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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 a few days over the long New Year’s weekend, it looked as though someone was determined to burn down the entire city of Los Angeles, building by building and car by car. And for just as many days, it looked as though he might eventually pull it off, so flummoxed were firefighters and police at the number and apparent randomness of the attacks.

Beginning in the early morning hours of December 29 and continuing until the early morning of January 2, more than 50 fires were set in the Los Angeles area, most of them in and around Hollywood but with some occurring over the hill and far out into the San Fernando Valley. Most of the fires began with cars torched in carports and garages, but many of the blazes spread to homes and apartment buildings. No one was seriously injured but scores were made homeless and many others lost their cars. With most of the fires set in the dead of night, the attacks were all the more disquieting.

A crime spree like this one has the potential to bring a city to its knees, so the LAPD mobilized every asset at its disposal to bring it to a stop. With the exception of some serial-killer investigations, I’ve never in my long career seen as much investigative weight thrown into a case. Most of the LAPD’s detectives were scheduled to be off over the weekend, yet dozens of them from all over the city canceled their holiday plans so as to field tips from the public and follow up on any that looked promising. Yet for all of the information that flowed in, there was nothing that pointed police toward any one suspect. On New Year’s Eve in Hollywood, a night when even in ordinary circumstances things tend to get crazy, the usual heavy deployment of officers was supplemented by uniformed and undercover officers sent in from other parts of town. With no identified suspect to look for, without even a description of one, officers drove the streets hoping to get lucky.

But at that point all the luck was still with the arsonist. Between three in the afternoon and eight in the evening, ten fires were set in and around Hollywood, this despite the many cops searching the very neighborhoods where the fires were set. So numerous were the undercover cops, in fact, that their scruffy appearance sometimes attracted the attention of uniformed officers who believed them to be possible suspects. At other times, undercover cops focused on each other, making for some potentially dangerous encounters.

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.

The arson case is merely the latest in what appears to be a long criminal saga for the Burkharts, who came to the United States from Germany via Vancouver, British Columbia. After being arrested in Germany in 2007 for her allegedly bilked boob job, Dorothee Burkhart escaped from custody by climbing through a bathroom window at a hospital. (She had been taken to the hospital after complaining — apparently falsely — of heart trouble.) The Burkharts turned up and applied for refugee status in Canada, claiming to be the victims of neo-Nazis who had infiltrated the German government. As if to show that government bureaucracies are every bit as inefficient in our friendly northern neighbor as they are here, it took Canadian authorities two years to deny the claim.

And where does a pair of German grifters go after their tale of woe fails to impress even the Canadians? Los Angeles, of course. Give us your tired, your poor, your phony boob-job refugees — all are welcome here in the City of Angels, where the elder Burkhart apparently hung out an online shingle billing her ample self as an erotic masseuse, known less euphemistically as a prostitute.

If Harry Burkhart hadn’t elected to protest his mother’s arrest in such a literally incendiary fashion, he probably would have lived to a ripe old age right here in sunny Los Angeles, where a person’s immigration status is ignored at all levels of government. As it is, he’ll still probably live to a ripe old age, but he’ll be doing it in some California prison. And as for his mom, she remains in the federal lockup in downtown L.A., waiting to learn when she’ll be sent back to Germany to answer the charges about those surgically enhanced breasts of hers. It could only happen in Hollywood.

Look for the miniseries to air during the fall sweeps.

Jack Dunphy is the pseudonym of a police officer in Southern California.
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