LOS ANGELES (AP) — A German man was charged Wednesday with 37 counts of arson in connection with a rash of fires that terrorized Los Angeles over the New Year’s weekend.
Harry Burkhart, 24, was charged with 28 counts of arson of property and nine counts of arson of an inhabited structure, District Attorney Steve Cooley said.
The complaint also alleged the arson was caused by the use of a device designed to accelerate the fire, he said.
Prosecutors did not immediately say what prison time would apply if Burkhart is convicted of all counts.
Burkhart was expected to make his initial court appearance later in the day. It wasn’t immediately known if he had retained an attorney.
Burkhart is suspected of setting more than 50 blazes that caused an estimated $3 million in damage. He has refused to cooperate with investigators since his arrest on Monday.
“The investigation of the 52 fires believed connected to this defendant is not over,” Cooley said in a statement.
The charges are based on fires in the Hollywood and Sherman Oaks sections of Los Angeles and the city of West Hollywood.
Authorities said they believe he was angry over his mother’s legal troubles and went on a nighttime rampage of burning parked cars a day after she appeared in court last week.
Burkhart has been put on suicide watch, a law enforcement official said Wednesday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of privacy issues.
Burkhart’s mother Dorothee Burkhart said in court Tuesday that her son is mentally ill.
Harry Burkhart’s background remains hazy. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office statement said he travels on a German passport “but purportedly was born in Chechnya” and was staying with his mother in Hollywood. The statement did not elaborate.
Harry Burkhart is also under investigation in Germany for a house fire north of Frankfurt days before he traveled to the U.S. in October.
The fire at the house, which belonged to the Burkhart family, has been ruled an arson, Marburg prosecutors’ spokeswoman Annemarie Wied told The Associated Press Wednesday.
Burkhart did not live in the area, but his name surfaced as a suspect after he filed an insurance claim shortly after the fire, Wied said.
“When one files an insurance claim on a house the same day it burns down, it raises eyebrows,” she said.
Burkhart, whom Wied identified only as “Harry B.” in keeping with German privacy laws, has not yet been questioned in the case and no arrest warrant has been issued for him. She said she did not know how long ago he had been identified as a suspect in the arson investigation.
Burkhart was in Los Angeles by Oct. 26 — 12 days after the Marburg area fire — according to U.S. court papers, which say that he went with his mother on that day to the German consulate to renew his passport.
During a court appearance in federal court Tuesday, Dorothee Burkhart scanned a Los Angeles courtroom looking for her son, apparently unaware he was also behind bars less than two miles away.
“Can you bring my son inside?” she pleaded with court officials. “Where is my son?”
Court documents were unsealed Tuesday that revealed she is charged in Germany with 19 counts of fraud, including failing to pay for a 2004 breast-augmentation surgery and pilfering security deposits from renters.
In a brief court appearance, she appeared perplexed, wondering aloud if her son had disappeared or was dead. At one point, she said, he is mentally ill and questioned whether Nazis knew where she and her son lived.
“What did you do to my son?” she asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle.
“I’m not here to address anything related to your son,” Nagle responded.
Frankfurt court spokesman Guenther Meilinger told the AP that Dorothee Burkhart will go on trial for the fraud charges once she is extradited back to Germany.
“We expect and hope that the U.S. authorities will look into the request for extradition … so that the proceedings against her can continue,” he said.
Both mother and son are being held without bail. Her next court hearing was delayed until Friday so she can hire an attorney.
Harry Burkhart was taken into custody after authorities received a tip from federal officials who recognized him in a security video that showed a pony-tailed man emerging from a garage where a car was set ablaze.
Burkhart’s non-immigrant 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, officials said.
Associated Press writers Dorothee Thiesing in Frankfurt and Bradley Klapper and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report. Rising reported from Berlin.