LOS ANGELES — They erupted almost simultaneously, a sudden barrage of fires about 1:30 a.m. that signaled the fourth night of the city's arson rampage. In 90 minutes, nearly a dozen vehicles had gone up in flames on both sides of the Hollywood Hills.
But this time, early Monday, police finally had an edge.
Hours before the fires began, the U.S. State Department officials had alerted authorities to a Los Angeles man connected to arson fires in Germany, according to law enforcement sources. The man had recently made a scene at a Los Angeles Immigration Court hearing and looked much like a "person of interest" caught earlier on a surveillance tape in a Hollywood parking structure.
Patrol officers were told he would be driving a blue Dodge minivan.
Police swarmed the area and set up a roadblock on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
At 3 a.m., a reserve sheriff's deputy spotted the minivan in West Hollywood and pulled it over near the Sunset Strip. The driver appeared to match the grainy video and inside his minivan, officials found fire starter sticks, police said. He was taken into custody, and the outbreak of fires came to a sudden halt.
"I feel very good that we've got the right guy," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said in an interview. "He had the right stuff in his van and I am confident in the arrest."
At a news conference Monday evening, Beck emphasized that the investigation was ongoing and that it could take some time to present the case to prosecutors. "We are confident in our investigation but we have a long way to go," he said.
The chief said the big break in the case came late Sunday, when federal officials recognized the image from the video and called the Los Angeles arson task force.
Law enforcement sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing, first said the suspect was a 55-year-old named Harry Burkhart.
They later said he was actually a 24-year-old German national who carried travel papers from Chechnya. He had spent time in Germany, they said, but had lived in Southern California for the last several years. They weren't clear on his alleged motives but speculated that he might have been furious over his mother's pending deportation.