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L.A. arsons: Federal agent tips helped lead to suspect's capture

January 5, 2012 |  1:15 pm


This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

Even before an anti-American outburst by accused L.A. arsonist Harry Burkhart got him ejected from a federal court during a hearing for his mother, two federal officials knew of the suspect, and that information helped lead to his capture.

A grainy parking garage security camera video showed the suspect dressed in black with shoulder-length hair, which was enough for a deputy marshal and State Department agent to recognize him.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Luis Flores said in an interview Thursday that he was sitting at home watching TV news about 10 p.m. Sunday when he caught a glimpse of the video.

MAP: Southland arsons

“I called the LAPD hotline and my chain of command,” Flores said.

“When you watch the video surveillance that was released, it was unmistakable,” said Jonathan Lamb, a State Department special agent who helped find Burkhart's mother, Dorothee Burkhart, last week with Flores.  

The State Department dispatched Lamb, armed with intelligence on the Burkharts' address, descriptions and vehicle, to work with the arson task force Sunday night to help locate Harry Burkhart.

Within five hours, a reserve Sheriff’s Department deputy detained him on the Sunset Strip based on a description of the Dodge Caravan by the two federal officials.

Lamb and Flores had detained Dorothee Burkhart, who was wanted in Germany for fraud, after they recently began working the fugitive cold case.

During a court proceeding Dec. 29, her 24-year-old son began screaming expletives against America as he realized his mother was about to be sent back to Germany.

Los Angeles County prosecutors seeking 37 felony charges against Harry Burkhart said it was his anger at his mother's detention that set off his arson streak Friday.

Prosecutors have charged him in connection with 13 fires so far, but they say he is responsible for 52 torchings.

Lamb said even before the outburst in court that they knew who Harry Burkhart was from the time they spent searching for his mother.

“We were somewhat familiar with him,” he said.

The special agent admits at first it was shock that he was the accused arsonist.

“It caught us off guard but it turned out well,” Lamb said.

Both said they were just doing their jobs.

“We are just glad to help,” Flores said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented the pair with certificates of recognition Thursday for their roles in helping to arrest Burkhart.

“The city of Los Angeles couldn’t be more thankful and grateful for your work in helping to identify the suspected arsonist and put an end to fires that frankly created a terror in our community," Villaraigosa told told Flores and Lamb.

Wesley A. Weller, special agent in charge of Los Angeles’ Diplomatic Security Service office, said the investigation into Dorothee Burkhart “was pretty routine.”

Burkhart's mother was wanted on a Frankfurt, Germany, court warrant for an alleged fraud of about $10,000  against a plastic surgeon who performed a 2004 breast augmentation procedure on her. She is also accused of defrauding at least a dozen renters and landlords of an additional $35,000.

He said the minivan Harry Burkhart was arrested in at 3 a.m. Monday was known to investigators from their investigation of his mother.

“We provided key information on the potential identity of the person, his vehicle and his residence and that information was put out very quickly and that resulted in the arrest,” Weller said.

[For the Record, 4:10 p.m. Jan. 5: An earlier version of this post misspelled Deputy U.S. Marshal Luis Flores' first name as Louis.]


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-- Richard Winton


Photo: Luis Flores, left, and Jonathan Lamb with Los Angeles certificates of recognition for their roles in helping to arrest Harry Burkhart. Credit: Richard Winton / Los Angeles Times.