When you think L.A. crime, you think drive-by shootings and carjackings and the occasional celebrity felony. But another malefaction has joined the list of the city's hallmark crimes: minicam theft.

"It's an epidemic," says Arthur Lord, senior producer for NBC News in Los Angeles, who says that at least 15 news cameras have been stolen from crews in Los Angeles within the past year. NBC's national and local news organizations have each lost three of the $40,000 minicams, Lord says, with CNN and KCOP also among the local victims.

The thieves often stake out events they know will attract a lot of television coverage--at least three minicams have been nabbed from various stations covering the O.J. Simpson trial, Lord says--then they follow the crew around town and strike when their vehicle is left unattended. Other times, the cameras are swiped from a news scene when the operator isn't watching or stolen from vehicles in the studio lot. In January, says Lord, thieves followed an NBC crew back to the Burbank lot, then "smashed the window out of our car, reached in and removed the camera."

Just who is stealing the cameras--and why--is still unclear. "We have reason to believe some of the cameras are headed south of the border,"Lord says. San Francisco Customs agents recently recovered several cameras in a shipment bound for Brazil.

Others think the stolen minicams are being used in the local pornography industry; three such cameras, registered to news outfits in Dallas and Miami, were recovered in Burbank, where a man alleged to have ties to the adult film industry was trying to sell them for between $10,000 and $15,000 each.

"It's like stealing a Mercedes," Lord says, "only it's easier."

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