deputies, with only a token salary, are subject to many of the same hazards as regular officers.

A Facebook page, "In Memory of our Auxiliary Police Officers," provides a lengthy list of reserve and auxiliary officers who died in the line of duty nationwide.

When patrolling, Hansen notes, "You never know what you're rolling up on."

Reserve deputies provided 175,000 hours to the sheriff's department last year, Baca said.

"That's a tremendous resource for our department," the sheriff said. "They're a huge part of what we do. These are people that really step forward and literally at times put their life on the line for a dollar a year."

Requirements for being a Los Angeles County reserve deputy include being a U.S. citizen, passing a thorough background check, holding a high school diploma and being employed or a full-time student. They are much the same requirements as for regular police officers or sheriff's deputies, Hansen said.

Lalezary became a Level 1 reserve deputy -- meaning he could patrol alone -- in December after completing the requisite 1,064 hours of training, Whitmore said. Burkhart's arrest came during Lalezary's fourth solo patrol shift.

"I think the beautiful thing about our program is it mirrors the full-time program exactly," Lalezary told reporters. While the training is held at different times, "everything we do is the same."

"When reserve deputies are out on patrol, the public doesn't know whether it's a reserve deputy or a full-time deputy," he said. "It makes no difference and rightfully so. The training doesn't make any difference either."

In many instances, the reservists are unsung heroes because of their assistance in cases that aren't as high profile, Hansen said. The search and rescue teams, for instance, "do some fabulous work, and they rescue people on a regular basis," he said. "The public just knows it's the sheriff's department. ... They're involved in some very dangerous and technically demanding rescue work in the mountains."

About a month ago, a reserve team helped local authorities recover the bodies of people who had died in a mining accident, he said.

Lalezary is "very humble," Hansen said. "He knows ... that there's another 843 folks that are doing very similar work and doing great things. ... In terms of the danger or the dedication and work ethic and everything else, there's a lot of other people doing the same thing on a daily basis."

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