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.

OnScene.tv/AP photo
In this image taken from video released on Monday by OnScene.tv, 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.

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. 

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.

A man who identified himself as Ms. Burkhart’s son appeared at a court hearing last week after the elder Burkhart had been taken into custody on an arrest warrant issued by German authorities. Demanding that she be let go, the son screamed and cursed, aiming at least one epithet at “the United States,” until court marshals removed him from the building, Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times Wednesday. The younger Burkhart was briefly detained, but not arrested.

Charged with one count of arson – though more are expected – Harry Burkhart is being held without bail and is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday. After his arrest Monday, ABC reported that Burkhart smiled and said, “I hate America.”

Police continued to look for other suspects who may be involved in the four-day arson spree. But no more fires have been reported since Mr. Burkhart’s arrest. 

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca called whoever set the fires, “perhaps the most dangerous arsonist in the County of L.A. that I can recall.”

Media and law enforcement can learn lessons from the arson spree, analysts say.

Both perform a public disservice when they use such terms as "most,” "worst,” or “fastest” because that might feed the perpetrator’s need for grandiosity and spur others to make an even greater statement merely by topping them, says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston who studies serial crime.

“Records are made to be broken so I find it troubling when officials speak in those terms,” he says. Fox also discourages comments emphasizing the fires were set mere minutes apart. Such comments, he says, could encourage copycatting.

“There is a fine line between between shedding light on crime and spotlighting the criminal,” says Fox. One of the lessons, as he sees it, is that society should be careful about on the one hand making the criminal more important than he is, and on the other hand humanizing him too much. As the case has continued to attract global attention, Fox says, “You want to be sure not to go overboard in investigating and reporting the biographical sketches of such perpetrators.”

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