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Accused L.A. arsonist begged court to stay in Canada

The Los Angeles County Sheriff''s Department detained Harry Burkhart in West Hollywood, Calif., on Jan. 2.

Gene Blevins/ Reuters/Gene Blevins/ Reuters

He hasn't spoken publicly since he was charged with setting a rash of Los Angeles fires, but former Vancouver resident Harry Burkhart begged Canada's Federal Court two years ago to let him and mother Dorothee stay in this country.

He said he feared they'd be killed if sent back to Germany and she was, he pleaded, the only person he could count on.

"Me and my mother, we are among the most vulnerable in society," Mr. Burkhart wrote in an April, 2010, affidavit obtained by The Globe and Mail, asking the court to excuse his poor English. "I'm several 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."

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Mr. Burkhart's plea fell on deaf ears. Just as the Immigration and Refugee Board had done earlier that year, the Federal Court ruled against him and his mother.

The Burkharts claimed they faced persecution from fascist groups in Germany, the country from which they arrived in Canada. It was in Germany that Ms. Burkhart also faced fraud charges dating back to 2000, both for keeping security deposits from former tenants and for skipping out on the bill for breast-augmentation surgery.

Those charges finally caught up with Ms. Burkhart last week in California, resulting in her arrest. U.S. authorities allege her son – left without the one person he relied on – then went on an arson rampage, setting more than 50 fires and leaving about $3-million in damage.

The 24-year-old – who a B.C. doctor once described as mentally unstable and suffering from a host of disorders, including severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress – was arrested in Los Angeles on Monday driving a minivan with B.C. plates. He was formally charged Wednesday.

Federal Court in Canada and IRB documents tell a disjointed story, but one in which the mother appears to be firmly in control of her son's life – to the point that she testified in his place in front of the IRB about his woes. She said he was incapable of recounting his own life story.

Ms. Burkhart, 53, told the refugee board she and her son were born in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. They eventually settled in Germany and became citizens but Ms. Burkhart told the IRB in 2009 the two were continually harassed because they spoke with Russian accents and because her son suffered from mental disabilities.

"We are persecuted because of our origin, nationality, disability of my son from the Nazis and their sympathizers," Ms. Burkhart said.

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Ms. Burkhart initially told Canadian officials she was arrested in Germany for committing deceit and writing threatening letters to neighbours. She later denied that was the case and said she was taken into custody for not carrying identity documents.

"When the claimant ultimately escaped lawful custody [to which she also testified] she contacted her son and instructed him to meet her with their identity documents, including their passports and money," the IRB wrote in its judgment. "The principal claimant's son followed her instruction successfully, which allowed both claimants to leave Germany for Canada where they made refugee claims."

Those refugee claims were denied. Government lawyers argued against Ms. Burkhart because of her charges abroad.

No further details on how Ms. Burkhart "escaped lawful custody" were provided in the court documents.

For six months, the Burkharts lived in separate suites at a downtown Vancouver supportive-housing complex. But Ms. Burkhart said living in separate units only added to her son's stress, as did visits from immigration officials. She said he so feared fascists – and immigration officials – that he pushed his mattress up against his front door.

Blaga Stancheva, Mr. Burkhart's doctor, who started treating him in 2008, wrote to the board on his behalf, saying: "Leaving Canada at this point will definitely worsen his health."

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With a report from The Associated Press

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About the Authors
News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Sunny has been with The Globe and Mail since November, 2010. More

Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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