LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A German national accused of setting dozens of fires in Hollywood, West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley “wanted America to burn,” a prosecutor told jurors Monday.
“He was angry with America because his mother had been arrested and was in custody of the United States, being held for extradition to Germany,” Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney said during opening statements.
Harry Burkhart was indicted on 25 counts of arson of property, 19 counts of arson of an inhabited dwelling, two counts each of possession of an incendiary device and attempted arson and one count of arson of a structure.
The 29-year-old is accused of setting 47 fires almost five years ago.
Carney showed the jury videos of cars and houses engulfed in flames, saying “The defendant inflicted unspeakable devastation and terror on this city.”
Burkhart, who was born in Chechnya, is accused of placing incendiary devices under the front of vehicles Dec. 30 and Dec. 31, 2011, and Jan. 2, 2012, which Carney called “a long four-day nightmare.”
Investigators believe Burkhart acted out of rage against Americans after his Russian-born mother, Dorothee, was ordered to be extradited to Germany to face criminal charges.
She lashed out numerous times in federal court, accusing Americans of “letting the Nazis get her and her boy.”
Burkhart became enraged during his mother’s deportation hearing.
“He announced to everyone there, ‘(expletive) America,’ ” and was kicked out of the courtroom, Carney said.
He showed video of Burkhart returning again and again to a Ralphs supermarket to “reload” his “arson kit” of fires starters, matches and other materials.
A reserve sheriff’s deputy, who saw his minivan, arrested the defendant Jan. 2, 2012, at Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.
Deputy Public Defender Steve Schoenfield gave a brief opening statement.
“There’s no question that Mr. Carney has evidence to tie Mr. Burkhart to six or seven of these fires,” Schoenfield said, but the dozens of other fires are simply similar in terms of location and methodology.
Burkhart entered two pleas: not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.
The defense attorney said a sanity phase of the trial is almost a certainty, implying that his client would likely be found guilty on some counts.
It took four and a half years for Burkhart to stand trial partly because he was diagnosed with skin cancer and nearly died. Doctors at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center saved his life, and he is now in remission and uses a wheelchair.
At a hearing last week, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli ruled that jurors will also be allowed to hear about four other fires in which Burkhart is suspected but has not been charged.
If convicted on all 47 counts, Burkhart could get life in prison.