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Wealthy's isolation is invitation to thieves

A rash of burglaries in Bel-Air and Beverly Hills shows that high walls and seclusion can give cover to criminals.

August 06, 2007|Andrew Blankstein, Tami Abdollah and Martha Groves | Times Staff Writers

The tree-shaded hillside roads that wind through neighborhoods in Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Brentwood are dominated by architectural touches that provide privacy and security.

Homes are shielded from the street by walls, ornate gates or dense plantings. Discreetly placed security cameras scan driveways and structures, and not-so-discreetly placed private security signs warn "Armed response."

But Los Angeles police say that burglars have learned to exploit the very isolation and privacy that make the area so attractive to many of the region's wealthiest homeowners.

Over the last four years, at least two bands of burglars have targeted more than 150 hillside and canyon residences in the city, getting away with what the Los Angeles Police Department estimates to be more than $20 million worth of jewelry, cash and artwork. Most of the burglars remain at large.

Victims of the more than 70 burglaries in the last year have included former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing and her Oscar-winning director husband, William Friedkin; Clippers basketball star Cuttino Mobley; and country music stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.

The thefts have caused concern in the canyons in recent weeks. In Bel-Air, a homeowners association is collecting donations to purchase cameras that can read the license plates on cars that drive through the area. The association also has asked members to test the response times of their security companies and report the results as part of a larger evaluation of the firms.

Elsewhere, residents are advocating a more low-tech approach, encouraging neighbors to give up some of their privacy and look out for one another.

Robin Greenberg, president of the Roscomare Valley Assn. in Bel-Air, said many of her neighbors prize the area because it is quiet, private and countrified. Now, she says, they are starting to realize that "sometimes you need your neighbor there."

But change won't be easy.

Vee Motto, membership chairwoman for the Brentwood Park Assn., said her homeowners group had tried two or three times in recent years to promote a neighborhood watch program, to no avail.

"A neighborhood watch works in a community where the neighbors are open and people know each other," she said. "We have high walls and are private."

Motto, 88, a 57-year resident of the area, said the organization decided instead to include the cost of a private patrol service in annual dues.

Police said the proliferation of alarms and security companies has still left burglars with solid targets. Thieves have been able to get in and out of victims' houses before private security -- let alone the LAPD -- could get to the scene. And many residents hit by break-ins had not turned on alarms or their systems were not wired throughout their homes, particularly on upper floors.

"People get relaxed," said Armen Melkonians, 36, a civil engineer who lives in Bel-Air. "When you buy a security system, you're all gung-ho about it, then you take it for granted, then you stop using it. You think it's not going to happen to you."

Chris Keane, a 55-year-old writer from the Beverly Glen neighborhood, concurred. "They feel they are almost entitled to security because their neighborhoods are safe, and they don't feel like they're going to be violated."

The layouts of the neighborhoods discourage the kind of community policing that has proved successful in more modest, denser areas. It's hard to keep an eye on a neighbor's house if all that can be seen is a high hedge.

Another complicating factor is that many upscale parts of Los Angeles are in perpetual states of construction or remodeling. Some streets are routinely lined with the pickup trucks and vans of plumbing contractors, caterers, gardeners and pool men, so that a burglar's vehicle could easily go unnoticed.

And many residents, afraid of appearing nosy, would be reluctant to alert their neighbors to suspicious activity.

"Some people feel uncomfortable doing that," said Marcia Selz, a past president of the Holmby Hills Homeowners Assn. "We are being forced into a role that should be carried out by our police force. That's what we pay taxes for."

Bel-Air resident Steve Twining, a member of the West Los Angeles Community Police Advisory Board, said the LAPD generally has about 10 cars on regular patrol throughout West L.A., an area of about 64 square miles.

"That's why we have private security," said Twining, who pays more than $80 a month for his ACS Security system.

Monthly service from ACS, one of the more popular firms, generally costs between $35 and $100. That covers a monitored alarm system and patrols with average response times of three to four minutes, said company President Al Radi.

Because of the recent burglaries, the company dispatches its patrols as soon as an alarm goes off, without first calling the resident's home. LAPD surveys have consistently concluded that more than 95% of burglar alarms citywide are false alarms. ACS clients do not pay for false alarm calls.

Some said the burglary scares had caused them to consider taking matters into their own hands.

Chris DiGiacomo, 35, a graphic designer from Beverly Glen, said he got a scare two years ago when he came face to face with a strange man in his home.

"He was snooping around dressed in workout gear," DiGiacomo said. The man fit a rough description of a burglar who had been stealing in the area around that time, he said. He told the man to leave, and he did.

And then the latest string of burglaries occurred.

DiGiacomo said he planned to buy an automatic remote gate lock and a security camera. Police and security response teams "take so long, you've got to take care of yourself," he said.

But he also wants to maintain the privacy that is his neighborhood's trademark.

"I don't want people coming up to my door," he said. "I know people who I know.... In this day and age, it's not appropriate, knocking on people's doors."

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

tami.abdollah@latimes.com

martha.groves@latimes.com

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