Hollywood Local News West Hollywood

German man convicted in four-year-old arson spree

LOS ANGELES — A German national was convicted Sept. 1 of nearly 50 felony charges for going on an arson spree and setting more than 40 fires in less than a week in Hollywood, West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli ordered jurors to return to court Sept. 6 for the second phase of the trial, in which the panel will be asked to determine if Harry Burkhart, 29, was sane or insane at the time of the crimes.

The six-man, six-woman jury deliberated about a day before finding Burkhart guilty of 25 counts of arson of property, 18 counts of arson of an inhabited dwelling and two counts each of possession of an incendiary device, attempted arson and arson of a structure.

The crimes occurred between Dec. 30, 2011, and Jan. 2, 2012, with a one-day break on New Year’s Day, when no fires were set.

Most of the blazes were started under vehicles parked in carports or near homes, but one vehicle was set on fire Dec. 30 in the parking lot of a shopping center in Hollywood and another at a complex nearby on New Year’s Eve.

Outside the jury’s presence before the verdict was read, Burkhart said through a German interpreter that he wants to make a “statement” next week.

Burkhart made the same request after closing arguments concluded Aug. 31, but the judge noted then that Burkhart had waived his right to testify during the guilt phase of the trial.

In summing up his case, Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney told jurors that Burkhart tried to inflict “fear on the entire community” in a “quest for revenge” after his mother was arrested in the United States in connection with a criminal case in Germany.

Defense attorney Steve Schoenfield told jurors that the prosecution had presented evidence to connect his client to a handful of the crimes, but “lacked specific evidence against Harry Burkhart for the bulk of the charged arsons.”

“The [method of operation] is not so unique that only one person, Harry Burkhart, is capable of doing those arsons,” the lawyer told the panel. “Copycats could be responsible. … There are plenty of opportunists.”

Schoenfield said there was enough evidence to tie Burkhart to “six, possibly seven of the charged fires. We don’t want to toss in all these other arsons that haven’t been proven. … They just don’t have the evidence. They have evidence for six of them.”

In his rebuttal argument, the prosecutor said there was direct evidence that Burkhart was the “perpetrator” in six or seven of the charges against him, and “overwhelming” circumstantial evidence that he set the other fires.

“What he wants you to speculate about in this case is that there’s a copycat out there,” Carney said of the defense attorney’s argument. “Nobody knew what combination of fire-starters Harry Burkhart was using except for the police.”

Carney noted that the fires started right after Burkhart’s mother, Dorothee, was arrested and arraigned and then stopped after Burkhart was taken into custody on Jan. 2, 2012.

“A copycat would have to know to stop lighting fires when Harry Burkhart was arrested — not a reasonable interpretation of the evidence,” the deputy district attorney said.

Burkhart — who pleaded both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity — has remained jailed since his arrest.

He could face nearly 89 years in state prison if jurors find that he was sane at the time of the crimes.

Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas expressed gratitude for the verdict.

“We are grateful that the hard work of investigators and prosecutors resulted in a conviction on all 49 counts against Burkhart, a man who callously and deliberately destroyed property and endangered lives across Los Angeles over the span of a few terrifying nights nearly five years ago,” he said.

“The LAFD takes the crime of arson extremely seriously and we will pursue arson suspects to the fullest extent of the law.”

 

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