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How the L.A. Arsonist Was Caught

With the exception of some serial-killer investigations, I’ve never in my long career seen as much investigative weight thrown into a case.

by
Jack Dunphy

Bio

January 10, 2012 - 12:01 am

For all the resources devoted to the case, for all the high-tech wizardry employed in the effort to identify the arsonist, what finally broke the case was simple, old-fashioned police work combined with a lucky grab from a security camera. One of the fires set on Dec. 31 was in the parking lot of the Hollywood & Highland Center, a shopping and entertainment complex best known as the site of the Academy Awards. Videos from the security cameras were scrutinized and a lone male stood out from all the other visitors. Dressed in black and wearing his long dark hair in a ponytail, the man’s movements through the complex seemed odd and out of place. With nothing more to go on, investigators circulated the grainy surveillance images to the media and waited by the phones as they were shown on television.

At ten in the evening on New Year’s Day, Deputy U.S. Marshal Luis Flores was at home watching the news on television when he saw the video images and recognized the man. Also watching the news was Jonathan Lamb, a special agent with the U.S. State Department who had worked with Flores on a case involving a German fugitive recently captured in Los Angeles. He, too, recognized the man in the video.

Flores and Lamb had worked together to capture Dorothee Burkhart, 53, who was wanted in Frankfurt for defrauding several victims out of thousands of dollars. (This being a Hollywood story, it’s only fitting that among her alleged victims was the doctor who performed her breast-augmentation surgery in 2004.) The man in the video, Flores and Lamb were certain, was Dorothee Burkhart’s 24-year-old son, Harry Burkhart.

Flores and Lamb contacted the LAPD, and soon officers in the field were supplied with Harry Burkhart’s photograph and a complete description of the minivan he was believed to be driving. At around 3 a.m. on Jan. 2, a reserve Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy, a rookie at that, spotted the minivan in Hollywood and made a traffic stop. Burkhart was arrested, and evidence linking him to the series of fires was recovered from the minivan. Despite all the resources devoted to the case, Burkhart’s name had not popped up previously in the investigation.

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