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Burglars hit landmark Ventura Boulevard office building

April 26, 2009|Alan Zarembo and Cara Mia DiMassa
  • Several business owners in the landmark Chateau Office Building in Woodland Hills said they were taken aback by the brazenness of the theft.
Several business owners in the landmark Chateau Office Building in Woodland… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

In a bold, systematic hit on a landmark Ventura Boulevard office building, burglars stole scores of computers from at least 60 of the 80 businesses there, taking machines containing sensitive legal documents, credit card numbers and the tax information of thousands of people, police said Saturday.

The overnight theft at the Chateau Office Building in Woodland Hills left accountants, a talent agent, property management companies, attorneys and other businesses in the three-story structure scrambling to assess their losses as police scoured the premises.

Deputy Chief Michel Moore of the Los Angeles Police Department said that computers, some files and other items were taken from the 60 businesses. The theft was discovered Saturday morning.

"It is unusual for the number of businesses hit and the scale," he said of the crime.

Several business owners said they were taken aback by the brazenness of the theft, which deprived them of their computers but left behind other valuable equipment, including monitors, faxes, copiers and printers. Several concluded that the thieves' target must have been the information contained on their hard drives, not property.

One businessman said the credit card numbers of 7,000 clients were stolen. Accountant Richard Levy said his stolen computer held the tax documents of 800 clients. Attorney Marshall Bitkower said only three computers were taken from his office, but "they had all kinds of stuff. Everything: people's names, credit cards, clients, e-mails back and forth -- who knows what."

"We're talking about computers with thousands of credit cards and files," said Anthony Muzichenko, the owner of L.A. Management, who lost 25 computers. "There are going to be thousands of victims."

Police Lt. Jay Roberts said investigators are looking at people familiar with the building and its security system.

Late Saturday, police were still determining the extent of the crime. The thieves did not ransack or damage the building. No one was injured.

Building manager Bruce Abrams, who put the number of businesses affected at 10 to 15, considerably lower than police reports, said it appeared the thieves had a master key.

"They systematically got into the offices," Abrams said. "It looks like they had a superkey."

The heist had some hallmarks of a whodunit:

According to police, the thieves disabled the security camera system. A guard who normally checks inside the building about 3 a.m. was called away on an emergency after walking only the building's perimeter. He never checked inside.

One business owner said thieves left an empty soda can and a chips bag in his office. In one office, a pile of hard drives had been stacked in a corner, ready to be hauled out.

The building itself is well-known to commuters on the 101 Freeway. David Gebhard and Robert Winter's definitive guide to Los Angeles architecture calls the complex "a grand Hollywood stage set that visually works best from a distance."

With Corinthian columns, a grand balustrade and ornate porticos, it resembles a mish-mash of the White House, Versailles and "Gone With the Wind's" Tara.

Some business owners, reached Saturday, were hesitant to talk about the extent of the theft before assessing their losses and notifying clients.

But others said they were surprised, because they had been confident in the building's security setup.

"It had to be somebody who knows that building," said Mary Hatcher, who runs several companies at the site. "It wasn't forced entry."

Hatcher had not yet been to her offices, so she wasn't sure of the extent of the loss.

Levy, whose company was robbed of "five or six" computers and their server, drove to his office after learning of the break-in. He said the thieves left a backup drive, positioned atop the server, leading him to believe that the theft was aimed at "the information, definitely. The computers by themselves are not worth much."

But, he added, all of that information was protected by passwords. "It's not going to be easy to get that stuff," he said.

Most of the businesses hit were on the building's first and third floors.

But Abrams said that many second-floor offices had their computers unplugged -- as if the thieves either planned to come back for them or were interrupted before they could take them.

Muzichenko, a talent manager, said that when he heard the news he was "very hysterical. I was crying. I have to restore my business."

Muzichenko said his files were backed up, so much of his information, while compromised, could be restored. But, he added, "tomorrow my day is going to be buying 25 computers."

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alan.zarembo@latimes.com

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Jason Felch contributed to this report.

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