They live in some of America’s most exclusive enclaves, alongside stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Jay Leno, and Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, but the residents of Bel Air, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, and much of Beverly Hills are in the grip of a crime wave. Over the last year, masked crews—and one solo bandit known as the Bel Air Burglar—have made off with tens of millions in loot, leaving the L.A.P.D. stymied and victims swapping theories about how the thieves know exactly when and where to strike.
His guests had just sung “Happy Birthday” to his 18-year-old daughter when the host got word from a guest that a stranger was upstairs. A stranger wearing a ski mask.
More baffled than anything else, the host, a wealthy land developer, went up to the second floor of his large, gated home on Bel Air’s Chalon Road, a typical winding, hillside street of lushly landscaped mansions overlooking Los Angeles. He found the man in his daughter’s room, shoving jewelry into a knapsack. “I said, ‘What is it?’ He stuck a gun in my face and said, ‘Back off, this is an armed robbery.’ ”
The host backed off. Downstairs, he called 911. As he did, the burglar probably fled across a green on the Bel Air Country Club golf course, behind the host’s house. Another burglar might have called it a night, but this one, as the developer says wryly, seems a thrill seeker. He ran into a nearby house whose owners were still at the party. Not long after, they came home. Upstairs in the master bedroom, the wife took off her jewelry and went to check on the children.
When she came back, the jewelry was gone.
Apparently, the burglar had been in the master bedroom closet watching her. He’d snatched the jewelry on his way out when she left the room. For his hour’s work, one detective says, the burglar netted about $100,000 in cash and jewelry.
That was August 10, 2004—a day that was neither the start nor the end of an ominous series of robberies in the hills and flats of West L.A., especially in the sylvan enclaves of Bel Air, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, and much of Beverly Hills. The No. 1 topic these days at L.A. cocktail parties isn’t Botox or box-office grosses. It’s who got held up last night on the way home from dinner at Mastro’s, and who returned after a week of skiing in Utah to find his house ransacked, and who opened his door to find a gun at his head.
Overall, the L.A.P.D. likes to stress, serious crime in Los Angeles was down 13.6 percent in 2004 compared with the previous year. And of all the areas in the city’s 468-square-mile sprawl, the star-studded neighborhoods of West L.A. are among the safest, monitored not only by several police forces but by private security companies as well. Yet almost every day, it seems, ninja-like burglars, black-masked and black-garbed, are spotted climbing over security gates, and are recorded by surveillance cameras smashing rocks through plate-glass windows and prying open safes or simply ripping them out of walls and hauling them away.
“Our neighborhood has become cursed; we’re all afraid of it,” says Sheila Vance, a resident of Mulholland Drive and a well-known eyewear designer, whose home was burgled not once but twice in October, resulting in losses of jewelry worth close to $1 million. “At night my husband and I are scared by any noise we hear.… I’m afraid to go to the bank—they may be following us. And why aren’t the police getting in touch with us to let us know what they’re doing about it?”
Deputy Chief Michel Moore, of the L.A.P.D.’s Operations West Bureau, acknowledges “an increase in burglaries in the north-of-Sunset [Boulevard] area,” and says, “We’re not happy [about it]. We’re committed to turning that around.” But, he adds, “the challenge we have is that it’s a large, expansive area. We have dark streets. We have long streets. We have a lot of foliage. We have a lot of areas that afford cover and concealment. We have a lot of service trades that are in and out of there.”
Chillingly, in the many accounts of wealthy victims gathered by Vanity Fair, the burglars also tend to know exactly what they’re looking for and when to hit the homes they’ve cased. One way or another, they have inside information. And so they’re burgling with impunity—stealing millions of dollars in jewelry and cash and getting away with it time after time after time.
Although burglaries have always occurred in the moneyed hills above Sunset Boulevard, the first sense of a surge came a little over a year ago. Initially, it seemed the work of amateurs. Fashion and celebrity photographer Davis Factor, a co-founder with his brother, Dean, of Smashbox Photo Studios, walked into his Laurel Canyon home at about one a.m. on a Saturday to find drawers pulled out and shelves rifled. A lot of expensive watches and a laptop computer were gone, but not much else.
Factor had never imagined that his gated and secluded home, up on Mulholland Drive, would be anything but safe, so he’d turned off his alarm system years before. He knows better now. That night, he also learned the key difference between Beverly Hills and “Beverly Hills post office.”
Had Factor lived within the six-square-mile sanctuary of Beverly Hills proper—principally the flats between Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards—his 911 call would have been put through to the Beverly Hills police, a 140-officer department, headquartered on North Rexford Drive, well equipped to respond in minutes to emergency calls on its turf. Crime still occurs in Beverly Hills; Lieutenant Mitch McCann reports 135 residential burglaries in the first 11 months of 2004, up 10 percent from the year before—but that’s a far cry from the average of 60 burglaries a month that plague outlying West L.A., according to one L.A.P.D. detective.
Unfortunately, Factor’s house is in Beverly Hills post office. He has a Beverly Hills Zip Code, but lives outside Beverly Hills proper, which meant that when he called 911 it was the L.A.P.D. that responded. Factor says he started calling the L.A.P.D. at about 1:30 a.m. He called a second time, then a third. The police finally came, he says, at about six a.m.
The L.A.P.D. is stretched so thin that only one squad car is assigned to respond to low-priority residential burglary calls for the entire 64-square-mile area that encompasses its beat of West L.A. “Low-priority” means the suspect is gone and there’s no need to rush. On a bad night, with calls backed up, that lone squad car—the U-boat, as it’s called, U for “unit”—may not respond for six or even eight hours. In fairness, if a burglar is still on the premises—or even if he might be—that’s a high-priority, lights-and-sirens call, for which more cars are available. But not that many.
Quite a few of the homes in the hills above Sunset are Beverly Hills post office. And the homes of Bel Air, Brentwood, and Pacific Palisades are all outside Beverly Hills proper. They’re the ones getting hit in the surge.
Factor’s burglars had probably cased his house from a nearby ridgetop, the L.A.P.D. theorized—scanning a neighborhood whose residents include actors Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and Annette Bening. They appeared not to know Factor’s pickings were slim. So they were amateurs, with no inside information, simply taking a chance. Not so the burglars who broke into the Mulholland Drive home of Diana Roque Ellis, a portrait artist, on January 17.
“I made the mistake of keeping all my jewelry at home,” Ellis says sadly. When she came home from a night out, more than $1 million worth of it was gone from her closet safe. Ellis’s burglars did such a clean job that she was home an hour, checking her e-mails between two and three a.m., before she realized she’d been robbed.
The burglars who hit the home of a wealthy doctor and his wife in Brentwood in February were professionals, too—but not neat ones.
“These are all the pictures,” says the wife ruefully, opening a three-ring binder she compiled of her case. Inside are snapshots of ransacked bureau drawers on the floor, pawed-over clothes, a back door with its dead-bolt assembly forcibly removed. That first week of February, the doctor had taken his family to ski at Jackson Hole. During their absence, the maid entered the house to pick up a paycheck.
The family returned to find everything of value gone. These burglars knew where the best jewelry was hidden, under a laundry basket high up in a bedroom closet. They took the husband’s IWC watch and the wife’s Manolo Blahnik shoes, but left cheaper brands. They took wine too—but only the good labels. They took passports, cameras, credit cards, checkbooks, and computers. They took the children’s change-stuffed piggy banks.
Immediately, the wife suspected her maid. So did the L.A.P.D. detective who told her to retain the maid, not fire her, and watch for clues. One day soon after, while the maid was cleaning inside, the wife searched her car and found ski masks and black clothing. She took the maid’s cell phone and made a list of all the numbers logged on it. The detective checked out the numbers but they led nowhere.
One morning, the wife drove to the maid’s home; scrunched low in her car and with a hat on, she watched from across the street. The wife spoke with the maid on her cell phone and asked if she was coming to work that day. The maid said she was sick; the wife could see she looked just fine, pacing inside her little house. There, too, was the boyfriend whom the maid had said she hadn’t seen in months.
The maid’s identification documents listed multiple addresses, which made getting a search warrant impossible: a judge would call the request a fishing expedition and deny it. All the detective could do was interrogate her while she was working for the burgled family. Under his questioning, the maid started shaking and crying. The wife felt sorry for her. “What do you need? Can we help you? Do you need a place to stay?” At one point the maid bolted for the bathroom and threw up. “All I want is my stuff back,” the wife pleaded. “Do you know who did it?” The maid nodded and whispered “Yes,” but wouldn’t say more. “They’ll kill me,” she said at last. When she drove off, the wife knew she’d never return.
Like many of the victims interviewed by Vanity Fair, the doctor and his family have since moved, in their case to a sleekly contemporary home in another neighborhood. They have a new maid and what they hope is better security. But they still don’t feel safe. They hear stories of houses’ being hit in their new neighborhood. At night, police helicopters circle overhead. “Last Friday, I saw them for an hour over here. Circling, circling, circling,” says the wife. “I went out on the balcony, and I could see a white truck screeching down the street—then, five minutes later, five cop cars. So I called [the police] and said, ‘What’s going on?’ But they won’t tell me anything.”
The police refer to them as crews, not gangs, because each may have as few as four or five members. Most commonly the crews are Russian, or Cuban, or Mexican, or Colombian. Their members enter the U.S. illegally, with false papers—making it almost impossible for law enforcement to identify them—and look for a crew boss who needs help. They may start by “boosting” clothes from department stores, shoving one expensive suit after another under an oversize coat. They graduate to jewelry thefts organized and financed by the boss. Some crews target diamond couriers in transit. Others hit high-end stores, often using a distraction gambit in which women cause a stir that draws the staff’s attention so the actual thief can get to work. Of late, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has had some success in stopping these crimes, which may be one reason why more crews have turned to those tempting residential targets in the foothills of West L.A.
Along with cash, jewelry is what they’re after. The endgame is always the same: to fence what’s stolen to crooked jewelers, often by flying the booty to other cities, where it won’t be recognized, or by melting down the gold after separating the precious stones from it, diminishing the total value but also making it all untraceable. Each crew has its own M.O. for the burglaries.
“The police told me that our ring likes to hit houses on weekend nights between seven and eight,” recounts the wife of a major Hollywood producer, whose Benedict Canyon house was burgled last February as the trend grew more apparent. “It happened to us on a Saturday night at 8:07.”
The producer’s wife feels sure the thieves knew that the housekeeper was off on Saturday nights and that the house would be empty. Brazenly, they threw a lawn sculpture through the living-room window, ran up to the master bedroom, and stuffed as much jewelry as they could into a pillowcase. The alarm was ringing as they foraged, but they didn’t seem to care; probably they had a lookout at the foot of the dead-end road, and an escape route up the hills behind the house, in case the private security company on call arrived sooner than expected.
This was believed to be the second hit that night for the crew. An hour earlier, a leading television executive and his wife had driven down from their house in Coldwater Canyon to go to dinner at Chaya Brasserie. “I can tell from my alarm system when gates are opened,” the television executive explains. “At about 7:10, people started going around the house. They broke in about 7:20. The alarm system went off. The monitoring company who called the house right away got no answer. So they called Bel-Air Patrol, which put them on hold for about 12 minutes—I actually have the audio file of the whole thing.”
The monitoring company for both houses was Florida-based ADT Security Services, the largest alarm system in the country. When an ADT alarm is tripped in L.A., it gets noted in one of five centers around the country. An operator then calls the client’s home. If there’s no answer, the operator calls the L.A.P.D. If a customer has paid extra for “armed response” service, the operator gets ADT-owned Bel-Air Patrol to answer the call. But the armed guards almost never enter the house. If they think that a theft has occurred, they simply call the L.A.P.D. Jay Stuck, ADT’s vice president of corporate communications, says that Bel-Air Patrol’s response time averages 10 to 15 minutes, far faster than the L.A.P.D.’s. He says this to boast. But that’s still plenty of time for a good crew to get in and out. In the case of the television executive’s burglary, apparently the crew had the luxury of the added 12 minutes the monitoring company was put on hold.
The producer and his wife had “sentimental” jewelry that wasn’t as valuable as the items they keep in a bank vault—though, as the wife says, “if you lose 20 pairs of $500 earrings, it still mounts up.”
The television executive and his wife lost about $400,000 worth of her jewelry, and more. Unfortunately, they lived in Beverly Hills post office. Then they got a break—because the film producer and his wife lived in Beverly Hills proper. The Beverly Hills police had been tracking the Saturday-night crew for more than a year and had discovered the fence to whom the crew had sold its latest haul within 24 hours of the burglaries.
“When [the Beverly Hills police] realized it was the same burglars, they were interested [in our case],” says the television executive—despite his post-office address. “Suddenly they were calling us every 10 minutes—‘Did you have an item like this, or like that?’ ”
The fence had a pawnshop on Western Avenue. The Beverly Hills police had swooped down on it with a search warrant, then gone to the fence’s house, where they found his wife wearing some of the jewelry just stolen. “The police started showing us bags of stuff,” the television executive remembers. “I see a watchband come out of an envelope—‘That’s ours!’ ” The producer and his wife went to sift for their valuables, too. “They had an enormous amount of merchandise,” says the producer’s wife. So many of the pieces must have had sentimental value that made them irreplaceable, “like a gavel [stolen] from a retired judge: ‘Thanks for your 40 years of service on the bench.’ ”
The two couples got some of their valuables back, but not all. The fence and his wife, both Cuban, went to jail rather than cough up the names of their fellow crew members. The penalty for cooperating with the police is, apparently, death.
Interestingly, the fence’s wife worked in the real-estate field, for a title-escrow company. The producer’s house had been on the market for a year. Was this, perhaps, the conduit of inside information for this particular Cuban crew?
All year, other crews with M.O.’s of their own have hit hillside homes. There’s the gang of three black burglars who specialize in heavy lifting; they cart off plasma TVs into waiting vans. “They walked out with a safe that weighed hundreds of pounds,” recounts one L.A.P.D. detective. A Russian crew seems to case houses by working as air-conditioner installers—one couple returned from a trip to New York in April to find their house on Tower Road ransacked and $50,000 to $60,000 in jewelry stolen, just after air conditioners had been installed by what seemed, to the victims, to be a team of very “noirish” Russians. A crew of what appear to be Hungarians—Gypsies, the police believe—specializes in distraction burglaries. One elderly woman let in two women who said they were gathering signatures for a local cause close to her heart. Delighted, the woman invited them to sit at her dining-room table in the company of her infirm husband while she went downstairs to her office to get other names for them. One of the women asked the husband for a bathroom, and curiously chose the one in the master bedroom. Days later, the elderly woman discovered that her favorite rings had been taken from a Tiffany china box by her bedside.
How did the Hungarians know “traffic calming” was the woman’s pet cause? How did the Russians know which day their customers would go to New York and when they’d return? How did the black crew know it had time to remove a plasma television?
All day, the foothills swarm with service people: maids and gardeners, construction workers remodeling houses or building new ones, utility and cable-television repairmen, telephone technicians, moving men. The paranoia-inducing truth is that any of these can be a crew’s eyes and ears. Worse yet, somehow, to consider that a more refined functionary may be the link—a well-spoken, college-educated caterer, perhaps, or the massage therapist who rubs your back and listens to your latest news, or a maître d’ or favorite hairstylist.
Last June, as the surge rolled on, Beatrice Niven, wife of David Niven Jr., the son of the late Hollywood legend, began wondering why, each weekend, her six dogs were barking so loudly outside in the long, caged terrace area of her large hillside home. The Nivens live high above Sunset on Blue Jay Way, one of the “bird streets”—the twisting lanes off Doheny named after birds such as the oriole and flicker. Any number of actors live in the “birds,” among them Leonardo DiCaprio, David Arquette and Courteney Cox, Megan Mullally, and Keanu Reeves.
“That night—June 11—we joined our friends for dinner at Orso and sat outside,” recalls Beatrice Niven. It was the night of President Reagan’s funeral. “We got home at around 9:40. The dogs were acting very weird, very nervous, jumping up. I opened the bedroom door—the whole bedroom was demolished. They’d come in through my beautiful bathtub window, ruined the new bathtub with their breaking. There was a horrible smell in the bedroom, like a man’s cheap cologne, which stayed around for months.” The burglars had known how to bypass the alarm system. They’d known where the good jewelry was, too. The lesser pieces they’d just ignored.
News of a burglary brings calls of commiseration from other victims. As these came in, Niven began seeing strange links. Many of the callers were the children or grandchildren of famous people; Davis Factor, for example, is the great-grandson of cosmetics icon Max Factor. Also, Niven’s mother is a close friend of the mother of the television executive who’d been burgled in February. These wealthy offspring not only knew one another but also favored the same restaurants, the same beauty salons. For reasons Niven prefers not to disclose, a party she and her husband had given some months before seemed suddenly relevant. Many of the victims had attended. Could a waiter have been involved? Or someone who had helped with the preparations? Some weeks later, when the Hollywood Hills home of jewelry designer Loree Rodkin was burgled, Niven was struck by how many of the telephoning victims knew her.
As the Nivens spun one scenario after another, the black-clad figure who may well have been responsible for their robbery continued his remarkable spree, hitting one home, on average, each week. By June, the L.A.P.D. estimated, he’d committed as many as 40 burglaries in the area. He didn’t appear to be working with any foreign crew: the fuzzy images captured on surveillance cameras showed a white man in his 40s with gray hair. Perhaps he was linked socially to some of his victims, as Niven theorized. Or perhaps, given his uncanny penchant for knowing exactly when his victims were leaving their homes and when their alarm systems were off, he had some other source of inside information. By June the L.A.P.D. had christened him the Bel Air Burglar.
“He’s very good,” concedes L.A.P.D. deputy chief Michel Moore. “He’s very sophisticated [in terms of] knowing the alarm systems, of being able to come in and out without being discovered, of hitting locations that have high-value items. We believe we’re looking for someone who has prior arrests, that has been involved in this trade, if you will, before.”
Certainly, the Bel Air Burglar knows not to bring his own tools with him. If stopped and questioned on the street before a hit, he knows, he could be charged with attempted burglary merely for having them on his person. Instead, he uses whatever tools he finds in the house to pry open locked drawers. He goes right for the master bedroom, sweeps any visible jewelry and cash into his shoulder bag, then looks for the safe—almost always in the master bedroom or bathroom. If it’s easy to crack, he cracks it. If it’s small, he may just pull it out of the wall and take it with him. He leaves no fingerprints, and if he’s wrong about the alarm system—if it’s on, after all, or he can’t disarm it—he leaves the house within a minute, as motion detectors attest.
So far, the Bel Air Burglar has the L.A.P.D. completely flummoxed. Among the many who’d love to catch him is Al Radi, founder of ACS Security. A visitor who drives the verdant, serpentine streets of Bel Air cannot help but notice the signs for either ACS or ADT security stuck seemingly in every immaculate lawn. ADT is the one that’s based in Florida and has Bel-Air Patrol for a local presence. But about 18 months ago the residents of Bel Air grew dissatisfied enough with ADT to vote it out of the east-gate guard station and replace it with the locally based ACS as the Bel Air Association’s security company. ADT retains clients in the area, and Bel-Air Patrol still services them, but ACS is now the dominant security force for Bel Air. Which made the advent of the Bel Air Burglar an acute embarrassment for Al Radi.
“We could bank on this guy hitting a home every weekend,” Radi says with a sigh in the station. Seventeen roads lead into Bel Air—enough to allow the Bel Air Burglar all the access he needs, despite the constant patrolling of ACS’s yellow S.U.V.’s. When his image was caught on surveillance tape and circulated on an L.A.P.D. crime-alert flyer, the Bel Air Burglar took a three-week hiatus. But by early summer he was back in business, operating with such impunity that one day, Radi feels sure, he even met him on the street.
“A client with his own full-time security guys spotted him on the camera and called us,” Radi recounts. The figure on the video seemed to match the earlier image of him. The burglar had been across the street, casing the home of an elderly woman, who was an ACS client. Radi sent his men over, but they found nothing amiss. An hour later, Radi was standing outside the elderly woman’s house alone, his men still inside, when a white man in his 40s walked by. “I had no right to stop or arrest him on a public street unless I saw him commit a crime,” Radi says. But he could, and did, engage him in conversation.
“I told him that we had a call in the area, that they’d seen somebody jumping a fence. ‘So what?’ the stranger said. ‘So I was asking if, maybe, you may have seen the person.’ He said, ‘No, I haven’t.’ I said, ‘Do you live in the area?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘What address?’ He said, ‘None of your business.’ ” In the brief time it took for Radi to summon his men, the stranger was gone.
Last summer, the homeowners’ association of Brentwood Park sent out a routine newsletter that mentioned, in passing, that the neighborhood had experienced at least 25 recent burglaries north of Sunset, 8 south of Sunset, 6 “follow-home” robberies (when a victim in a car is followed home and then robbed), and one attempted child abduction. “We’ll see you at the October Fiesta!” the letter concluded. In the wider Brentwood area, whose residents include such couples as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe, Michelle Pfeiffer and television producer David E. Kelley, and Cindy Crawford and Rande Gerber, the news was almost incredible.
Aghast, one resident and her husband invited 400 neighbors to attend a meeting to discuss the crime wave. “We thought we’d get about 25 people,” says the resident, a former television producer. “In fact, 160 people crammed into my living room.” One well-known comedic actress stood up to declare she’d been burgled six times. Many felt that a recent decision by the L.A.P.D. had made everything worse. Because the L.A.P.D. is stretched desperately thin, it had declared in January that it would no longer respond to unverified alarms at addresses where there had been two false alarms the previous year. Too often, private security companies had failed to call a client whose alarm had tripped in order to confirm a burglary had taken place. Instead, the companies just relayed the alarm to the L.A.P.D. and expected the police to respond. Unfortunately, most of the alarms had been false. Now the security companies themselves were going to have to respond to their clients’ alarms and ascertain that a burglary had been committed before calling the L.A.P.D. Otherwise, the client could be fined. The ruling was reasonable—as one L.A.P.D. detective says, “We couldn’t keep chasing the wind”—but didn’t it also serve to give burglars carte blanche?
That night, there were as many follow-homes to report as burglaries. One resident after another described driving into the hills after a restaurant dinner or charity event only to be tailed by a lone car up the desolate winding roads. Some of the women had been robbed at gunpoint after they had gotten out in their garages. Others had sped by their houses and driven back to the safety of a large hotel with valet parking, there to call their husbands with trembling hands.
Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell: the meeting could have gone on for hours. Finally, the hostess called for proposals. Through one neighbor, shopping-mall developer Rick Caruso, the residents decided to hire a small company called Security Solution Specialists, which Caruso had used to protect his own properties. L.A.P.D. lieutenant Rick Wall and his wife, Margaret, run it, overseeing a retinue of L.A.P.D. detectives and officers who either work in their off-duty hours, as Wall himself does when he’s doing private security, or are recently retired. Though some find it galling that extra money is needed to get proper security from city police, they’re willing to ante up to be safe. Since Security Solution began monitoring Brentwood Park and exchanging information with a private patrol service that works in the area, burglaries have all but ceased.
Unfortunately, that’s one small district.
Burglaries, as L.A.P.D. deputy chief Moore likes to point out, are crimes of property, usually committed when no one is home. Hardly anyone during this spree, he says, had been hurt. But that changed on July 28, when a maid and her husband, who worked for singer John Ondrasik of the band Five for Fighting, had the bad luck to surprise an armed burglar at the singer’s Encino Avenue home. The maid’s husband, 44-year-old Carlos Canton, was stabbed several times by the intruder, who was described by the L.A.P.D. as “wearing dark clothing, possibly a security guard uniform.” Canton survived the assault but was badly hurt.
In police parlance, a “home invasion” is when burglars, usually armed, force their way into a home to terrorize and rob the residents. A story told in hushed tones by the network of recent burglary victims concerns an antiques dealer who opened the back door of his Coldwater Canyon house one Tuesday night at eight o’clock four years ago and was overwhelmed by two armed attackers in ski masks. The tall one put a 9-mm. gun to the dealer’s head and told him he had 10 seconds to live. The small one, recalls the dealer, had perfect teeth. While the tall one kept the dealer on the floor at gunpoint, the small one ransacked the house. The tall one demanded to know where the safe was. The dealer said there was no safe. When the small one with perfect teeth found it, he was mad. The dealer was tied tightly to an antique table with his own silk ties and kicked repeatedly in the face. The home invaders hauled the safe out on a comforter, leaving the man to be found by his wife, who returned with their two children at about 10 p.m. from a trip to Disneyland.
“Home invasion” was one phrase the residents of the hills began hearing as the surge rolled into August. Another was “hot prowl”—for a prowler who burgles a home while residents are there, but tries to evade detection.
One Sunday last August, a tennis pro named Kim Carlson got the surprise of her life when she emerged at about 10 p.m. from the guesthouse of a large compound on Tower Grove, not far from where the couple who used the Russian air-conditioner installers had been burgled the previous April. Jay Leno lives nearby, on Tower Road. Also in the area are producer Steve Tisch (American History X), director Tony Scott (Top Gun), and actress Lisa Kudrow.
That night, Carlson had returned a short while earlier from a party down the road with her friend and landlord, an advertising executive who lives in the 10,000-square-foot main house. “I had a date and was late for it,” Carlson says. “So I called my date and said, ‘I’m tired.’ He said, ‘No problem, I’ll send a driver.’ ” The advertising exec went into the main house to watch television. Carlson waited—and waited—for the driver her date was sending. Finally she came out of her guesthouse to wait out front. She saw two men, both black-clad and wearing black ski masks. One was already headed toward the main-house front door. The other was still straddling the fence. When they saw Carlson, they panicked. As the first ran back to climb over the fence, she heard one say to the other, “Make sure you have the gun!”
Recounting her story to one after another of her tennis clients, Carlson heard a growing number of stories in return. “Some are inside jobs, some aren’t,” she says. “The L.A.P.D. told me there’s a robbery or burglary going on every day.” Occasionally one was publicized, as on August 8, when socialite stars Paris and Nicky Hilton’s Hollywood Hills home was burgled, with a “significant” amount of property taken. But incidents right in Carlson’s neighborhood were kept quiet. Just in August, she heard of three other burglaries in the Tower Road vicinity.
One of the most chilling involved an angle new even to L.A.P.D. detectives, Carlson says. “This guy and his wife went to Hawaii. They went to LAX and valeted their car.… He was asked how long he’d be gone. ‘Six days.’ So now they have his car keys, his garage-door opener, and his address from the registration. He comes home to find no sign of forced entry—and everything gone.” Another involved a Brentwood client. “The burglars actually came in while they were having dinner. The guests didn’t even hear them, because they were in another part of the house.”
L.A.P.D. commissioner William Bratton, the former high-profile New York City police commissioner who ran afoul of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and decamped to the West Coast, acknowledges the spike in West L.A. crime and says the reason is obvious. “We just don’t have enough police—either in our poorest or our wealthiest areas.” In New York in the early 1990s, he observes, crime was similarly high, but under Giuliani the city voted to hire more police. “You can have all the private security in the world but safety is still dependent on municipal police. New York got it—and that’s something this city has never done.” Now New York has a police force of 35,000. “To have the equivalent of what New York has, not even taking into account how huge L.A. is, we’d have to have 18,000 police officers—and we have 9,000.”
At least, says Deputy Chief Moore, most burglars do get caught, because they keep burgling until they do. Most, he says, have drug habits they have to feed. Eventually, in their drug-addled state, they make mistakes.
But that’s not what the anecdotal evidence suggests. All fall, the spree has continued, if not actually accelerated. And the pros, so far, aren’t getting caught.
When his home was burgled in October, Tom O’Gara had to admire the handiwork. O’Gara is in the security business: a few years back, he bought Kroll Associates, the well-known private-investigation and security firm, and became C.E.O. of Kroll/O’Gara. Now he manufactures a lot of the gadgetry for the U.S. Special Forces, such as night-vision goggles. As a resident of the Beverly Hills flats, O’Gara was able to call the Beverly Hills police when he returned home after a weekend in Idaho with his family to find the place ransacked. A faulty alarm system had let the thieves come in a side window and take all the time they needed. In addition to jewelry and cash, O’Gara lost tuxedos, signed jerseys from the Los Angeles Clippers, even his children’s complete collection of Yu-Gi-Oh Japanese trading cards. “They were pretty meticulous,” O’Gara says. When the detectives came, he recalls, “one of them said he’d been burglarized.”
O’Gara has his own theory of how inside information is passed to the burglars—by employees of the private alarm companies. He’s not the only one. A very successful television producer notes that she was burgled not long after having an alarm system installed by ADT. So were two friends of hers: Tony Vinciquerra, C.E.O. of the Fox Networks Group, and another television executive. Last May, a series of burglaries in Irvine, California, an hour and a half to the south of Los Angeles, led to the arrests of two armed guards employed by … ADT Security Services.
Jay Stuck, ADT’s vice president for corporate communications, calls the incident an aberration and declares, “For 130 years, we’ve been in business and taken pride in the levels of service for life and property of our customers. We have 21,000 employees taking the responsibility our customers have in us very, very seriously.”
No one constant appears in all, or even most of, the burglaries. In November, for example, the Coldwater home of Gary Smith, a television producer, and his wife, Maxine, was burgled by thieves who broke in through a downstairs window and padded in muddy feet right up to the master-bedroom safe. The Smiths have security, but they hadn’t turned on their alarm system for years. Intriguingly, Maxine Smith is another good friend of Beatrice Niven’s. So was that the connection?
Sheila Vance, the eyewear designer who was burgled twice in October, is convinced she and her husband were cased for days or weeks by absolute pros. She would drive down past her mailbox on Mulholland Drive and see lots of mail in it; when she returned from her errands and stopped to pick it up, it would be gone. The night of the first burglary, one of her cars was in the driveway, the television was on, and the dog was inside barking. Yet, the burglars appeared to know exactly when Vance and her husband weren’t home. Vance had a remote-control device for her alarm so she could disable it as she approached the house. Later, the sales representative of a rival alarm company would tell her that many burglars are sophisticated enough to hide in the bushes and intercept a remote control’s frequency. Next time the residents are gone, the burglars can disable the system electronically themselves.
Loree Rodkin, the jewelry designer who had been burgled not long before, is a friend of the Vances’. She’d urged Sheila to put her best jewelry in a bank vault—and so Sheila had. Still, the burglars found valuables in the master bedroom (including a wedding ring worth $65,000), breaking through the master-bedroom window, where no motion detectors had been installed—how did they know that?—and putting a ladder up to it so they could get in without tripping the alarm system. Then, almost more disturbingly, they ransacked Sheila’s home office, taking her credit-card and wire-transfer files, financial statements, marriage license, property documents, and more.
“I have banks in France and Germany and Switzerland and Japan and everywhere,” she says. “Once they know everything about you, where else can they go? It’s a nightmare.”
Sheila Vance is a client of Aida Thibiant’s, whose day spa is a fixture of Beverly Hills, and to whom Sheila mentioned her October burglaries. She knew Thibiant would be sympathetic. In September 2003, Thibiant had been the victim of an armed burglar who held her at gunpoint in her Bel Air bedroom and stole a diamond watch and a flawless six-carat diamond ring worth $270,000.
What she didn’t know was that Thibiant had just been burgled again.
“This last weekend I went for a few days to my son’s house,” Thibiant recounted on November 3, 2004. “I called my housekeeper from there and said, ‘You can go home.’ So she left Friday morning. I was supposed to come Saturday afternoon, but I came instead on Sunday. When I did, I found the whole thing robbed.”
These burglars, too, were sophisticated—hardly drug addicts. “I have an alarm system. They cut the phone line and the alarm system and pulled it all out.” So the alarm didn’t ring and the burglars had as much time as they wanted. “They took all my jewelry this time,” Thibiant says sadly. “This was jewelry I’d had for 40 or 50 years. Some I remember my father offered me: a gold bracelet when I graduated from college. My sons, when they got christened, my parents gave them gold bracelets—I was keeping them in my house. All gone.
“You know the best part of it?” Thibiant asks bitterly. “In some of the drawers I had pearl necklaces. They took the real one—and left the fake one! They knew which was real and which was fake!”
Was Thibiant the latest victim of the Bel Air Burglar? Perhaps. The M.O. and expertise seem all too familiar. Certainly the Bel Air Burglar remains at large, perhaps even living among his victims. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he rents a home in the neighborhood,” muses ACS Security’s Al Radi. “Part of me says this guy does it just for the fun of it. He’s taken close to $400,000 in cash. With all this heat going on, you would think that he would take a vacation for a little while.” But no.
As the burgled residents of Beverly Hills and Bel Air share their stories, some sound a philosophical note. What they’ve had is gone, but jewels can be replaced—or, perhaps better yet, not replaced. There’s something liberating about living without anything a burglar wants. Some of the victims have quietly sold their houses and moved to other neighborhoods, hoping the thieves won’t follow them there. At least one victim, Loree Rodkin, has decided that a house in the hills now is simply too scary a proposition. Instead, she’s bought an apartment in a highly secure high-rise building.
Davis Factor, a friend of Loree Rodkin’s, has had another reaction: he’s decided to hang tough. The photographer, whose burglary was one of the first in the crime surge, has reconnected his alarm system—but that’s just the start. “Now my house is guarded with dogs and lights,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got surveillance cameras, motion detectors—the works. I went all out, so I’m like, ‘Come on back!’ ”
Michael Shnayerson is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.