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LA Police Arrest Suspect In Arson String


Authorities in Los Angeles are celebrating the arrest of a suspect in dozens of fires. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told reporters that residents can finally get some rest.

ZEV YAROSLAVSKY: Our long, four-day nightmare is over. This has been, literally, a nightmare. I haven't had a good night's sleep since last week, and I'm looking forward to one tonight.

INSKEEP: A man is suspected of torching cars and carports, among other targets around Los Angeles. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been covering the story; she's in L.A. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Who is the suspect?

KAHN: His name is Harry Burkhart. He's 24 years old. He's from Germany. And it's unclear how long he's been in the country, but police say he's been living in the Hollywood area. And he told police that he's from Frankfurt.

He was arrested yesterday morning at about 3 a.m., and he's currently being held without bail and booked for investigation of arson of an inhabited dwelling. And police say search warrants are issued for his residence, and the investigation's ongoing.

INSKEEP: This must've captured the attention of all of metropolitan L.A. These fires went on throughout the New Year weekend.

KAHN: It did. This has been going on since last Thursday. You know, Friday and Saturday night alone, nearly 40 fires were started. Most of these fires were car fires. The arsonist targeted the Hollywood area - North and West Hollywood - but these fires were set throughout a wide swath of L.A. County. They were in the dense cities, in the canyon areas and the hills - and those are scary areas, where fires can spread incredibly fast.

The favorite target was a car in a carport; many were attached to apartments. So the fire, which was mostly started in the early morning, the cars would be lit on fires and engulf the entire carport, and sometimes parts of apartment buildings, too. Luckily, most were not damaged that much.

The arsonist did hit a major parking structure, too, in Hollywood. It's under the Kodak Theater, and that's where the Academy Awards are held.

INSKEEP: And didn't that particular crime, at that structure, have something to do with the way they finally found this man?

KAHN: Yes, it did. It was at that parking structure in Hollywood that a surveillance video caught a man who was leaving the structure rather quickly, just minutes after a fire started. And the picture of the man - he was white, with a ponytail and a receding hairline - was widely distributed all over Los Angeles County and Southern California.

And early yesterday morning, a sheriff reserve deputy spotted that man in a minivan. That was about 3 in the morning yesterday, and they pulled him over. Officials say they found materials in the van that could be used to start fires.

INSKEEP: OK. So they saw this guy in the video and a while later, he was spotted and brought in. If they have the right man here, Carrie Kahn, if he is the proper suspect, why did he do this?

KAHN: Well, police aren't saying much about a possible motive. But at this press conference last night, L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck did say that the foreign national from Germany was recognized on the video by a federal official. And then that federal official contacted the arson task force and said they knew who the man was.

And the Los Angeles Times is reporting that Burkhart's mother has been involved in an immigration dispute, and is either being or has been deported. And it's unclear now whether that had something to do with the motive of the fires.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute - so Burkhart himself had done something related to this immigration case that made him of interest to authorities. Somebody had seen him before.

KAHN: Right. There was some sort of hearing that happened in Los Angeles, and he had created a disturbance. And the federal official who was familiar with him, who was at the hearing, recognized him from that widely distributed image on the video, and contacted the arson task force. And that was the big break in the case.

INSKEEP: Carrie, are authorities sure that they have the only arsonist there is?

KAHN: They say they believe he did act alone, but they stressed that the investigation is just beginning. One important fact, though, is that since Burkhart's arrest yesterday morning at 3 o'clock, there haven't been any more fires.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Los Angeles. Carrie, thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.