LA Arson Suspect Identified, Possibly Motivated by Deportation Battle

Police identify suspect in arson fires as Harry Burkhart, 24.

January 2, 2012, 8:01 AM

Jan. 2, 2012 — -- Officials this evening identified a man arrested after a series of 52 blazes in the Los Angeles area, and hailed the reserve deputy sheriff who apprehended him.

"Our long, four-day nightmare is over," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told reporters.

Harry Burkhart, 24, was charged this afternoon with one count of arson of an inhabited dwelling, with more charges expected as the investigation proceeds, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told reporters at a news conference featuring an array of local officials who teamed up to investigate the case.

"The residents of Hollywood and the city of West Hollywood may now resume the peace and safety they deserve," Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said. "A serial arsonist, I believe, has been caught.

Burkhart was caught during a traffic stop initiated by a Tehran, Iran-born Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department volunteer, Baca added.

"Deputy Shervin Lalezary, standing next to me, [is] a full-time attorney and a part-time reserve deputy sheriff, although for the past four days he's been working full time for $1 a year," Baca said.

"Give him a raise," someone at the news conference yelled out, prompting Baca jokingly to propose raising Lalezary's compensation to $2 per year.

According to ABC News sources directly involved in the case, the "prime suspect" under arrest told authorities upon his detention, "I hate America."

That suspect, at the time not publicly identified, was believed to be a German national who may have been motivated by a deportation hearing against his mother that took place in Los Angeles County about a week and a half ago, the sources told ABC News exclusively.

The State Department gave the information to the intelligence and operational task forces involved in the manhunt, according to the sources.

The man was initially identified by police as a "person of interest," but the sources said he became a "prime suspect."

Officials later identified Burkhart, but they disclosed few details about his background.

"This is an ongoing investigation," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said this evening. "Details about the suspect will not be released tonight other than the name and some very general things. ... An arrest is not a prosecution and a prosecution is not a conviction. We are very confident in this arrest, but we have a long way to go."

The suspect was detained and questioned by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who recognized the description of his van as possibly being connected to the fires, police said earlier in the day. After subsequent interviews with police, he was arrested.

Lalezary later gave reporters few additional details about his role, citing the ongoing investigation.

"Thank you to the two officers who backed me up," he said. "As soon as I put on my lights and initiated a traffic stop of the suspect vehicle, I had an LAPD vehicle behind me ready to go.

"Thank you to the men and women of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, West Hollywood Station, for coming into work every day, doing this full time, putting their lives on the line every day, full time," he added. "I really appreciate everything you guys do. And I look forward to coming back for my next shift."

Police seized flammable materials during the search of the man's minivan that matched the materials used in the blazes, according to sources. Police arrested the man following 11 fires ignited overnight, the latest in a series of vehicle and carport fires around Hollywood and West Hollywood, Calif., since Dec. 29.

The suspect was being uncooperative and was to be asked to sit for a polygraph as part of the investigation, sources said this afternoon. Warrants for a search of the suspect's residence were in the process of being executed.

Although the suspect was considered the most likely person to have set all the blazes, a second suspect was still being detained by authorities and interrogated in connection with them this afternoon. Police said at a news conference around midday that they were following hundreds of clues, tips and leads, and would be interviewing dozens more witnesses in the case. They would continue to be on high alert during patrols throughout the night.

Beck said earlier today he believed officers apprehended the right person.

"I feel very good that we've got the right guy," Beck said. "[The suspect] had the right stuff in his van, and we are very confident we found our man.".

This morning, arson investigators and sheriff's deputies swarmed the scene where the man -- said to resemble the person in a surveillance video released Sunday by Los Angeles police -- was stopped and detained.

He was the fourth person detained in connection with the wave of arson fires that have hit the city. Police said today that the first two men arrested, following four fires on Dec. 29, are not believed to be connected to the rest of the arsons.

Authorities Sunday distributed DVDs of a 20- to 30-year-old white male caught on surveillance video Saturday leaving an underground parking structure on Hollywood Boulevard where a car fire was reported.

Officials asked for the public's help in identifying the man, now wanted for questioning in connection with the 55 fires that have been set since Thursday.

Detectives estimated the man, who has a receding hairline and is seen in the video wearing a bulky jacket, was between 5-foot-6 and 6-foot-1.

According to the Associated Press, detectives also served a search warrant at a home in the San Fernando Valley. Several interviews were conducted, but no arrests were made.

The fires have remained clustered in the areas of Hollywood and North Hollywood, Calif., but overnight the arsons expanded to the San Fernando Valley. Capt. Moore said 10 of the fires set overnight Sunday were in Los Angeles, while two were in West Hollywood.

"The commonality in a lot of these fires is we have automobile fires that are intentionally set underneath carports or parking structures or adjacent to apartments where people are actually residing," he said.

Police have not yet released details on how the car fires were sparked or what information they have collected at the scenes as they continue to search for suspects.

"Our arson investigators are looking at all the fire scenes and doing everything they can to gather as much evidence as they can," Moore said. "If this is the work of more than one individual, they can ensure those other individuals don't get away."

"In the last two days, we've seen that as daybreak comes, we start finding more clues and more evidence because there are fires that didn't quite take off as were intended by this individual or these individuals," he said.

In nearly every case, the fires were set overnight. So far, there have been no injuries as a result of the fires.

ABC News' Olivia Katrandjian and Erin McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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