German man held for LA fires

2012-01-03 12:00

Los Angeles - Police arrested a Hollywood man believed to be a German citizen on Monday in connection with a wave of 53 arson fires across Los Angeles that terrorised neighbourhoods over the holiday weekend.

Harry Burkhart, 24, was taken into custody early on Monday morning after a reserve sheriff's deputy spotted him driving a van similar to one being sought after a string of fires set in Los Angeles, Hollywood and surrounding communities.

Authorities booked Burkhart, a Hollywood resident who they believe to be a German national, on suspicion of arson and said he was being held at Los Angeles County jail.

"Our long, four-day nightmare is over," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said at a Monday evening press conference.

"This has been literally a nightmare for people who live on the west side of LA, the San Fernando Valley and West Hollywood," Yaroslavsky said. "I live in that community and I haven't had a good night's sleep since last week. I'm looking forward to that tonight."

Burkhart was expected to be advised of the charges against him at a hearing on Wednesday.

Authorities declined to comment on a Los Angeles Times report that Burkhart was embroiled in an immigration dispute with the federal government over the status of his mother.

'Most dangerous arsonist'

But Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said that federal law enforcement agents "who have been privy to removal hearings" had recognised the suspect from surveillance videotape taken near several of the fires.

Burkhart's van had Canadian license plates, Beck said.

The chief said detectives believed that Burkhart acted alone but said residents should remain vigilant and report suspicious activity.

The first of the more than 50 arson blazes broke out on Friday. The rash of fires, most of them set in cars and parking structures, some spreading to carports and homes, continued into the early morning hours of Monday morning.

The spate of arsons left residents on edge during the holiday weekend, as fires broke out seemingly at random across neighbourhoods and sirens screamed through the night.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said the person who had set the fires was "perhaps the most dangerous arsonist in the County of LA. that I can recall".

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the fires had caused an estimated $3 million in damage. "These were serious, potentially deadly crimes that needlessly endangered thousands of innocent lives," he said.

There were no fatalities caused by the fires but one firefighter was injured and another person suffered from smoke inhalation during a blaze that broke out on New Year's Eve.

One of the fires damaged a house in the Hollywood Hills where late rocker Jim Morrison was inspired to write the 1968 song "Love Street" about his girlfriend.

Baca said that the deputy credited with detaining Burkhart was a part-time reserve officer who makes only $1 a year because he is essentially a volunteer.

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