Harry Burkhart told his mother he wanted to “roast America” after federal authorities arrested her in connection with a fraud case in Germany and threatened to deport her to answer the charges.
During the holiday season six years ago, Burkhart sought to carry out his threat.
Between Dec. 30, 2011, and Jan. 2, 2012, he terrorized Hollywood, West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, torching carports, garages and homes.
On Friday, Burkhart was sentenced to 33 years and four months in prison for the spate of arsons, a few weeks after a jury found him sane at the time of the crimes.
Prosecutors had implored Los Angeles Superior Court George G. Lomeli to sentence Burkhart to more than 60 years in prison based on his conviction for setting about 50 fires, noting that he had shown no remorse. Burkhart could have faced 89 years in prison.
“After he was taken to jail, he said, ‘Death to America,’ ” Deputy Dist. Atty, James Falco said. Besides the property damage, Falco said, Burkhart scarred many people’s lives for years to come. None of the blazes resulted in injuries.
But Lomeli said the sentence was substantial for the 30-year-old German national. While a jury found Burkhart sane during the crimes, he has a history of mental illness, the judge noted, and was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. He expressed surprise that the defendant attended the sentencing.
“He is not getting a slap on the hand,” Lomeli said. “He knew of his wrongdoing legally and morally.”
Burkhart sat in a wheelchair motionless, looking straight ahead, and showed no reaction as the judge handed down the sentence.
Before sentencing, his attorney Steven Schoenfield told the judge that Burkhart had turned down a deal offered by prosecutors for a 23-year prison term because his mother told him to reject it. Dorothee Burkhart is believed to be in Germany. The status of her case there was unknown.
Burkhart’s mental state and his mother’s influence have been at the center of the proceedings since his arrest. He has been hospitalized numerous times for psychiatric illnesses.
He began setting the fires after his mother’s arrest in connection with a fraud case against her in Germany. The fires were set during the night, putting residents on edge. Most were set under vehicles in carports or near homes. Residents turned to social media to get updates on the fires, with some peering out windows into the dark, keeping porch and garage lights on, and fixating on sirens in the distance.
Police initially were stumped.
Finally, a reserve sheriff's deputy spotted Burkhart’s minivan in West Hollywood and stopped it near the Sunset Strip.
The driver appeared to match a grainy video of the suspect. Officials found fire starter sticks, police said. Burkhart, who was born in Chechnya before growing up in Germany, was arrested in the early morning hours of Jan. 2, 2012. Police later retrieved videos of Burkhart buying the items and of him visiting the German consulate with materials in his possession.
At the time of the arson attacks, Burkhart was already suspected of burning down his family home in Germany’s Schwalm-Eder district, north of Frankfurt. His mother had escaped from handcuffs while in German custody on fraud allegations and fled with her son to Canada before entering the United States. Authorities captured her in Los Angeles.