How not to catch an arsonist
It was the morning of Dec. 30, 2011. I awoke in a Santa Barbara hotel room, kissed my wife, grabbed my iPad and checked Facebook. I remember all of this because on this particular day my social media network did something completely unheard of — it delivered me actual news that did not involve a celebrity’s death.
My friends posted updates about one of the most hellish nights in recent Los Angeles history. In what would become an international news story, an arsonist had set fire to 19 cars in and around Hollywood, sending fire and police personnel racing around the city.
The Los Angeles Times posted an arson map. My street, which had been spared thus far, was on it. I posted the following on Facebook, mainly to preempt the inevitable “I just want to make sure you’re not dead” phone call from my mom.
My wife and I drove back to Los Angeles. I stupidly assumed the arsonist would not strike again because I stupidly concocted the following narrative in my head.
This is not the work of your classic quiet man who keeps to himself. This is the work of a wild-eyed maniac who craves notoriety and got it. He won’t strike again while a massive manhunt is underway. He’s too smart for that. He’ll go into hiding, like the anthrax-mail terrorist, and we will never hear from him again, like Skee-Lo.
The news was grim. Some of the fires that were set in carports had spread to apartment buildings. People lost their homes. The police arrested a guy the first night, but clearly there was another arsonist. There were rumors of copycats.
I grew antsy. I wanted to DO SOMETHING. But what? The closest thing my neighbors have to a “watch” is going outside to “watch” their dogs poop and not pick it up. My street is a blend of Russian immigrants, fresh-off-the-bus actors and homeowners who regret not having sold in 2007 before the market crashed. We’re not a tight bunch.
I had to go lone wolf. Only having limited resources, I decided to defend my apartment building.
We live in one of those totally-average-in-every-way apartment buildings you find all over West Los Angeles. I share a roof with people who steal each other’s newspapers and boil old diapers for dinner, but I had to defend this totally-average-in-every-way apartment building, damn it, because it was our totally-average-in-every-way apartment building.
And so on the second night of the Hollywood arson fires, armed with an iPad, Facebook and a couple of Indica IPAs, I stood guard over my apartment building.
I started with a sweep of the perimeter to make sure there were no suspicious characters lurking about. I enlisted the aid of my six-pound Pomeranian-mix mutt, who has the uncanny ability to track where another dog has peed from over 75 feet away. I didn’t know how this would help, but this was no time for thinking, just action.
The perimeter was secure.
I returned upstairs.
From my balcony I logged the evening’s activities on Facebook while my wife sat inside on the couch Googling “marriage counselors Los Angeles.”
In what has to be the greatest misunderstanding of both environmentalism and property rights of all time, this neighbor once berated my wife for putting her recycling materials in his building’s city-issued empty recycling bin the night before pickup. But on this night we were allies.
My wife begged me to come inside, but I told her it was not an option until I caught the arsonist or ran out of beer.
Women do not understand tactical security protocol.
There were nonstop sirens and helicopter activity for four straight nights. It felt like the arsonist was everywhere.
One morning, around 2 or so, I considered calling the police because I heard strange Predator-like noises coming from my neighbor’s backyard. This neighbor has been known to shoot guns in his yard (yes we live in a major city), so I figured anyone poking around his yard would get what was coming. Although if it actually was The Predator, in accordance with The Predator’s code of hunting ethics, my neighbor probably would have been shot first.
This is one of the good things about a crisis. People pull together spontaneously. Some random guy was rolling around our neighborhood on his 10-speed. He was doing his part. Yeah, he looked like a character out of Portlandia. But at least it was something.
It was around midnight that I ran out of beer. Also around this time for some strange reason I lost interest in sitting in the cold and waiting for the bad guy.
I went inside around 1, but climbed out of bed every few hours to look outside in hopes that the arsonist would show himself at that exact moment. “What can I tell you, officer,” I would say. “I was performing a routine perimeter check when the perp made his position known and I alerted authorities. What’s that? Hero? No, I’m no hero. You’re the real heroes.”
By the time police caught the guy on Jan. 2, more than 50 fires had caused at least $3 million in damage. The alleged arsonist, a German national named Harry Burkhart, was arrested by a sheriff’s deputy at a drugstore not far from my apartment.
I later learned that my building was not a likely target because it is well-lit. The arsonist targeted cars in areas where it was completely dark and no one could see him.
An old neighbor quoted in the Los Angeles Times remembers Burkhart “as a quiet man who kept to himself.”