Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

L.A. arson spree: Investigators drill down on motive

Harry Burkhart was arrested Monday in connection with the L.A. arson spree where more than 50 fires were started over four days. Pinpointing a motive is made difficult by ravaged crime scenes.

By Daniel B. Wood and Gloria GoodaleStaff writers / January 4, 2012

In this image taken from video released on Monday by, arson suspect Harry Burkhart, 24, a German national, is arrested in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. Police declined to reveal any motive for more than 50 fires that have occurred since Friday in Hollywood, neighboring West Hollywood, and the San Fernando Valley, causing about $3 million in damage. photo


Los Angeles

As more facts trickle in about the man accused of deliberately setting a wave of fires across Los Angeles, crime analysts are trying to zero in on a possible motive and what, if any, lessons can be learned by both law enforcement and the media. 

Skip to next paragraph

Harry Burkhart was arrested Monday in connection with more than 50 fires set over the course of 4 days.

Experts say that Mr. Burkhart's motives – even if stated – may never really be known. They could range from the political to the personal, and could involve everything from unresolved childhood issues, to thrill seeking, to besting the authorities in a cat and mouse game. Or all of the above.

And pinpointing a motive is made even more difficult by ravaged crime scenes.

“Arson is a very difficult crime to investigate and prove because a lot of evidence is destroyed,” says Robert Rowe, President of Pyrocop Inc., a fire forensics firm based in Long Beach. “Investigators need to be extremely diligent in building their case to guide a jury step by step.”

Still, there are clues that can lead investigators to a motive.

Judging by the age of the suspect, 24, some surmise that he acted alone and out of anger, as fits the pattern of younger arsonists. Older arsonists, however, typically operate with a profit motive – cashing in on insurance scams – and many times work in groups.

“Research shows that young arsonists have very low social skills and are attracted to the high, immediate emotional payoff of fires,” says Elizabeth Dowdell, a professor at the Villanova University College of Nursing in Pennsylvania with background in forensic research. “Fire is so destructive that it can give the instant gratification these people feel over a perceived wrong.”

Speculation shifted Tuesday night to Mr. Burkhart's mother, who reportedly faces 19 counts of fraud and embezzlement in Germany.

According to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), Dorothee Burkhart has no legal immigration status now, having last entered the country lawfully in 2007.


Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!