Arson suspect's anti-American rant helped track him, authorities say
Weeks before a string of arson fires began, the suspect in the case went on an anti-American rant at an immigration court hearing in Los Angeles, authorities say.
According to law enforcement sources, Harry Burkhart was angry that the federal government was trying to deport his mother. At the hearing, he erupted in an angry tirade, spewing anti-American statements.
He had to be escorted from the court, one source said.
When the LAPD released a photo of a "person of interest" in the fires on Sunday, an official involved in the case recognized him. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said that was the big break that led to Burkhart's arrest.
The suspected arsonist is a 24-year-old German national who carried travel papers from Chechnya. He had spent time in Germany, they said, but had lived in Southern California for the last several years.
Police searched a Sunset Boulevard home Monday evening in connection with the case.
Witnesses said the search took place in the 7200 block of West Sunset Boulevard in a second-story apartment above a hair salon and optical shop where Burkhart is believed to have lived. Pieces of yellow police tape remained outside the building late Monday.
Shlomo Elady, a 44-year-old hairstylist, works on the first floor of the building at Le Figaro Hairstyling. He said he had cut Burkhart's hair for more than a year and that he saw Burkhart leave the building each morning and return late at night. He did not know if he had a job.
"I cut his hair just a week and a half ago," Elady said. "I'm in shock. He’s my client. I never saw any sign of trouble."
A reserve sheriff's deputy arrested Burkhart early Monday based on a description of the suspect's vehicle gleaned from the federal official's tip.
TV footage showed Burkhart after his arrest, dressed in black, wearing his hair in a ponytail and grinning.
Investigators are trying to determine if other people were involved in the arson rampage that had parts of the city on edge for four days.
Since Friday morning, at least 50 fires were set, mostly in the Hollywood area, but also on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. Many of the blazes were in carports and driveways, and spread to apartment buildings and homes.
-- Richard Winton, Paloma Esquivel and Garrett Therolf
Photo: A police officer diverts traffic around the scene on Sunset Boulevard after Harry Burkhart was detained early Monday morning. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times