A few hours before 2012 arrived in Los Angeles, Troy Patruno looked from the window of a friend's living room and saw an orange glow engulfing his Volkswagen. Minutes later, nothing was left but a melted frame. Patruno, a 44-year-old retail manager, had become another victim of a four-day arson spree that simultaneously baffled and frightened Angelenos. "I can't believe this is happening," said Matt Molchen, 34, a comic who lives in West Hollywood, as he surveyed a charred carport a block from his house. It had been torched the night before. "I mean, we moved here because it was safe."
At first the fires seemed to be isolated events, but as they scattered through various neighborhoods so capriciously, fear spread. The sounds of sirens and helicopters roared through the usually tranquil streets of Hollywood, where many residents spent sleepless nights looking out their windows. No one died in the fires, but some of the blazes lit up nearby buildings. Damages are estimated to be at least $3 million.
The fires came to an end after a video including images of the alleged arsonist was released to the public. Early on Jan. 2, a sheriff's deputy recognized the man driving down Sunset Boulevard in a minivan. The deputy--a $1-a-year volunteer--arrested Harry Burkhart, a 24-year-old German national.
Burkhart has a tangled set of grievances related to his mother Dorothee, who is wanted on fraud charges in Germany. The Burkharts lived in a second-story apartment above a Hollywood salon called Le Figaro. Dorothee, 53, had flown to Las Vegas from Germany in October. Even though she is a fugitive, they both showed up at the German consulate in Los Angeles on Oct. 26 to have his passport renewed.
Neighbors on Sunset had thought Harry unremarkable. He ate at Subway and occasionally asked about Middle East politics, according to Shlomo Elady, 44, a stylist at Le Figaro who cut Harry's hair, which he keeps in a ponytail. Burkhart spoke German, English and Russian, which he used to converse with his mother, who walked uncomfortably on a swollen leg.
Elady says Burkhart was aggrieved by the criminal charges against Dorothee. According to a U.S. federal complaint filed Dec. 19 at the request of the German government, she allegedly committed 19 acts of fraud from 2000 to 2006 "as a member of a gang." The charges she faces include not paying for a $10,000 breast-augmentation surgery in 2004. The complaint also lists a slew of cases adding up to some $44,000 in alleged embezzlements.
Dorothee Burkhart was arrested Dec. 29. During a hearing in federal court that day, Harry apparently erupted in anger, screamed profanities and had to be escorted from the building, according to Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. A few hours later, the fires began. The day after Harry's arrest, Dorothee appeared in court and seemed disoriented, claiming to be uncertain as to her son's whereabouts. She said she worries that he is mentally ill.