It takes a lot to prove you’re crazy in a court of law. If you plead not guilty by reason of insanity, you have roughly a 1 percent chance of getting the jury to agree. By legal standards, the question of insanity is not whether or not you are sane, but whether a mental illness made it impossible for you to tell right from wrong.
Last week inside Los Angeles Superior Court, jurors who were asked to determine whether Harry Burkhart could tell right from wrong when he set 55 fires in L.A. County during a five-day span in 2012 — a scale of arson not seen since the 1992 riots — could not come to a decision. While Burkhart professed his innocence, the district attorney’s office had the goods on him: Security camera footage showed Burkhart in a grocery store — on multiple nights — purchasing fire accelerants, matches and lighters. His DNA was on a propane canister at one scene and on a box of matches at another scene. When news of his arrest and crimes reached Germany, the media dubbed him the Hollywood Fire Devil.
For his part, Burkhart claimed the trial was a sham. During one of several outbursts — outside the presence of the jury — Burkhart claimed the security cam footage was doctored and filled with hired actors. He also demanded, over and over, to call his mother.
During his arson spree in December of 2012, Burkhart, then 24, mostly targeted cars, garages, and parking lots in Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere. Though no one was injured and the total cost of the damages was relatively minor, at $2 million, Burkhart faces a life sentence in prison after being found guilty of 37 counts of arson. In the coming weeks another jury will likely convene to re-test the issue of sanity, and the strange, often-callous metric we use to punish the mentally ill for their crimes will be used to try to apply something like justice.
If his attorney can prove to a new jury that his client could not tell right from wrong on the days he set the fires, then at best, Burkhart will spend a very long time in a mental hospital.
According to his psychiatrist Burkhart lives “with a serious mental illness in a way I’ve never seen before or will see again.” It’s an illness that does not exist in the American psychiatric bible, the DSM, but the French do have a phrase for it — folie à deux, madness for two, when two people suffer independently from psychosis and influence the content of each other’s delusions. In Burkhart’s case, his partner in madness was his mother Dorothee, who raised him in isolation and pulled him so close to her that her distorted reality became his own.
The paperwork on Burkhart’s life begins at age 8, when he and his mother fled to Germany during the Chechen war against Russia in 1994. According to classroom reports, Burkhart never attended a day of school before he entered grade school in Germany. He acted like a feral child in the classroom. He would curse at his teacher, run around the chairs, and come up behind female classmates and lift their skirts while saying obscene things to them.
At the time, doctors examining 8-year-old Burkhart found him to be suffering from symptoms corresponding with autism and childhood schizophrenia. One teacher wrote in his report on Burkhart that he believed Burkhart’s mother was “intrusive, controlling, and making him ill.”
While the school offered Dorothee counseling and services for Burkhart, she refused and claimed her son was being “tortured” and “terrorized” by his classmates and teachers. She dismissed the stories of his behavior as fabrications created by school officials who had “pushed Burkhart aside.”
Dorothee hired a lawyer to exempt her son from attending school and won the right to homeschool him. There is no evidence that Burkhart received another day of instruction from his mother or anyone else.
A number of years later, Dorothee was working as a cab driver; during one fare ride, she got into a fight with a neo-Nazi. After the fight, Dorothee grew more paranoid and agitated. She told Burkhart that Nazis who had penetrated the German government had kidnapped her. She told her son that they had stripped her naked, tapped electrodes to her body, and shocked her repeatedly. She said they wanted her to harvest her organs.
Burkhart was hospitalized for the first time at 16, while living in Germany, and again at 20. During this period of time, Burkhart was diagnosed with autism, major depression, psychosis and Hepatitis B, which friends said came from Burkhart’s habit of picking up discarded needles from the sidewalk and sticking them in his arm. Around this same time, records show that Burkhart had been drawn into his mother’s delusions. He told doctors that he believed he and his mother were being persecuted by Nazis and needed to escape Germany.
Not only was Dorothee delusional, she was a scammer. According to an arrest warrant issued in 2005 in Frankfurt, Dorothee worked for a time as a landlord and she fleeced several renters out of their security deposits to the tune of $45,000. She also put down a phony deposit on a $10,000 breast augmentation. She was eventually arrested on fraud charges and jailed. While being locked up, Dorothee complained of chest pains and was allowed a visit to a medical clinic — in civilian clothes and no handcuffs. During the visit, she went to the bathroom, smashed a window and escaped. A warrant for her arrest was issued in 2007, but Dorothee and her son were already on their way to Canada.
The two filed an asylum claim with the Canadian government. “We are being persecuted,” Dorothee wrote in her application, “because of our [Chechen] origin, nationality, disability of my son, from Nazis and their sympathizers.” According to reports, when immigration officials asked about her arrest and escape, Dorothee made up a story about driving without proper documents but eventually told her version of the truth.
“It was clear to me that I would not get out of prison through the legal process. I felt that this was the culmination of the persecution that had begun five years earlier, and that I would never get out alive. There was only one hope: to escape and run away,” she said.
In 2010, in attempt to persuade immigration to give the two residency, Burkhart wrote in an affidavit:
“Me and my mother, we are among the most vulnerable in society. I’m several [sic] disabled, we are alone, I have no father, no family members or friends, they could help us. We are here in Canada just to save our life. I ask you herewith, please help us, please look our case very serious. You decide about our life or dead. Please help us stay alive.”
The legal wrangling over their asylum claims lasted three years; during that time Burkhart started to receive steady psychiatric treatment. Through his course of psych meds, his agitation began to ebb and he told his doctors that he felt less paranoid. The medical treatment ended once their final appeals for asylum were turned down. Dorothee and Burkhart were kicked out of Canada and landed in Los Angeles, which ended up landing them both in jail.
In 2010, the two moved into a bustling Russian enclave of West Hollywood and shared a one-bedroom apartment. Dorothee made money doing odd jobs and “tantric sensual massage.” Meanwhile, Burkhart’s mental health plummeted. He started cutting himself and was eventually hospitalized for a self-inflicted knife wound. His delusions ballooned to claims of having access to an atom bomb, which Burkhart said would “force the Americans to give [he and his mother] residency.”
Meanwhile, an Interpol and FBI dragnet were working to capture Dorothee. By the close of 2011, they were successful and Dorothee was arrested.
At her first hearing before a U.S. magistrate, Dorothee shouted: “My first question is: Where is my son?… What did you do to my son?… Where is he? Dead?” Burkhart attended his mother’s next hearing in federal court in December of 2011. During the hearing, Burkhart exploded. “Fuck the United States!” he shouted. He screamed about the American government as armed officers dragged him out of the courtroom.
Two days later, fires blazed in West Hollywood, Glendale and Shadow Hills. More than 40 fires charred garages and cars across the metropolis.
When a security camera image of the suspected arsonist’s face was broadcast on the news, one of the marshals who had witnessed Burkhart’s tirade in court identified him. Within a week he was arrested.
Years went by before Burkhart was brought to trial, partly because while in jail, he was diagnosed with a virulent form of skin cancer. For a time he refused treatment, but eventually relented. Now, however, it may be too late. During his trial, Burkhart sat hunched in a wheelchair, listening intently while a rotating team of interpreters recited testimony back to him. He continues to undergo treatment, but his attorney believes that no matter the sentence, Burkhart will not live much longer.
“He wanted to burn America,” Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney told the jury. Carney argued that Burkhart had the “criminal presence of mind” to know what he was doing was legally and morally wrong. Carney pointed to the fact that Burkhart carried a bag that contained not only tools for arson but also a hammer and mace — likely to protect himself or prevent others from stopping him, because, Carney argued, he knew what he was doing was wrong. Burkhart planned to “inflict fear and fire on Los Angeles”’ after he had been separated from his mother, according to Carney. For that, he encouraged the jury to find him legally sane and criminally culpable.
A hearing will be held on October 13th to determine how, exactly, to proceed now that a mistrial has been declared.
During the waning days of his trial, Burkhart spoke urgently to a German translator, his eyes bouncing from the jury box to the armed bailiff. “I want to call my mother,” Burkhart told Judge Lomeli. “I wish for you to call my mother, you have a phone.”
Dorothee is still in a cell in Los Angeles, waiting to be deported to Germany to face fraud charges. Burkhart, for his part, continues to endure his “madness for two” on his own.