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A Tangled Web of Movie Prop Thievery

Times Staff Writer

The day of filming on the “Spider-Man” set in April 2001 ended like any other, with the one-of-a-kind suits locked up in the costume room for safekeeping.

But during the night, four superhero suits vanished from the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City.

And as quickly as Tobey Maguire switched from geeky teenager to crime-fighting arachnid, investigators launched an all-out search. The studio offered a $25,000 reward. Hundreds of tips poured in. Investigators traveled around the globe in search of the handmade suits, each valued at $50,000.

“This was like a Hollywood whodunit,” said Mike Moser, executive director of security operations for the studio.

With collectors willing to pay top dollar for rare movie props and costumes, thieves know that there is a market for stolen studio memorabilia. The appetite for Hollywood collectibles has exploded in recent years, especially since the creation of the online auction site EBay, police say. Prices for prized memorabilia have skyrocketed as they have become more popular.

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The ill-gotten treasures make their way into living rooms and private collections. “There is no more famous place in the whole world than Hollywood,” said Phyllis Caskey, president of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum. “It’s owning a piece of fantasy. You don’t always say, ‘Where did it come from? How did you get it?’ ”

Tinseltown theft has hit all genres, from classics to comedy. Police have recovered props and costumes stolen from studio sets of science fiction favorites “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” Earlier this month, an oversized golf ball and key disappeared from a fenced off-studio set of “The Cat in the Hat” in Pomona. Superheroes haven’t been immune: Batman and Superman have been targeted along with Spider-Man.

One of the most-publicized thefts in recent years was not that of a costume or a prop, but rather that of the ultimate Hollywood icon -- the Oscar statuettes. Just days before the 2000 Academy Awards, 55 Oscars disappeared from a loading dock in an industrial neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles.

A salvage man found nearly all of the statuettes in a secluded parking lot, earning a $50,000 reward and a seat at the Academy Awards ceremony. Three men were convicted in the heist: A former truck driver for the shipping company pleaded no contest to grand theft and the others, one of them a dock worker at the warehouse, pleaded no contest to receiving stolen property.

In the past, studio executives were not particularly careful about protecting movie and television memorabilia because the items weren’t seen as all that valuable, police say. Props and costumes critical to a movie shoot were often tossed aside as junk or knickknacks once a film was in the can.

Employees frequently walked off sets with costumes and neighbors searched through dumpsters for discarded items and were not accused of theft. Some say that’s what happened with at least one pair of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Over the last decade, however, studios have recognized the commercial and financial value of memorabilia and have stepped up security to protect and profit. Studio executives now limit access to sets, monitor surveillance cameras, post security officers and lock up costumes and props.

“Some companies ultimately realized that there was a big market out there,” said Chris Horak, a former Universal Pictures employee who is now curator of the entertainment museum. “So they started paying attention and taking measures to control inventory during and after a shoot.”

At least three studios have held their own Internet auctions of movie merchandise, Horak said. The studios also work with legitimate dealers to sell memorabilia, he said. Warner Bros. opened a museum in 1996, which can be visited only on a guided tour, to show off and protect many of its props and costumes.

Studios also began reporting thefts to police departments and working closely with detectives to investigate cases of stolen merchandise.

But tracking down the thieves is not easy, said Burbank Police Capt. Ed Skvarna. “You’re not going to find a storefront on Hollywood Boulevard selling this stuff,” he said. “These deals are done on handshakes and telephone calls and e-mails.”

In one case, police spent two years searching for “Star Trek” regalia valued at $150,000 that had been stolen from Paramount Studios. They found about $50,000 worth of the costumes and accessories and arrested a fan, Kevin Buehler, as he tried to sell some of the merchandise. He was convicted later of receiving stolen property.

Prosecutors say they frequently have the evidence but don’t have witnesses to the studio theft, so criminal charges often involve receiving stolen property.

Retired LAPD Det. John Winchester, who worked on more than 20 cases of movie memorabilia theft, said he tried to penetrate the subculture of collectors and develop informants to help him track down culprits. Investigating the theft of “Star Trek” costumes from Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Winchester went to a Star Trek convention in search of merchandise and suspects.

Often the thieves are builders, technicians, designers or guards who spend their days working at the studios.

“It’s got to be somebody who has knowledge of the layout of the land, who has access and who has the ability to conceal the item in a way they are not detected,” said Winchester, who is now an investigator for Paramount Pictures.

While tighter security has made it tougher for thieves, online auction houses have made selling purloined property easier, authorities say. Wealthy collectors can buy items with anonymity on the Internet without ever leaving their homes.

“It’s become an extraordinarily big problem,” said Warner Bros. Senior Vice President Barbara Brogliatti. “It’s very hard to control EBay.”

An EBay spokesman, Kevin Pursglove, said he relies on police officers or studio investigators to call if they spot pilfered items on the site. “It’s really difficult, unless either the person or the company that knows the item keeps an eye out for it on EBay,” he said. “We have no way of knowing when an item is listed if it’s stolen.”

Hollywood memorabilia, including posters, props and personal items owned by actors, are very popular on the site. The hand-held camera and microphones used in the “The Blair Witch Project” and the boat used in “The Perfect Storm” were legitimately sold through the online marketplace, Pursglove said.

Most auction houses will not offer items unless their sources can be verified. Even so, stolen costumes and props occasionally appear in auction catalogs. Five years ago, studios called police after they noticed several stolen items set to be auctioned at Butterfield & Butterfield. About 25 items, including costumes from the movies “Twister” and “Independence Day,” were seized by police before auction.

The seizure led to the arrest of David Elkouby, a collector who later pleaded no contest to receiving stolen property and was sentenced to one year in Los Angeles County Jail.

Horak of the entertainment museum said collectors often have two sides. They are obsessive people so “what they want, they want, and they will do anything to get it,” he said. But most collectors get their merchandise in honest ways, and a lot of vintage material would have never survived if not for collectors, he said.

Some collectors simply are devoted movie fans who want to display famous props, sets or costumes in their living rooms. Others buy the memorabilia as an investment.

And some are willing to pay incredible amounts of money for valuable items. During auctions at Christie’s, the Maltese falcon, a prop from the Humphrey Bogart film of the same name, sold for $398,500, and Bette Davis’ Oscar from “Jezebel” sold for $550,000.

Such prices encourage thieves, authorities say.

In the case of the missing Spider-Man suits, studio investigators knew the thief had had access to the locked facility because there was no evidence of a break-in. So they began running down the list of employees who had access to the suits, hitting one dead end after another.

“We didn’t think people would go to the extent they did to steal these props,” said Gary Martin, president of production administration for Columbia Pictures. “This was a well-organized theft.”

As investigators hunted for “Spider-Man’s” costumes, the show, of course, had to go on. The suits, printed with a computer-generated rectangular pattern that creates a quasi 3-D effect, had been stolen while production was underway. Costume makers scrambled to put together new suits, and cameramen worked to film around the suits.

During the search, Sony Pictures received a “tremendous amount of leads, but very few of them led anywhere,” Martin said. Then the ex-wife of Jeffrey Gustafson called, and the investigation bolted forward, authorities said.

Gustafson had worked as a security guard at Warner Bros. in 1996 and Sony in 2001, but had left the studio before filming on “Spider-Man” began. The studio called the Culver City Police Department, which served search warrants in Los Angeles and New York. The investigators traveled to Texas and Japan to look for the costumes, which were worn by Maguire and his stunt doubles.

Nearly 18 months after the theft, following the blockbuster debut of “Spider-Man,” police found the costumes. One was located at the home of Robert Hughes in Northridge, two were found at a collector’s home in New York and the fourth was traced to a buyer in Japan, prosecutors said. The search also netted a Batman suit valued at $150,000 and a mannequin that had been stolen from Warner Bros. studios in 1996.

Gustafson and his friend, Hughes, were arrested and charged with receiving stolen property. They are now awaiting trial in Los Angeles. Police believe the two men may have stolen the merchandise from the studio, but prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to file theft charges.


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