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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Serial Arsonist: Burning Hollywood

     Robbers and thieves commit their crimes for financial gain. Arsonists, on the other hand, set fires for a variety of reasons. As a result, motive and criminal profiling is an important lead in arson investigations. Regarding motive, unlawful firesetters generally fall into one of two categories: rational and irrational. The rational arsonists can be put into two groups: people who set fires for direct gain, and those who do it for indirect benefit or gain. Direct gain arsonists torch their homes, cars, and businesses for the insurance money. (Jaunuary is usually a busy month for these people.) The indirect gain fire is set, for example, as retaliation, revenge, competitor elimination, or to cover-up another crime such as homicide. People who set fires for reasons that make sense are usually not repeat offenders. If they do repeat their crimes, it's rarely more than twice.

     Arsonists who are irrationally or pathologically motivated are almost always young men. They are powerless losers who are mad at the world. They set fires to get even with society, to experience feelings of power, to play the role of hero, and in a small percentage of cases, for sexual gratification. Many of them have had problems at school, with their parents and with the police. Some are mildly retarded, others have mental health problems. Older pathological firesetters often have drug and/or alcohol addictions.

     Because the vast majority of serial arsonists are pathological firesetters who have no regard for human life, they are the most dangerous. Unlike rational firesetters, they tend to hang around the fire scenes soaking up the excitement they have created. When taken into custody, they should be interrogated by arson investigators trained and experienced in questioning this type of suspect. For the pathological arsonist, the bigger the fire the bigger the rush. Serial arsonists have been know to set several fires in one night.

     In California, a serial arsonist set 15 fires in Hollywood and 4 fires in neighboring West Hollywood during the early morning hours of Friday, December 30, 2011. Dozens of residents were rousted from their homes. The only injury involved a firefighter who fell while battling one of the blazes. Many of the structural fires were started when the arsonist set fire to vehicles parked nearby. All of the firess were set in an area of four square miles.

     In 2008 and 2009, in and around Coatesville, Pennsylvania in the eastern part of the state, a group of arsonists set 23 fires. One of the arsons killed an 83-year-old woman. Dozens of homes were destroyed, and many residents were displaced. In 2009 the police arrested five arsonists. The oldest, a 25-year-old volunteer firefighter, had responded to his own fires. The rest were young, unemployed men with histories of mental illness and problems with the law. One of the firesetters, a 19-year-old misfit, matched the classic profile of a pathological arsonist. He set a number of copy cat house fires simply for the excitement. The fact these dwelling were occupied at the time only enhanced his experience.

     When the police apprehend the California arsonist, it will be interesting to see how closely he matches the profiles of the Coatesville firesetters.

UPDATE: "I hate America."

     The authorities, on January 2, charged 24-year-old Harry Burkhart with setting more than 50 fires in Hollywood, West Hollywood and in the San Fernando Valley. From Frankfurt, Germany, Burkhart had been upset over his mother's immigration problems. He had recently attended her hearing in immigration court. When taken into custody, Burkhart reportedly said, "I hate America." He is being held in the Los Angeles County Jail without bail. Since his arrest, there have been no further arson fires.

     Burkhart and his 53-year-old mother Dorothee came to the United States from Neukirchen, Germany in October 2011. Just before leaving Germany their house went up in flames. Arson investigators, after locating to separate points of origin, suspect the fire had been intentionally set to defraud the insurance company. In Germany, Dorothee Burkhart has been charged with 19 counts of fraud, crimes unrelated to the house fire. One of the counts involves defrauding the surgeon who had enlarged her breasts.

     A few weeks ago, police in Los Angeles pulled Dorothee Burkhart over for a traffic violation. The traffic stop led to her recent appearance in immigration court. The prospect of being deported apparently set off Harry Burkhart's firesetting spree.  Dorothee and her son have been living in an apartment in Hollywood.


     Before coming to the U.S., Burkhart and his mother resided for awhile in Vancouver, Candada. In March 2010, a Vancouver team of psychiatrists, in connection with a civil court case, examined Harry Burkhart. The battery of shrinks diagnosed him as suffering from autism, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. The police in Vancouver, in the wake of the LA fires, are looking into the possibility that he set a series of fires in that city. A German national, Burkhart was born in Chechnya.

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