LOS ANGELES (AP) – Wherever Dorothee and Harry Burkhart went, trouble followed the mother-and-son duo.
Arsons in Los Angeles, Germany and possibly Canada. A daring escape through a German hospital window. A claim that fascists were trying to kill them. Skipping out on a bill for a breast augmentation surgery.
The 24-year-old Harry Burkhart became an internationally known figure after he was arrested this week in dozens of Hollywood arsons that left a string of torched buildings and cars and caused millions of dollars in damage. Authorities said they believe the motive behind the fires was anger at the U.S. government for arresting his mother on a German warrant.
But it’s not his first encounter with an arson investigation. He is suspected of starting an arson fire late last year at a German house that belonged to his family, shortly before the Los Angeles fires. And Vancouver police said this week they are looking to see whether the Burkharts were living in the area when there was a series of suspicious fires.
A phone message left for Vancouver police was not immediately returned Friday, and the Burkharts have not been officially linked to any fires there.
The Burkharts’ strange personas and odd behavior were noted at each stop as they hopscotched from their native Germany to British Columbia and finally California, and Los Angeles police believe, ultimately led to Harry Burkhart’s arrest.
His anti-American outburst last week during a detention hearing for his mother cemented his likeness in the mind of a deputy U.S. Marshal, who recognized him after police began circulating a video showing the man wanted in the arson spree.
Court documents show Dorothee Burkhart’s legal problems date back to at least 2000, when she rented out apartments in Frankfurt but failed to return the security deposits. She engaged in that scam several years later, according to German officials, and also didn’t pay about $10,000 for a 2004 breast surgery.
She was arrested in mid-2007 and was taken to a hospital in Frankfurt for cardiac problems. She escaped out a window after prison guards took off her handcuffs and allowed her to use the restroom, said Michael Koch, who was appointed as her public defender. The 53-year-old is being held on a provisional arrest warrant.
She and her son landed in Vancouver shortly after her German escape. The pair applied for refugee status in Canada, contending they would be tortured and killed if they were sent back to Germany, The Vancouver Sun reported.
She told immigration officials that a right-wing fascist group had infiltrated the German government and police were after them because of their Russian origin, the paper said. The refugee claim was denied two years later.
In medical records from March 2010, a doctor said she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks and her son suffered from autistic spectrum disorder since his childhood.
The younger Burkhart’s name surfaced as a suspect in the German arson case after he filed an insurance claim shortly after the fire, Marburg prosecutors’ spokeswoman Annemarie Wied said.
A search of his Hollywood apartment following his arrest turned up news articles about the Los Angeles fires along with some car fires in Frankfurt last September. German authorities said there was no active investigation of Burkhart in Frankfurt.
Twelve days after the German house fire, Burkhart was in Los Angeles, according to court documents, visiting the German consulate with his mother to try to renew his passport. His nonimmigrant visa is set to expire Jan. 18, authorities said. His mother last entered the country lawfully in January 2007, and she left four months later.
It’s unclear if either Burkhart worked. A website offering appointment-only sensual massage is registered to Dorothee Burkhart, though her name is not mentioned on the site.
Their lives unraveled last week when the younger Burkhart caught the attention of court officials at his mother’s hearing, yelling “F— the United States!” or “F— all Americans,” authorities said.
At each of their subsequent court appearances, both Burkharts made a spectacle. Dorothee Burkhart constantly asked for her son, apparently unaware he had been arrested. She also wondered if the Nazis knew where she and her son lived.
The next day in court, her son was surrounded by sheriff’s deputies as he alternated between sitting and standing. He often arched his head and body backward, looking up to the ceiling with his mouth agape.
On Friday, the elder Burkhart was ordered to return to court Tuesday with the hopes she will have hired an attorney. During a hearing, she denied the charges against her and suggested Nazis, not her son, were responsible for the recent rash of fires.
“One little mentally ill child cannot do fire like this,” she said in broken English.
She stood up at one point and claimed she had been abused while in custody.
“Ma’am, sit down. This is not a show,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle.
Her son has been charged with 37 counts of arson and is expected to return to court Jan. 24. He’s being held on $2.85 million and could face additional charges, prosecutors said.
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