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Mother of L.A. arson suspect Harry Burkhart says he's mentally ill

January 3, 2012 |  1:48 pm

Sheriff's deputies detain Harry Burkhart, 24.

The mother of Harry Burkhart, the suspect in a string of Los Angeles arson fires, on Tuesday told a federal judge that her son is mentally ill.

Dorothee Burkhart was in a federal court Tuesday for a hearing related to a criminal warrant issued against her by the German government.

During the hearing, she repeatedly asked about her son, apparently not aware he had been arrested early Monday morning.

"My first question is, where is my son?" the woman shouted. "Since yesterday he's not available. What did you do to my son?"

U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle told her: "I'm not here to address anything related to your son."

Burkhart persisted, talking over the judge and ranting. "Where is he? Dead?" she said. "Maybe the German Nazi know our address."

"He is mental ill," she said in broken English. 

The German government complaint backing the arrest warrant on Dorothee Burkhart says that 19 fraud charges were filed against her in 2007, stemming from a breast augmentation surgery for which she allegedly falsified verification of a nearly $10,000 down payment to a Frankfurt surgeon.

She was arrested by U.S. agents Thursday, the day before the fires began.

MAP: Southland arsons

Her son, Harry Burkhart, 24, was booked on arson charges on Monday. He is a German national who carried travel papers from Chechnya but has lived in Southern California for the last several years, police say.

Authorities are not clear on his motives for starting the fires but speculated that he might have been angry about his mother's pending deportation.

PHOTOS: Southland arsons

A senior LAPD official said Harry Burkhart had attended a recent immigration hearing regarding his mother's case and erupted in a tirade, spewing angry anti-American statements.

It was this incident that eventually led police to Burkhart. Several sources said the tip came from an official at the State Department. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Monday also thanked the U.S. Marshals Service for helping identify Burkhart.

TV footage showed Burkhart after his arrest, dressed in black, wearing his hair in a ponytail and grinning.

FULL COVERAGE: Southland arsons

Since Friday morning, at least 50 fires were set in Los Angeles, 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.

Los Angeles police said they have strong evidence tying Burkhart to the arson spree, including fire-starting materials found inside his minivan when he was arrested Monday.

But officials have stressed that the investigation is still ongoing. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the department was moving cautiously and that it was unclear exactly when the case would be presented to prosecutors.

"We are confident in our investigation, but we have a long way to go," he said.

In an interview with The Times, he added: "I feel very good that we've got the right guy. He had the right stuff in his van and I am confident in the arrest."

Police executed search warrants at Harry Burkhart's Hollywood apartment Monday evening.


FULL COVERAGE: Southland fires

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Photo: Burkhart after his arrest Monday in Hollywood. Credit: KTLA News