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Burglars Target Exclusive Part of Laguna Hills

Crime: Thieves hit nine homes in 15 months, netting property worth $200,000. Break-ins are becoming more frequent.

April 10, 1999|JAMES MEIER and RAY TESSLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A mini crime wave has hit the exclusive Laguna Hills community of Nellie Gail, where some $200,000 in valuables has been stolen in nine burglaries during the last 15 months.

While the techniques have varied--one burglar slid through a bathroom window, another squeezed through a dog door--the frequency of crimes has increased in recent months. Seven of the burglaries occurred in February and March.

"When a home is burglarized, homeowners feel like they've been violated," said C.J. Klug, general manager of the Nellie Gail Ranch Owners Assn. at the posh community, where the residences range from $450,000 to more than $1 million.

Authorities say the offenders take a decidedly low-tech approach, breaking into homes mostly during midday after knocking on doors to make sure nobody's there.

"There's not a great degree of sophistication," said Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. Christine Murray. Investigators believe the Nellie Gail heists are related to similar home burglaries in north San Diego County, although San Diego County sheriff's officials say they know of no such crime ring in their area.

Orange County officials also say they do not think the crimes are being committed by the same two-person team that pulled 31 break-ins beginning in late 1997 in Newport Beach, taking nearly $1 million in valuables, much of it high-quality jewelry.

"We have not connected this with any other string of burglaries in Orange County," Murray said.

Investigators say the perpetrators took advantage of easy access from the San Diego Freeway to reach their target. The first Nellie Gail burglary happened in January 1998, followed by another last December and the seven others in the last two months. The most recent happened March 20.

Six of the houses are within Nellie Gail and three others just outside, between La Paz Road and Alicia Parkway, off Paseo de Valencia.

No one has been able to describe the burglars, and, if sheriff's investigators have clues, they're not talking about them except to disclose that "the only vehicle that's been associated is an older model white van," Murray said.

"The common denominator is the suspect or suspects entered the neighborhood, knocking door-to-door until they found residences unoccupied," she said.

Even homeowners with security systems sometimes leave openings for burglars. "One of them went through a large dog door," Murray said. Another time, the entry point was "an upstairs bathroom window."

Despite that fairly creative access, "these are not signature-type burglaries," she said.

Murray said the community is well-patrolled and that additional units aren't being deployed, although "sheriff's investigators have been in the neighborhood in unmarked cars" in the course of their probe.

She said, "We're actively pursuing leads" but declined to elaborate.

The recent burglaries haven't created widespread worry in Nellie Gail.

"It's not a major crime trend," Murray said. "We don't want to create panic.

"There has been no instance of the homeowner being confronted within the house by the burglar."

If a random survey is any indication, the community is not trembling. Of 18 residents contacted by The Times, none was aware of the burglaries.

Klug of the homeowners group said he knew of only four burglaries. "We are not a gated community, so we're not aware of everything that's going on," he said. "We push very hard for neighborhood watch," but often neighbors don't observe what's happening.

*

In Nellie Gail, where the 1,344 homes include some that look like castles, parents stroll along the community's public streets with their children in tow. Skateboarders sprint up and over small ramps, horses gallop along trails, and contractors update the pricey 10-year-old custom-built brick homes.

There is little trouble in the neighborhood other than a few coyote attacks on cats, residents said.

Kathy Weisser said she would know if any burglaries occurred in her vicinity, via her close neighbors or the Pony Express, the association newsletter.

"There was a break-in down the street a few years ago," Weisser recalled.

"But I haven't heard about anything recently."

Meanwhile, Newport Beach police are continuing their investigation into the rash of unsolved residential burglaries there, but they say there's no similarity to the heists in Nellie Gail.

"There's not a connection we are aware of," said Newport Beach Lt. Doug Fletcher.

Unlike Nellie Gail's daylight break-ins, Newport's burglars hit at night, specialized in second-story entry to avoid downstairs security systems and mainly went after only expensive jewelry.

Times correspondent Sean Kirwan contributed to this report.

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