The mother of a man accused in a wave of arson fires across Los Angeles was facing possible extradition to Germany on fraud charges, a case federal prosecutors said on Tuesday appeared to have angered her son.
But police who arrested Harry Burkhart on suspicion of arson following a string of 53 fires over the New Year's holiday weekend have not offered a motive for the crimes, and Burkhart has yet to be formally charged.
His mother, Dorothee Burkhart, 53, was taken into custody last week on an arrest warrant issued by German authorities stemming in part from accusations that she failed to pay for a 2004 breast augmentation surgery, court documents show.
She appeared in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, apparently unaware that her son had been arrested in connection with the blazes that broke out over the weekend.
The arson fires, which were mostly started in parked cars and in some cases spread to carports and homes, left Los Angeles residents on edge and caused an estimated $3 million in damage.
There was no reference to Harry Burkhart's arrest during the Tuesday proceedings, and U.S. Attorney's spokesman Thom Mrozek said the elder Burkhart did not seem to know that her son was in custody.
"Where is my son? Did you eliminate him?" Burkhart, who came to court handcuffed and clad in jail garb, asked U.S. District Judge Margaret Nagle at the outset of the hearing. "Where is my son? My son disappeared yesterday."
Burkhart, who was being held without bail, also asked Nagle if the "German Nazis" had something to do with her son's disappearance and told the judge that he was mentally ill.
The judge responded: "I have done nothing to your son."
Burkhart, who shares a Los Angeles apartment with her son, appeared to look for him in the courtroom gallery and at one point asked reporters if they knew where he was.
Nagle postponed Tuesday's hearing after Burkhart told the court she was unhappy with her federal public defender and wanted to retain a private attorney.
19 COUNTS OF FRAUD
Mrozek said a man thought to be Harry Burkhart had briefly been detained by U.S. Marshals last week during his mother's initial court appearance after he launched into a profanity-laced tirade.
"A male who identified himself as her son entered the court and made quite a disturbance," Mrozek said.
Mrozek said German authorities had not formally requested Dorothee Burkhart's extradition, adding that they had 60 days from the time of her arrest to file the appropriate paperwork. She faces a host of charges in Germany including fraud and embezzlement, according to court documents.
Burkhart is accused of failing to pay a surgeon for breast augmentation as well as failing to return security deposits on rental properties she leased and accepting fees and deposits on apartment units she did not own, the court documents show.
A website for an erotic massage service based in Los Angeles is registered to a Dorothee Burkhart who shares the same Hollywood address as Harry Burkhart. The site advertises topless but non-sexual sessions by appointment only.
It was not immediately clear how long Dorothee and Harry Burkhart have lived in the Los Angeles area. Harry Burkhart was taken into custody on suspicion of arson early on Monday and was being held without bail. Prosecutors said they expected to formally charge him on Wednesday.
Burkhart was arrested after a tip from a member of the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security field office who recognized him from his outburst in court, a State Department spokeswoman said.
A man resembling Burkhart was captured on surveillance videotape leaving the scene of several of the fires, which caused no fatalities although one firefighter was injured and another person suffered from smoke inhalation during a blaze that broke out on New Year's Eve.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has called the person who set the fires "perhaps (the) most dangerous arsonist in the County of L.A. that I can recall."
One of the fires damaged a house in the Hollywood Hills where late rocker Jim Morrison was inspired to write the 1968 song "Love Street" about his girlfriend. (Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)