A German national accused of going on a three-night arson spree and setting more than 40 fires in West Hollywood, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley “wanted America to burn” and “was going to resolve his grievance through fire and fear,” a prosecutor told jurors yesterday.
A defense attorney countered, however, that prosecutors can only tie his client to six or seven of the fires and told jurors they would also hear evidence to support an insanity plea.
Harry Burkhart, 29, was charged in 2012 with setting the series of fires, and then was indicted last year on 25 counts of arson of property, 19 counts of arson of an inhabited dwelling, two counts each of possession of an incendiary device and attempted arson and one count of arson of a structure.
Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney showed the six-man, six-woman jury videos of cars and houses engulfed in flames, telling them, “The defendant inflicted unspeakable devastation and terror on this city.”
Burkhart, who was born in Chechnya, is accused of placing incendiary devices under the front of vehicles on Dec. 30 and Dec. 31, 2011, and Jan. 2, 2012, which Carney called “a long four-day nightmare.”
The sheer number of fires “brought the fire department in this city to its knees,” the prosecutor told the jury panel.
“The simple ingenuity of his plan” involved combining a slow, but long- burning, pressed-wood fire starter with a paraffin block that ignites quickly but also burns out rapidly. The devices could be placed under vehicles and lit within a matter of seconds but it would take 10 minutes or more for the plastic inside the cars to catch flame, by which time Burkhart would be long gone, Carney said.
In many cases, the cars were parked in “carports where peoples’ bedrooms were right overhead,” the prosecutor told jurors. On 19 occasions, the fires spread from the cars to adjacent inhabited dwellings.
At a hearing last week, L. A. Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli ruled that jurors will also be allowed to hear about four other fires in which Burkhart is suspected but has not been charged.
Investigators believe Burkhart acted out of rage against Americans after his Russian-born mother, Dorothee, was ordered to be extradited to Germany to face criminal charges.
Burkhart became enraged during his mother’s deportation hearing.
“He announced to everyone there, `(expletive) America,”’ and had to be escorted out of the courtroom by U.S. marshals, Carney said. Burkhart continued to repeat the phrase to the marshals in response to every question they asked, according to the prosecutor.
Carney previewed video of Burkhart returning again and again to a local supermarket to “reload” his “arson kit” of firestarters, matches and other materials, using his Ralphs Rewards card to make the purchases. Another piece of video showed a man identified as Burkhart parking around the corner from a house, walking quickly up and then back down the driveway shortly before a fire begins.
“This is a snapshot of exactly how he did it,” the prosecutor said as the video played.
An arson investigator who researches methods of starting fires is expected to testify that he had never before seen the combination of devices used by Burkhart — remnants of which were allegedly found at all 47 fires for which he is charged — but he discovered it was commonplace in Europe.
Burkhart’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,” Carney said.
On Jan. 1, Burkhart lit no fires because he was waiting for a phone call from his mother, the prosecutor told jurors. When she reached him, he didn’t talk about the fires, but told her he wanted to “roast America.”
Police released images of “a person of interest” in connection with the arson fires, and a U.S. marshal who had arrested Burkhart’s mother recognized Burkhart and gave local authorities his name, Carney said. He was arrested Jan. 2, 2012, at Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue by a reserve sheriff’s deputy who spotted his minivan. Carney showed a photo of roughly three dozen fire starters, a barbecue lighter, mace and a hammer allegedly found in a pack Burkhart was carrying at the time.
“Harry Burkhart was the Hollywood Arsonist,” he concluded. “He was ready to set many more.”
Deputy Public Defender Steve Schoenfield gave a very brief opening statement, asking the jury to “keep an open mind,” an admonition he said he was likely to repeat.
“There’s no question that Mr. Carney has evidence to tie Mr. Burkhart to six or seven of these fires,” Schoenfield said, but the dozens of other fires are simply similar in terms of location and methodology.
The defense attorney said a sanity phase of the trial is almost a certainty, implying that his client would likely be found guilty on some counts.
However, Schoenfield told jurors he would be offering evidence about Burkhart’s “demeanor and appearance” in the federal courthouse, at the German consulate and when he was arrested, apparently in an effort to prove his insanity.
Burkhart has pleaded both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. If he is convicted, jurors will be asked to determine if he was sane at the time of the crimes.