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Paparazzi Flash New Audacity

As competition grows, photographers trailing L.A.'s celebrities become more aggressive.

October 16, 2005|Richard Winton and Tonya Alanez | Times Staff Writers

Mischa Barton, the doe-eyed star of "The O.C." television series, stepped into the Lisa Kline boutique, leaving a pack of paparazzi outside on the sidewalk.

Employees dropped the Robertson Boulevard store's "paparazzi curtain," a motorized black drape installed to shield celebrities from view. Undaunted, paparazzo Todd K. Wallace repeatedly barged into the store, over assistant manager Joanna Schroeder's objections, according to an application for a restraining order she later filed.

Wallace, who prosecutors in court records said has used a dozen aliases and who spent four years in prison for burglary and petty theft, yelled obscene threats at Schroeder, she said.

When she finally got him to leave, Schroeder watched Wallace bang his truck into cars behind and in front of his parking spot, she said in an interview.

The incident was more than a year ago, but there's little evidence that Wallace has changed his ways. He was charged Oct. 7 with battery and child endangerment for allegedly disrupting a summer outing to a theme park by actress Reese Witherspoon and her children.

Wallace, accused of striking one child with a camera and driving another to tears, denied the charges, saying he was the victim of an anti-paparazzi vendetta by "Hollywood power brokers."

Authorities and celebrities, however, say a new breed of photographer is injecting a heightened level of danger and aggression into the duel between celebrities and those who make big bucks off their photographs.

One of the new paparazzi agencies is named for the Los Angeles street gang that the owner belonged to as a teenager; he said he trains other reformed gang members in the business.

Other agencies use foreigners working on what some say are questionable visas. Photographers are hired less for their camera skills than their ability to navigate the rough-and-tumble of the celebrity chase, authorities say.

"One of the reasons some of the other agencies dislike the way we work, we have been willing to hire anyone, people without previous photography experience," said Kelly Davis, who helps run X-17, one of the agencies that other paparazzi say employ more aggressive tactics.

The trend is fueled by a global explosion in celebrity photo magazines, which can pay $100,000 or more for a single shot. The local cadre of paparazzi has grown from a couple of dozen to more than 200 over the last five years, ratcheting up the competition.

"It's each one for their own," paparazzo Marc Rylewski said. Paparazzi "race each other, jockey for position and block each other on the road."

Some drive rental cars, obscure their license plates or use aliases to hide their identities or connections to the big agencies that control much of the market.

"Looking back at how this has evolved over the last 12 years, we've gone from guys who sit outside the home of the mother-to-be of Michael Jackson's children to the paparazzi willing to force celebrities off the road for a photo and public safety be damned," said Los Angeles Police Det. Jeff Dunn, who oversees the department's Threat Assessment Unit.

Francois Navarre, a Frenchman and former Le Monde journalist who heads X-17, said he uses only freelancers, guys with streets smarts and connections such as former San Diego-area firefighter Brad Diaz, who was shot with a BB gun outside Britney Spears' baby shower in Malibu this summer.

"We respect the rules of the community ... not the laws or rules that these [old guard] guys created," Navarre said. "There's no priority for the old paparazzi."

Arnold Cousart made the leap from processing film for paparazzi to starting his own agency, JFX Direct, which he named after the multi-ethnic street gang he belonged to growing up: Jefrox, a bastardization of a Filipino-based term that essentially means "the projects."

"I like the idea of [the gang name] on checks instead of seeing it on the wall," Cousart said. "We came from the streets. Basically everyone knows that. We're all family guys now."

Actress Scarlett Johansson blamed her August traffic collision on a JFX Direct paparazzo who she said chased her into the Disneyland parking lot. Cousart said the shooter was blocks away.

A third agency, Boris Nizon's Fame Pictures, was involved in the most notorious paparazzi incident of the year: Lindsay Lohan's collision with a paparazzo.

Fame Pictures shooter Galo Ramirez was arrested in May on suspicion of assault after Lohan accused him of deliberately ramming her Mercedes-Benz sports car with his van. The agency, through its lawyer, insisted that the collision was an accident. Ramirez's van was registered in Nizon's name, prosecutors said.

"If Lindsay wasn't driving a $200,000 car that day, we'd be looking at more than cuts and bruises," said Blair Berk, her attorney.

Spurred by that crash, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill this month making it easier for celebrities to collect major damages from agencies that employ aggressive paparazzi.

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