Neighborhood Watch -- with Perrier

Times Staff Writers

If you’re one of the burglars who’ve lately been tormenting the moneyed canyon-ites and hill dwellers of Bel-Air and Brentwood, Thursday evening would have been an excellent time to strike again.

More than a hundred potential victims were absent from their high-hedged manses to attend a community meeting to discuss what to do about you.

In many other communities such a gathering probably would have been held in the local park recreation room or school auditorium. This one, however, convened in the Garden Room of the famed, five-star-rated Hotel Bel-Air, with complimentary bottles of Perrier and Evian water and a view of 12 acres of “stately sycamores and blazing bougainvillea,” as hotel publicity boasts.


The elegant surroundings -- swans gliding on a lake, suites renting for as much as $4,000 a night and Hillary Clinton, according to police, topping the hotel guest list (she was in town for a televised gay and lesbian forum) -- did little, however, to calm the residents in attendance.

During the last year, at least two bands of lock-pickers and second-story artists have invaded more than 150 area residences and relieved them of an estimated $10 million in cash and jewelry, according to police.

“People are furious,” said Robert Ringler, vice president of the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council. “They want to know what the LAPD is doing.”

At the meeting, which was sponsored by the Los Angeles Police Department, officials distributed fliers stating that the break-ins have occurred primarily on weekend nights, between 7 and midnight.

“The suspects are selective in what they take, ransacking master bedrooms, bedroom closets and vanities for jewelry and cash,” the fliers said.

LAPD Det. Lt. Ray Lombardo said the burglars’ primary method has been to “break glass windows and doors. They don’t open doors. They don’t open windows.”

He warned residents about leaving ladders and lawn furniture outside. The latter, he said, can be stacked up to give burglars access to second-story balconies and windows, which often are not protected by alarm systems.

Lombardo said that letting mail or delivery service items pile up in front of houses signals that the occupants are not home.

The fliers urged residents to lock all windows and doors before leaving the house, record serial numbers of valuables, keep photographs of non-serialized valuables, test alarm systems and “ensure that your video surveillance system is in good order.”

Actress Irina Maleeva -- who appeared in, among many other films, Federico Fellini’s “Satyricon” -- said her home was burglarized July 14. She told of how intruders broke into a closet safe and stole $1 1/2 -million of uninsured jewelry.

“I’m paranoid,” she said, swallowing tears. “I can’t even go out at night. I feel I’m being watched. I’m not the same person.”

LAPD Deputy Chief Kenneth Gardner, who said his own home has been broken into, agreed that “there’s a sense of invasion you never get over. I sympathize with you.”

Billy Duncan, a representative of AIG Insurance, which is handling $2 million in claims from seven burglarized clients, said his company was adding $50,000 to the $50,000 reward offered by the city of L.A. for information leading to the conviction of the offenders.

The nature of the neighborhoods, and of adjacent sections of Beverly Hills, has contributed to the problem, Lombardo said.

“The very thing you cherish -- the winding roads, the hills, your privacy -- is advantageous to the burglars,” he said.

High walls and hedgerows provide maximum privacy for residents, but also screen miscreants from the eyes of police patrols.

They also discourage a sense of community that elsewhere encourages residents to look out for one another’s property. The well-to-do gravitate to the elevated precincts of Bel-Air and Brentwood, residents have pointed out, for opulent seclusion, not fraternization.

Ringler, however, said that meetings such as Thursday’s impress on people that they have a responsibility to watch out for themselves and for one another.

Local streets typically are lined by the pickups, work vans and cars of gardeners, pool tenders, renovators and builders, whose comings and goings are a common sight. Malefactors and their vehicles thus tend not to be conspicuous.

At the meeting, police officials also warned residents not to confront suspicious individuals, but rather to contact law enforcement with descriptions of them and their vehicles.

The burglars, authorities have said, strike quickly and flee before police and security agencies can respond.

Harvey Saferstein, a representative of the Bel Air Assn., told those assembled that his organization was trying to raise $250,000 to buy special surveillance street cameras, at $10,000 apiece, that can record vehicle license plates.

“It’s an expensive proposition,” he said, “but we feel we have to do it.”