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Mother of accused arsonist feared her arrest would drive son to 'deadly' choices

Arson suspect Harry Burkhart is shown in a courtroom sketch being held by Los Angeles Sheriff deputies during his hearing in Los Angeles on Jan. 4, 2012.

Mona Schafer Edwards/Reuters/Mona Schafer Edwards/Reuters

She fled German police by climbing out a window, then boarded a flight to Canada with her mentally disabled son.

She had to, Dorothee Burkhart told this country's Federal Court, because if she went back to jail and Harry was forced to fend for himself, he might well make a "deadly" decision.

Ms. Burkhart, 53, was arrested on an outstanding German warrant last week in Los Angeles, the charges ranging from keeping security deposits from former tenants to skipping out on the bill for breast-augmentation surgery. Two days after her arrest, U.S. officials allege, her 24-year-old son Harry began a rampage that led to 37 counts of arson against him and $3-million in damage.

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The mother and son arrived in Vancouver in September, 2007, and filed refugee claims. Those claims were rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board about two years later, and, in May, 2010, Ms. Burkhart wrote to the Federal Court as part of her judicial review request.

She told the court that her son had the mental ability of a five-year-old and would end up in dangerous situations if she was incarcerated.

"If I was in a jail, he was in much more worst situation …" Ms. Burkhart, who was born in Chechnya and became a German citizen in 1996, wrote in halting English. "He can make deadly for him decisions."

Ms. Burkhart did not expand on what she meant by that statement. The court eventually ruled against her and her son.

The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday that the Burkharts claimed they faced persecution from fascist groups in Germany. They said they were stalked because they spoke with Russian accents and because Mr. Burkhart suffered from mental disabilities. They pleaded with the refugee board to let them stay in this country, but it ruled their claims of persecution were not credible.

According to the Federal Court file, Ms. Burkhart told Canadian immigration officials she spent her final four months in Germany in a women's prison. She said she was taken into custody for driving without identity documents, then was told by a judge she was arrested on suspicion of committing deceit and for writing threatening letters to neighbours. (She later denied she appeared before a judge at all.)

Ms. Burkhart claimed that while she was in jail she was abused and tortured by guards who demanded she sign a confession. She escaped, she said, when she was taken to a medical centre after complaining of heart trouble.

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"There was only one hope: to escape and run away," she told officials.

"When they took me to the Cardiology Centre, I was permitted to wear my own clothes instead of prison garb, although I was taken there and back in handcuffs. The first time they took me there, they had released me from handcuffs when I went to the washroom. There was a window, but it wouldn't open," she said.

"During the second visit, I again asked to use the washroom and they took off the handcuffs. The window was wide open. I went out through the window and ran to the nearby metro. The train came right away."

Then, she said, she phoned her son and told him to bring money and documents. "He met me and we left Frankfurt immediately by car," she said. "We went through France to Amsterdam, where we purchased airline tickets and came to Canada for protection."

The Federal Court file provides a disjointed look into the family's life in Germany. Upon arriving in this country, Ms. Burkhart told the court she had a daughter who still lived in Frankfurt but who she doesn't speak with.

The file also contains letters from a school Mr. Burkhart attended in 1997. The teacher and principal suggested he had severe behavioural problems. Ms. Burkhart blamed the school and threatened to pull her son out of class.

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A B.C. doctor in March of 2010 described Mr. Burkhart as mentally unstable. The doctor said he suffered from autism, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress and depression.

U.S. officials have said Mr. Burkhart is also being investigated for a fire at the family's home in Germany last year.

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