Like many teenage girls, these friends were fascinated by the high fashion and flashy bling of such young Hollywood celebrities as Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Audrina Patridge.
But unlike other fans, they allegedly didn’t stop at Hollywood fantasy.
According to Los Angeles police detectives, the group studied television shows, celebrity magazines and websites picking out clothing and jewelry they wanted. Then they figured out where the celebrities lived and, after casing the homes, broke in and took what they wanted, detectives allege.
“This is a no-brains caper. There’s not a lot of self-awareness,” LAPD Det. Brett Goodkin said. “They saw it, they wanted it, they took it and continued taking it.”
LAPD sources said detectives have linked the teenagers to break-ins at the homes of Hilton, Lohan, Patridge, “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor Orlando Bloom and “The O.C.” star Rachel Bilson.
Four teens -- Rachel Lee, 19; Diana Tamayo, 19; Courtney Ames, 18; and Alexis Neiers, 18 -- were arrested last week on suspicion of burglary in several of the cases. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has not filed charges against them.
“This is a case of someone in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Jeffrey K. Rubenstein, Neiers’ attorney. “When the truth comes out, Alexis will be cleared of all these allegations.” Attorneys for Tamayo, Lee and Ames could not be reached for comment.
Most of the group were classmates at Indian Hills High School, a continuation campus in Agoura Hills, set atop a leafy incline in an upscale neighborhood next to a traditional high school. BMWs and Audis were parked in the student lot Monday, and some of the nearby roads mark off horse trails for equestrians.
At the school, rumors about students burglarizing celebrity homes had surfaced weeks before the arrests, students said.
“I’ve heard them girls are rich now,” said Alex Badolato, an 11th-grader.
One administrator, who did not want to be named, described one of the suspects, Tamayo, as a “spectacular student” who had won scholarships.
Beyond the suggestion of suburban teenagers beguiled into crime by a hunger for celebrity riches, representatives of some of the victims aimed accusations at a familiar target: the ever-present paparazzi who document the most mundane aspects of the lives of the young and famous.
Blair Berk, an attorney who represents some of the victims, blamed “paparazzi shots and magazine coverage” for “increasingly prying into the private homes, schools and personal possessions of stars.”
“There are only so many shot of a star’s back gate before someone, be it a stalker or burglar, goes through it,” Berk said.
At least one of the accused had her own aspirations for television stardom. Neiers was set to appear with her family in a reality-TV pilot about aspiring actresses on the cable network E!, and she was arrested on the set of the show, police said. E! officials said in a statement that they were concerned about the accusations.
A young woman who identified herself as Neiers’ sister said at the family’s Thousand Oaks home Monday that the accusations are untrue. “My family is in so much debt,” she said. “If this TV show falls through, you don’t know how bad this is going to be.”
Two men have also been arrested. Nicholas Frank Prugo, 18, was charged with the burglaries of the Lohan and Patridge homes. Ray Lopez, a 27-year-old bartender, is accused by police of helping the teens fence stolen goods. A third man, who was not identified, is being sought in the case, Goodkin said.
Sean Erenstoft, Prugo’s attorney, said his client was identified on one of the surveillance videos but that he played a “limited role” in the burglaries. He said he believes the teenagers didn’t plan to make money.
“It would be fun to do capers. It was all about fun,” he said. “It was one of those cases of you get bored, and it was something to do with a little technology.”
Authorities said the burglary spree began in October 2008 and continued through September. They would not say whose home was hit first or exactly how many burglaries they believe the teens are responsible for.
According to Goodkin, the alleged burglars focused on the celebrities they saw in the media. They would focus on one star at a time, learning about his or her movements and routines by searching the Internet for paparazzi photos and news about schedules. They looked for times when the star was scheduled to either be out of town or attending movie premieres, award ceremonies or other events, he added.
Detectives believe the group first staked out the homes, figuring out who lived there and when the homes would be empty. Then they allegedly broke in and took selected items.
Goodkin said the suspects were selective about what they took: usually jewelry, designer clothing and accessories. Sometimes the stars didn’t immediately discover they had been robbed, assuming they misplaced the purloined items.
In many cases, the burglars hit the same home more than once, Goodkin alleged, adding that the total price tag for the stolen merchandise will probably be several million dollars.
The break in the case came in September after a burglary a month earlier at Lohan’s home in the Hollywood Hills. Both Lohan and Patridge provided police with surveillance footage of their burglaries, leading to Prugo’s arrest.
Lohan’s home surveillance camera showed three females, whose faces were covered with scarves, walking through a gate and entering a courtyard about 1:10 a.m. Detectives believe that the trio gained entry to the home through an unlocked door.
Last week, police served search warrants at locations in Los Angeles, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and Las Vegas. Detectives said they recovered property taken from the celebrities’ homes as well as narcotics and three firearms.
After being arrested in the celebrity burglaries case, Tamayo was transferred to federal custody for an alleged immigration violation, according to Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement. She’s now back in police custody.