Immigration case led to L.A. arson arrest

A unidentified person of interest was taken into custody for questioning regarding the string of Los Angeles arson attacks, Jan. 2, 2011. CBS

LOS ANGELES - A German man was identified as a suspect in the Los Angeles arson spree because his mother was the subject of an arrest request by Germany, a U.S. State Department official said Tuesday .

Speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigations are ongoing, the official told The Associated Press that authorities learned about Harry Burkhart while working on the mother's case and recognized him in security video of the arson suspect.

"When they saw the security footage, they recognized him and they contacted the arson task force," the official said.

The official said the footage was seen on Sunday and Los Angeles authorities were alerted immediately. Burkhart was picked up on Monday, the official said.

The official didn't know the status of Burkhart's mother, Dorothee, or what type of visa the pair had entered the U.S. on. As German citizens, they would be eligible to come to the U.S. without a visa for 90 days under the Visa Waiver Program.

A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the case, said Burkhart was present when his mother was arrested Dec. 28 by deputy U.S. marshals and Los Angeles police on the provisional arrest warrant.

It's no known why Germany sought the mother.

Provisional arrest warrants are normally issued when there are outstanding criminal charges pending overseas against someone. Ordinarily, U.S. authorities then obtain a U.S. arrest warrant through the State Department and the Justice Department.

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Germany's Foreign Ministry said the German consulate general in Los Angeles was in contact with American authorities regarding the case, but declined to comment further on the matter.

The dozens of arson fires appeared to have halted with Burkhart's arrest. The 52 blazes caused more than $3 million in damage and put Los Angeles residents on edge during the long holiday weekend.

Police have said nothing about a possible motive in the fires set across Hollywood, neighboring West Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

"We are very confident in this arrest, but we have a long way to go," said Police Chief Charlie Beck.

Harry Burkhart was being held without bail. Authorities didn't know how long he's been in the United States and said he isn't cooperating with them.

Sheriff Lee Baca called him the "most dangerous arsonist in Los Angeles County that I can recall."

The intentionally set fires kept residents anxious over the holiday weekend in some of the most densely populated areas of the city. Hundreds of investigators, police officers and firefighters raced to deal with the blazes.

The fires forced many apartment dwellers from their homes. But there were no serious injuries — one firefighter was hurt in a fall from a ladder, and another person suffered smoke inhalation.

Authorities had been looking for a man with shoulder-length ponytail seen on a surveillance video near where a car fire was reported.

Five hours later, Burkhart was pulled over by a reserve sheriff's deputy and later booked for investigation of arson of an inhabited dwelling.

While the investigation is ongoing — authorities haven't ruled out the possibility that others may be involved — Burkhart's arrest was a relief to anxious residents.

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

Galina Illarionova, who lives in the same apartment complex as the suspect, told reporters through a Russian translator that an agitated Burkhart visited her Sunday and said his mother was having some kind of legal problems. He told her his mother was in trouble with authorities and wanted Illarionova to attend a legal hearing with him, but he later said he didn't need her help.

Most of the fires began in cars, and authorities have not said how they were started.

One of Saturday's fires occurred at the Hollywood and Highland entertainment complex, a popular tourist destination bordered by the Walk of Fame in a neighborhood that includes Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Damaged buildings included a former home of Doors singer Jim Morrison in Laurel Canyon.

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