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Burglars Striking It Rich in Bel-Air

Times Staff Writer

For more than a year, burglars have been helping themselves to millions of dollars’ worth of jewelry and cash from the homes of the rich and famous hill dwellers of Bel-Air, Brentwood and other fancy enclaves.

Their unwitting accomplices? The rich and famous homeowners themselves, who have been known to waltz off to dinner or even vacations without closing all their doors and windows or arming the high-tech alarm systems that they have had so meticulously installed. Thieves have been known to net goods valued at $500,000 or more in a single stop.

The lapses have provoked stern reminders from police and homeowners associations that might strike outsiders as akin to warnings not to skate on thin ice: Don’t leave cash and diamond-studded Rolexes lying around. Close and lock your back door. Set that alarm system.

Faced with hundreds of fretful citizens at community meetings, the Los Angeles Police Department recently named a number of veteran detectives to a Hillside Burglary Task Force.

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Police and a private security firm are monitoring images from video cameras recently installed at two entrances to Bel-Air. More cameras are expected to go up at other entry points to the development in coming months.

Their aim is to snare members of the four or five “crews” of burglars that they suspect are operating in the 60 or so square miles that make up the city’s greater Westside -- home to many entertainment luminaries, artists, doctors and lawyers. Police say they hope to learn whether masterminds are behind the spate of burglaries and where the loot is ending up, not to mention calm the growing fears of some of the city’s wealthiest residents.

“What we want to do is capture some of these people and drill down to find out if somebody is organizing them,” said Cmdr. George Ibarra, the assistant commanding officer of LAPD’s Operations-West Bureau.

Burglaries in the opulent neighborhoods north of Sunset Boulevard are nothing new. In 2003, however, police began noticing a growth in break-ins with strikingly similar characteristics, said Deputy Chief Michel Moore of LAPD’s Operations-West Bureau. Such burglaries increased significantly in 2004 and have continued this year. In 2004, Moore said, the area experienced about 245 burglaries, well above typical levels.

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The crime spree remained fairly well under wraps until Vanity Fair magazine published in its February issue an account that spoke of black-masked burglars roaming the twisting roads that lead into the upper reaches of Brentwood, Bel-Air, the Hollywood Hills and, to a lesser extent, Beverly Hills.

“The No. 1 topic these days at L.A. cocktail parties isn’t Botox or box-office grosses,” author Michael Shnayerson wrote in the story, headlined: “Nightmare on Sunset.” “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.”

Police insist the description is a bit over the top. The “hillside burglars” that account for most of these crimes typically have not carried weapons and have entered their target houses when residents have been away during the afternoon or at dinnertime, police say. They have taken primarily jewelry and cash. No one has been injured in the burglaries, Ibarra said.

Still, the spike in break-ins -- atop the usual ration of follow-home and armed robberies, including one last August at a birthday party on Chalon Road that led to the Vanity Fair piece -- has put residents on edge. In neighborhoods where houses cost millions of dollars, homeowners aren’t used to seeing the spotlights of police helicopters shining into their lushly landscaped backyards.

One woman who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation recounted the scene last August when her parents arrived at their Bel-Air house after a night away. The burglars clearly had time to make themselves at home. They neatly cloaked the windows with coats from the coat closet. They located a safe in a closet floor and dug it out, using tools found in the owner’s study, and dragged it into their vehicle, which they had moved into the garage after finding the remote control door opener.

“Everything was in the safe,” the woman said, “every piece of jewelry we own. My mother had a lot of jewelry, very tasteful, including a lot of my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s things.”

The thieves got her mother’s 5-carat diamond ring and her father’s diamond Rolex, fraternity pins and even cigars. The discriminating burglars took Judith Leiber and Chanel handbags but left the Prada bags behind.

At least two men have been arrested in connection with the thefts, one a 62-year-old Hollywood resident with an extensive criminal past and the other a 20-year-old from South Los Angeles. Police said a search of the older man’s residence turned up many stolen items; the other suspect was linked by fingerprints to two burglaries in West Los Angeles.

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Last Tuesday evening, a couple of dozen burglary victims showed up at LAPD’s Operations-West Bureau on Venice Boulevard to view about 160 rings, watches, coins and other items that task force detectives had recovered.

A few heartened residents, some carrying records of serial numbers and photos of prized objects, spotted familiar items among those on display. Most of the pieces -- which included loose pear-shaped diamonds, a plastic Teamsters 399 pin and a pair of cufflinks in the shape of a caricature of Bob Hope, in profile -- had been placed individually in see-through sandwich bags, each with a numbered yellow Post-It, and taped in rows on long, laminate-topped tables. Detectives said properly identified items would be returned to owners once a judge gave the OK.

Other suspects remain unidentified and at large. They include members of a three-person group and a 40-ish fellow -- white, gray-haired, 5 foot 6, 135 pounds -- who last summer was dubbed the Bel-Air Burglar after his image was caught on a surveillance camera.

Dressed all in black and wearing a baseball cap, he would enter a residence through the rear door during the early morning, targeting the household safe in the master bedroom. He would use the victims’ pry tools to open them. At the time, he was thought to be responsible for as many as 40 Westside burglaries, although Moore now says he probably accounted for only about 15.

Al Radi, founder of ACS Security, a private firm hired by a Bel-Air homeowners group to patrol the high-tone area, believes he saw the Bel-Air Burglar one day. Responding to a call from a client, Radi suspected that a man fitting the Bel-Air Burglar’s description had been casing the home of an elderly woman. As Radi and his employees were searching the area, a man came walking up the street, in dress pants and shirt.

“I asked him if he’d seen anybody on foot,” Radi said. “He said, ‘No.’ I said we had a call that somebody was jumping gates. He was non-responsive. I asked him if he lived in the area. He got very defensive and backed up. When I called my security guys to check him out, which took a maximum of two minutes, he had absolutely evaporated.”


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