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Ryder Trial Gets Its Close-Up

Real-life drama surrounding actress' shoplifting arrest at Saks Fifth Avenue draws intense media attention.

October 23, 2002|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Actress Winona Ryder's shoplifting arrest has inspired television skits, "Free Winona" T-shirts and even a comic play.

Now, 10 months later, the Oscar-nominated actress is about to star as the criminal defendant in a real-life drama featuring a varied cast: hawk-eyed Saks Fifth Avenue security guards, employees from other high-end department stores and Beverly Hills police officers who handcuffed America's most famous accused shoplifter. The witness testimony may be supplemented by snippets from a 90-minute video featuring Ryder's now-infamous December shopping trip.

Ryder's trial is scheduled to begin Thursday in Beverly Hills at the same courthouse where Zsa Zsa Gabor was convicted 13 years ago of slapping a police officer and of possessing an open flask of Jack Daniels. Superior Court Judge Elden S. Fox, who will preside over Ryder's case, prosecuted Gabor's case while serving as a deputy district attorney. Reporters from around the world have requested seats for the trial, which is expected to last a week or two. Prosecutors allege that Ryder shoplifted about $6,000 worth of designer purses, clothes and hair accessories and that she snipped anti-theft sensor tags off merchandise. She is charged with three felonies: grand theft, burglary and vandalism.

Defense attorney Mark Geragos has insisted that his client went on a legitimate shopping spree and has the receipts to prove it. He has said she never cut off security tags and never left Saks with the unpaid-for merchandise. So why the criminal prosecution?

"I think various people had a motive to set up Winona, and I believe I can convincingly prove that," he said. Geragos plans to show jurors that the allegations against Ryder evolved after the release of a store surveillance tape that does not, he said, show his client stealing anything.

If a jury convicts the 30-year-old actress, she could face a maximum sentence of three years in prison. But because there is no minimum sentence, she could be placed on probation. She is free on $20,000 bail. Attorneys on both sides agree that jail time is unlikely on a first offense.

Negotiations toward a possible plea bargain broke off last month when Ryder turned down an offer from prosecutors. Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Rundle said her office feels "very strongly" that Ryder committed a felony. Geragos said he would never agree to a felony plea.

Though both sides say publicly that they are headed to trial, the case still could be settled if the judge reduces the charges to misdemeanors.

Ryder's publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said, "Never say never when it comes to settling."

Buxbaum said Ryder would love to avoid a trial. "She wants this behind her. She's not looking forward to any of this, except for it to be over."

Ryder, born Winona Laura Horowitz, was raised in Petaluma, Calif. Her parents were friends of poet Allen Ginsberg, and her godfather was Timothy Leary.

She started acting as a teenager and movies in which she has appeared include "The Age of Innocence," "Little Women" and "Reality Bites." Her most recent movie, "Mr. Deeds," was released earlier this year. Ryder hosted "Saturday Night Live" about the same time, poking fun at herself and her shoplifting case.

Witnesses at the trial will include some of the same cast from the preliminary hearing, including a Saks security investigator, Colleen Rainey, who has said she peeked through the slats of a dressing room and saw Ryder snip sensor tags from a purse and cut her finger. Security manager Kenneth Evans is expected to testify that he tracked Ryder's movements as she passed by three open registers before leaving the store and that he later recovered four sensor tags from a coat pocket in the store's Chanel boutique.

Prosecutors also plan to call three employees from Barneys and Neiman Marcus to testify in support of a motion by prosecutors to introduce evidence of "the defendant's commission of other acts," according to court papers.

Prosecutors filed the motion under seal and have declined to elaborate. Fox has yet to rule whether that testimony will be allowed in trial. Ryder has no prior police record.

Beverly Hills police arrested Ryder on Dec. 12 after security officers confronted her outside the store. Officers and prosecutors originally said that store surveillance cameras had recorded her taking the items and removing the anti-theft devices, but they have since backed down from those statements. The 90-minute tape, portions of which have been shown on national television, shows a disheveled Ryder going up and down an escalator, trying on hats, flipping through racks of designer clothes and dropping her bags.

The actress spent $3,700 in Saks that day, buying Gucci shoes, a leather jacket and Yves St. Laurent blouses. The additional $6,000 worth of merchandise that she is accused of stealing includes two black hats, seven pairs of socks, an Yves St. Laurent shirt, several handbags and four hair accessories.

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