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With stealth and skill, burglary team strikes L.A.'s rich and famous

July 20, 2007|Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

A skilled burglary crew has targeted the homes of corporate titans, celebrities and sports stars in some of L.A.'s wealthiest neighborhoods over the last year, making off with more than $7 million in cash, rare books and jewelry while leaving few clues.

The two -- possibly three -- men, clad in black and wearing ski masks and gloves, have hit more than 70 homes in areas such as Bel-Air, Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and the hills above Encino, usually at night and often on weekends.

They evade security systems and surveillance cameras, taking advantage of the fact that many of the estates are walled off from street view and their owners are frequently out of town, Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Kenneth Garner said. The team often enters houses by using bricks to break through backyard sliding glass doors or climbing through second-floor windows.

Police did not release victims' names. But two sources with knowledge of the investigation said burglars hit the home of former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing and her Oscar-winning director husband, William Friedkin. They also stole $500,000 in cash and jewelry from the Bel-Air mansion of Clippers basketball star Cuttino Mobley.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Burglars: An article in Friday's California section about a string of burglaries on the Westside misspelled the last name of Steve Twining, president of the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council, as Twinging.

Duran Duran guitarist John Taylor and his wife, Juicy Couture president Gela Nash-Taylor, had a safe in their Hollywood Hills home taken in April, the sources said, and the mansion of country music stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill was hit in February while they were in Tennessee.

A high-ranking executive at the Disney-ABC Television Group, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed through a spokesman that her home was burglarized.

"It is a target-rich environment in the hills, and these guys know it and know the homes and area," said Lt. Ray Lombardo, head of detectives in the LAPD's West Los Angeles Division, who is leading a task force pursuing the burglars. "I hate to call them it, but they're professionals. They aren't opportunists."

The burglary spree marks the second time in four years that sophisticated rings have targeted the upscale hillsides. Two years ago, there were similar break-ins that detectives believe involved inside information on the part of the burglars. Those suspects were never caught.

Officials say this new ring is even more skilled -- something that worries residents.

Robin Greenberg, head of the Roscomare Valley Assn. in Bel-Air, said some residents are installing new surveillance cameras and other security measures.

She said neighbors have told her that the burglars ransack houses looking for small jewelry. "They make a real mess and throw things around," Greenberg said.

Nickie Miner, a leader of the Benedict Canyon Homeowner Assn., said her neighbors are being more vigilant about arming their security systems and are depositing their valuables at banks for safekeeping.

One neighbor, Miner said, was heartsick over the loss of jewelry given to her by her late husband.

"It's very nerve-wracking," she said. "While it's not a violent crime, it's emotionally violent. People really feel violated by having strangers come into their homes and take keepsakes and mementos that are irreplaceable."

In Bel-Air, residents are installing cameras at key street locations, and the LAPD is patrolling the area in unmarked cars, said Steve Twinging, president of the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council.

Despite the dozens of burglaries, police have relatively little to go on. A security camera at an Encino estate caught a brief image of two muscular, 200-pound-plus men without their masks, police said.

"These guys are a two-man hillside crime wave. They are quick-hit artists," said Councilman Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who has arranged a $50,000 city reward for information leading to their prosecution. "They are clearly knowledgeable and sophisticated. They are not hot prowlers, and they focus exclusively on homes that aren't occupied."

Detectives said say they were unaware of any of the stolen jewelry -- some pieces are worth more than $500,000 -- appearing on the market. The burglars have been so careful, they've not left a single print or anything that could be tested for DNA, detectives said.

Lombardo said the burglars usually strike on weekends between 8:30 p.m. and midnight, and probably conduct surveillance beforehand.

The LAPD and other agencies are boosting patrols in the so-called Platinum Triangle -- the neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Holmby Hills -- which is home to many celebrities, corporate titans and studio chiefs.

Many of the targeted homes are on large lots and can't been seen by neighbors and passersby, detectives said. Some of the owners have multiple residences and are frequently away.

"A two-story residence was robbed with a large quantity of jewels and cash between 11 and 11:30 p.m. The residents were away at a second home in Malibu," Lombardo said. "They take cash and jewelry and leave behind guns and valuable watches. They know what they are seeking."

The rich and famous of L.A.'s Westside have long been targets for burglars. The last rash of burglaries involved rings of five or more intruders. At the time, police said homeowners unwittingly helped the burglars by forgetting to lock their doors and arm their security systems when they went out.

Lombardo said some of the houses hit in the latest wave did not have their alarms activated.

Anyone with information is asked to call (310) 444-1521. On weekends or during off-hours, call the 24-hour toll-free number, 1-877-LAWFULL.

--

richard.winton@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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