The sidewalk outside the Burnette brothers' house in recent months was lined with potted plants--tiny palms, camellias, flowering cherry trees--with a sign proclaiming " 1/2 Off!"
The three brothers--who also worked as landscapers--had such good prices that customers told local nurseries they'd better lower their prices to compete.
But when one nursery manager went to check out the competition at the house on Abbeyville Avenue, police say he discovered why the Burnettes were able to offer bargain-basement prices: They stole their merchandise.
Mark, David and John Burnette were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of felony grand theft and receiving stolen property. They pleaded not guilty at their arraignment Friday.
Police say they stole more than $25,000 worth of plants, fountains and garden sculptures from west San Fernando Valley nurseries in a six-month spree, for which they face up to five years in jail. They remain in jail in lieu of $20,000 bail each.
Mark, 38, David, 36, and John Burnette, 27, took up landscaping after the Northridge quake, hoping to scrape some money together, but they didn't seem to be having much luck--neighbors say Mark could frequently be heard grumbling about how he could make only $5 an hour.
It was in September that the Burnette brothers turned to a life of crime, said Los Angeles Police Detective Ken Francik. They began casing nurseries during the day, finding out which held the priciest plants, Francik said.
At night they scaled the chain-link fences ringing most open-air nurseries, plucked the targeted plants from their buckets, tossed them over the fence and climbed out, Francik said.
"Security is pretty lax at those places," Francik said. The brothers stole from at least six nurseries, he said.
After a heist, the Burnette brothers would take the hot plants back to their mother's house, where they lived, Francik said. They stored most of the filched flora in their back yard, or brought it out front to sell, Francik said, adding that he assumed they also used some of the stolen foliage in their landscaping work.
Some prime plants were used to re-landscape their own house, Francik said.
Nursery owners in the area, after waking up to find holes in the ground or empty buckets where their most treasured trees once grew, knew something was up. Bob Klittich, manager of Green Thumb nursery in Canoga Park, said his workers staked out his 25-acre nursery late into the night several times, hoping to catch the thieves.
Police also got tips from neighbors about the brothers and had the trio under surveillance, Francik said. But they couldn't catch the begonia bandits in the act, he said.
On Friday of last week, and again on Sunday and Tuesday, Green Thumb was hit by night-time burglars. On Wednesday morning, a customer told Klittich he should consider cutting his prices for sego palms, which go for up to $400.
"I can get it for 10% of that on Abbeyville," the customer told Klittich.
Klittich headed down to the Burnettes' place, and spotted plants that were indeed for sale at what he recognized as low prices.
He also recognized the plants, he said--because some of them were his.
Klittich posed as a customer, asking one brother to identify a certain tree, he said. The brother went inside the house, and brought out the tree's identifying tag. When Klittich recognized his own handwriting on the tag, he called police.
The police arrested the brothers, who confessed, according to Francik. Nurseries that had reported thefts were called, and their employees arrived with pickup trucks and shovels to search the jungle around the Burnettes' house, digging up plants they identified as theirs, Francik said.
"It was such a terrible feeling, having all those plants stolen and never being able to catch them," Klittich said. "It feels good to have them, finally."