Arrest in 50 Hollywood Arson Fires

Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

Harry Burkhardt has been charged with setting more than 50 fires that, over the past week, unnerved much of Hollywood.

The arrest of Mr. Burkhardt has caused his high-profile case to take an unexpected twist.  The alleged arsons might be connected to the legal troubles facing Mr. Burkhardt’s mother, Dorothee.  She has been involved in a long-standing effort by federal prosecutors to extradite her to Germany to face fraud charges.

The Los Angeles Times’ website described the relationship between mother and son.”

For months, authorities scoured West Hollywood, carrying a photo of a squat, green-eyed woman through a bustling hive of Russian-language social clubs and cafes selling borscht and vareniki dumplings. She was Dorothee Burkhart, a fugitive wanted on a host of fraud charges in Germany.

Dorothee Burkhart was eventually arrested here and, last Thursday, she was in a courtroom for a hearing to extradite her to Frankfurt to face the charges.

Within hours, an arsonist began setting fires across a wide, significant portion of Los Angeles in a four-day assault that caused millions of dollars in damage and left many residents on edge.

On Tuesday, authorities were investigating the relationship between the son and mother — a relationship that appears to be mutually protective, fraught with legal troubles and laced with virulent anti-American sentiment.

These four short sentences and the rest of the LA Times story highlight several underappreciated aspects of what it means to defend criminal charges in the Internet age.  Notice, for example, how Dorothee and her son are painted as personally strange and a threat to our way of life.  This is exactly the kind of imagery that can make it especially hard for criminal defendants to get a fair trial.  The Times’ story is understandably short on details.  At this point, it’s to be expected that no one knows exactly what lead to rash of fires, and to what degree, if any, Mr. Burkhardt is involved.  What is clear, however, is that a good lawyer representing Mr. Burkhardt would, within the ethical limits imposed on attorneys, try to combat the image that has been created that he is some sort of foreign menace.

Dorothee’s predicament highlights another all too common problem—the difficulties faced by defendants who may be suffering from mental health issues.  It appears that Mr. Burkhardt was helping his mother combat the extradition efforts.  And it also appears that she was either distraught or mentally disturbed when he wasn’t in court to assist her.

By Tuesday, Harry Burkhart, a German national who had lived in California for several years, had been dubbed the “Hollywood Feuerteufel” by the German media: the Hollywood Fire Devil. Booked on arson charges, he was being held without bail. And his 53-year-old mother, coincidentally, was back in court fighting her extradition, and appeared disoriented without her son at her side.

“He should come into the court,” she insisted to the U.S. marshals and other law enforcement agents in the courtroom.

She grew more agitated when the hearing began in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle.

“My first question is: Where is my son?” Dorothee Burkhart shouted. She said her son was mentally ill, adding: “What did you do to my son? Where is he?  Dead?”

“I’m not here to address anything related to your son,” Nagle replied. The judge assured her: “I’m sure he has not disappeared.”

While extradition hearings are relatively uncommon, criminal charges often do implicate the immigration status of the person arrested.  This is yet another aspect of defending criminal charges.  Too often, the criminal charges are handled independently of the immigration issues, with tragic consequences.  The court system is full of stories of defendants who were advised to plead guilty to a lesser charge, only to later find out later that the conviction triggered deportation proceedings.

Perhaps the saddest element of this story is that Dorothee Burkhardt is representing herself.  She apparently turned down the assistance of a public defender on the dubious grounds that, “I don’t want an attorney from this government.”  In today’s world, arrests can in the blink of an eye ruin reputations, and seemingly minor fraud charges can in a few hours garner international press attention.  That in turn means that being an effective criminal defense lawyer may involve more than just defending the specific criminal allegations filed against a client.

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