WEST HOLLYWOOD—The trial for a 29-year-old undocumented German immigrant started on Monday, August 15. The prosecution alleges that the defendant, Harry Burkhart is responsible for nearly 50 fires throughout the San Fernando Valley during a four-day arson spree in 2011.
Burkhart was charged in 2012 and indicted last year for a number of charges against him. He plead not guilty by reason of insanity on 25 counts of arson of property, 19 counts of arson of an inhabited dwelling, one count of arson of structure and two counts each of possession of an incendiary device and attempted arson, according to the criminal complaint.
Prior to the crimes, Burkhart’s Russian-born mother—Dorothee—was ordered to be extradited to Germany and investigators believe the arson-spree was Burkhart’s response to her exile and a retaliation against America.
During his mother’s deportation hearing, the suspect became enraged and allegedly proceeded to shout profanities—slandering America—and had to be escorted out of the room by U.S. Court Marshalls, according to a court declaration prepared by a sheriff’s investigator.
“Los Angeles burned because Harry Burkhart, in his own words, which you will learn, wanted to, ‘Roast America,'” said Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney.
Burkhart is being accused of planting incendiary devices beneath the front of cars on December 30 and December 31, 2011 and January 2, 2012, according to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli. He is suspected of driving a minivan throughout Los Angeles, stopping at a number of cars, placing incendiary devices under the front and then lighting the devices before driving away.
An incendiary device is a slow, but long-burning, pressed-wood fire starter with a paraffin block that ignites quickly, but burns out rapidly; the devices were placed beneath vehicles and lit within a matter of seconds – it takes 10 minutes or more for the plastic inside of the cars to catch a visible flame, leaving Burkhart plenty of time to flee.
An arson investigator is slated to testify that the combination of remnants—which was found at all 47 of the fires—is unfamiliar in the United States, but a common method in Europe – where Burkhart is from.
When images of a “person of interest” surfaced, a federal law enforcement officer—who had witnessed Burkhart’s outbursts, recognized the photo and gave local authorities his name, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Burkhart was arrested on January 2, 2012 by a reserve sheriff’s deputy when his van was spotted at Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. The suspect’s DNA was found on a canister of propane and a box of matches from two separate fires and identified as a “match of 1 in 150 quintillion,” said Carney.
The defense is arguing that Burkhart suffers from multiple mental disorders, including autism and schizophrenia, adding that he was also being treated for a cancerous mass in his chest.
“Most importantly I will ask you all to keep an open mind,” said Burkhart’s attorney Steve Schoenfeld to the jury.
Despite the defenses objections, Judge Lomeli ruled that the jury will be allowed to hear about four other fires in which Burkhart is suspected to have committed, but has not yet been charged for. If he is convicted, the jury will be asked to determine if they deem him sane at the time of the crimes.
The trial is expected to last approximately six weeks.