Shervin Lalezary '08 caught L.A.'s serial arsonist suspect
-By Lori Craig
On the first night of the year, Los Angeles residents were on edge. For four straight nights, a serial arsonist had been on a rampage that had caused millions of dollars in property damage.
Shervin Lalezary, right, with younger brother, Shawn, 24,
a reserve deputy and 2L at Southwestern Law School.
Authorities were on edge, too, and dozens of officers from multiple fire and law enforcement agencies were working around the clock to identify suspects and patrol the streets in the hope of keeping residents safe.
Among them was Shervin Lalezary ’08, circling the busy but familiar blocks of West Hollywood. By day a real estate attorney with a solo transactional practice in Beverly Hills, Lalezary also serves as a volunteer reserve Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy. About 3 a.m. on Jan. 2, one hour past what should have been the end of his 10-hour shift, he spotted a van matching the description of a suspect vehicle, driven by a man resembling a reported suspect.
A few minutes later, 24-year-old Harry Burkhart was in custody. He faces 100 counts related to 49 fires.
Following the high-profile arrest, Lalezary was thrust into the spotlight. He and the Sheriff’s department were inundated with media requests for interviews with the Jewish-Iranian-born attorney/volunteer police officer who earns $1 per year as a reserve deputy. Reporters speculated about his background, his motivations, and even his marital status.
Determined to remain a private person, Lalezary declined interviews with the exception of an immediate press conference and, later, an appearance on the “The Ellen Degeneres Show.” He recently spoke with USC Law about combining his interests in the practice and enforcement of law.
“When I was at USC Law, I externed with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Compton Hardcore Gang Unit,” says Lalezary, 30. “I found the work to be extremely fulfilling and it very much increased my passion both for the law and for law enforcement.
“I went through the academy when I was a 3L. Meeting the requirements of the academy and law school was definitely a challenge, but having the incredible support of my family, friends and professors – especially Prof. [Michael] Chasalow – definitely helped me through it.”
Chasalow taught Lalezary during his third year, when Lalezary enrolled in Chasalow’s Small Business Clinic. Chasalow remembers him as “a really nice guy who was really dedicated to his clients.”
Lalezary, second from left, and Prof. Michael
Chasalow, right, with other USC Small
Business Clinic students in early 2008.
(photo by Maria Iacobo)
“The clients would always tell me that he would go the extra mile for them, he always wanted to make sure things went well,” said Chasalow, whose office bookshelf holds a commemorative L.A. Sheriff’s Department mug given to him by Lalezary at his 2008 commencement ceremony. “The Small Business Clinic helps people. He wanted to help people even then, and I know that becoming a reserve Sheriff’s deputy was very important to him.
“I know it wasn’t easy. It was a lot of extra time and a lot of extra work and there were days when he was definitely tired, but he managed to get his work done and get it done well.”
Reserve deputies complete the same application process and training as full-time deputies.
“The Sheriff’s academy training is quite significant and very time-consuming and hard,” said Associate Dean Robert Saltzman, an L.A. police commissioner who was Lalezary’s Professional Responsibility professor. “It’s both physical training and a lot of book learning about law enforcement procedures, legal issues, rights and responsibilities, and it struck me as a tall order for a law student to try to do that at the same time that he was in law school. Both are very hard to do and trying to do the two together is extremely difficult.
“But he did. And he succeeded because he worked very hard and was clearly dedicated to both.”
Classmate and friend Michael B. Dell ’08 found Lalezary’s pursuit “fascinating.”
“Shervin was always passionately and deeply interested in the police force and law enforcement,” said Dell, an associate in Gibson Dunn’s San Francisco office. “It was always a nice break from the typical law school topics to hear about his latest ventures in law enforcement. Once he entered the reserve program, I was extremely impressed by his ability to balance the academic rigors of law school with the mental, emotional and physical demands of the academy.”
Dell said that Lalezary’s sense of public service might come from his strong sense of community that originates with his large and tight-knit family.
“His devotion to the community extends beyond his family to the greater Los Angeles community, and I think he derives a lot of pleasure from helping others,” Dell said. “He was always willing to help students in law school and supported that community as well.”
After graduating from the academy in 2008, Lalezary continued his training and in late 2011 was given permission to patrol on his own, as full-time deputies do. It was during his fourth solo patrol that he apprehended the suspected Hollywood arsonist.
He described the arrest during his Jan. 9 appearance on the “Ellen” show.
Lalezary, left, speaks with Ellen Degeneres in this
still from the Jan. 9 broadcast.
“Honestly, I feel relieved,” said Lalezary, who has friends and family living in the area. “What this suspect was doing … he was terrorizing the community.
“Also, for my partners out there who were staying late every night and also the men and women of the fire department who were staying late every night and running into these homes and making sure everyone was OK and saving lives – the fact that we could just kind of go back to life as normal a little bit was just a big relief.”
That Lalezary is quick to deflect praise comes as no surprise to Dell.
“Shervin is a hero,” said Dell. “He is quick to praise and recognize others, but always has deflected any recognition sent his way. Shervin has a genuine curiosity about the world around him that makes him most comfortable driving the conversation and asking the questions. In this situation, where he is the hero, others want to ask him questions and pick his brain and I think this is a somewhat novel dynamic for him.”
Dean of Admissions Chloe Reid said Lalezary was very polite and kindhearted – as well as successful – as a student. He was admitted to the Summer Fellows program during his 1L summer, in which he worked with Majestic Realty Co. and then at a law firm as a summer clerk.
“I don’t know if coming in he had an idea of what he was interested in doing, so I think his work with Majestic Realty was instrumental and perhaps influential in what he’s doing today,” Reid said.
Today, Lalezary says, “I work with real estate investors on the purchase and sale of distressed properties. While the foundation of my job is very much business-based, there is a strong legal component that goes with it as well.”
After more than three years on the force, Lalezary continues to enjoy serving the county of L.A.
“Our department has an amazing reserve program,” he said. “Once we are patrol trained, many doors are open to us. We can work the streets in a black and white, fly with our Aero Bureau, or serve with our largely reserve Search and Rescue team.”
To watch Lalezary’s interview with Ellen Degeneres, click here.