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Accused L.A. arsonist diagnosed with mental disorders by B.C. doctor

The man accused of a California arson rampage was diagnosed by a B.C. doctor as mentally unstable, suffering from a host of disorders including severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

That diagnosis was part of a legal fight Harry Burkhart and his mother Dorothee waged in 2009, one stop on a twisting trail of courtroom battles that wound from Frankfurt to Vancouver to Los Angeles and culminated in the woman's arrest for, among other things, allegedly refusing to pay for breast-augmentation surgery in her native Germany.

Mr. Burkhart watched as his mother was arrested last week, and a day later he exploded in an expletive-laced rant at her court hearing. That, authorities believe, is when Mr. Burkhart, furious over his mother's legal troubles, went on a nighttime arson binge starting Friday, setting more than 50 fires that terrorized L.A. and caused $3-million in damage.

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During her court appearance Tuesday, Ms. Burkhart said her son was mentally ill. It wasn't the first time a court heard that claim about the now 24-year-old, who was arrested in L.A. driving a minivan with B.C. plates.

"Harry Burkhart has been a patient of mine since year 2008," Blaga Stancheva wrote to the Small Claims Court of B.C. in March, 2010, as part of a civil case the mother and son were involved in. "He suffers from autistic spectrum disorder since a very young child. Together with autism, he has severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and a sleeping condition currently."

Dr. Stancheva went on to say Mr. Burkhart "is not stable mentally" because of increased stress, due to fear. She did not elaborate on what Mr. Burkhart feared or the cause of his stress, and did not return calls seeking comment.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the family's legal troubles began in September, 2000, when Ms. Burkhart was accused of failing to return security deposits to her tenants in Frankfurt.

In June, 2004, Ms. Burkhart was accused of skipping out on the bill after having breast augmentation surgery. German officials have laid 19 counts of fraud against her in all – the warrant that led to her arrest in California.

It is unclear when she left Germany, but starting in 2006 Ms. Burkhart surfaced numerous times in both Los Angeles and Vancouver. American authorities said that the last time she entered the U.S. legally was in 2007; since then, she has been in the country illegally.

In Canada, mother and son each filed refugee claims in 2009. Both were rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board and applied to the Federal Court for judicial review. They were again turned down. "… It was determined that the Applicant was not a Convention Refugee and not a person in need of protection," a Federal Court website post says of Mr. Burkhart.

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While the Burkharts were appearing in Federal Court, the mother also had two cases pending in civil court. She accused a landlord who rented her a downtown Vancouver commercial space of illegally terminating their agreement, preventing her from opening Ariane Beauty & Wellness. (Ms. Burkhart's registered phone number is also the number for an erotic-massage business in L.A.)

She pleaded with the small claims court for sympathy and submitted a doctor's note that claimed she, too, suffered from mental-health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks.

The court dismissed one of Ms. Burkhart's complaints when she failed to show up. Her second claim resulted in her being ordered to pay the landlord $1,175 after a counterclaim went against her.

Ms. Burkhart – displeased with what she described as the Vancouver police's unwillingness to help her with the landlord situation – filed a complaint against the force with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner. The office ruled her complaint was without merit.

During their Vancouver stay, the Burkharts spent about six months residing at Kindred Place, a downtown supportive-housing complex. Lorne Epp, executive director of More Than A Roof, expressed surprise that his former tenants sparked such headlines.

"Our only concern as a landlord was that there seemed to be some additional people living there that were not on the tenancy agreement," Mr. Epp said. "When we would confront them about that, they would of course deny it. Other than that, there were no issues. I was as shocked as anybody to hear about Harry's arrest in Los Angeles."

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In L.A., Ms. Burkhart rented a suite in a commercial building on Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks east of where Mr. Burkhart was arrested early Monday. Tenants of the squat, two-storey beige building, including employees of a hair salon and an optical store, said the landlord told them not to talk about the Burkharts.

Mr. Burkhart is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday morning.

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

B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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