Hollywood stars robbed by teenage 'bling ring'

A reality TV star and her glamorous friends have been accused of following A-listers on Twitter – then burgling them.
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The Independent US

Not every young woman who stands in the dock at Los Angeles Superior Court accused of burglary has journeyed to the venue in a limousine that also contained her personal assistant, her make-up artist, and a large camera crew who track her every move. But Alexis Neiers is not your average young woman to stand accused of burglary.

On Tuesday, the 18-year-old Hollywood socialite and model, who stars in a reality TV programme called Pretty Wild with her Playboy model sister, stood before Judge Lesley Swaine, dressed head-to-toe in designer clothes, at a hearing to determine what evidence will be presented at her forthcoming trial, which is scheduled to begin next week.

Attorneys for Ms Neiers were attempting (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to use a legal technicality to prevent prosecutors from being able to present the jury with damning evidence, including an apparent confession, taken from police interviews video-taped shortly after her arrest in October.

Ms Neiers is one of six youngsters accused of carrying out an extraordinary series of robberies that saw millions of dollars worth jewellery, cash, designer clothes and fashion accessories taken from the homes of modish Hollywood celebrities.

Victims, who included Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom, lost possessions worth an estimated $3.24m (£2.2m) during the 11-month spree, according to prosecutors. The gang, who are mostly teenagers, tracked the celebrities' movements and then cased their properties via the internet. They have been dubbed the "Bling Ring". Ms Neiers' trial is scheduled to begin on Monday. After that, Nicholas Prugo and Rachel Lee, the group's alleged ringleaders, will go before a jury on 25 May. They face at least seven felony burglary counts, which means that if convicted, they're likely to end up in prison for six years. The tale begins in Calablasas, a leafy neighbourhood on the west end of LA's San Fernando Valley, just over the hill from the celebrity Mecca that is Malibu. Four of the "Bling Ring" met there, at Indian Hills High School. The group shared an obsession with celebrity culture.

.Late in 2008, Ms Lee and Mr Prugo, together with fellow accused conspirators Diana Tamayo and Courtney Lee Ames, appear to have had an enterprising idea: first, they'd leaf through fashion magazines and find a celebrity whose clothes and jewellery they envied. Then they'd use websites like TMZ and Twitter to establish when that celebrity would be out of town. Finally, they logged on to Google Earth and celebrityaddressaerial.com to work out where their potential victim lived.

After that, they'd walk up to the house, find an open door or window, walk in and help themselves. Paris Hilton left a key under her doormat. Megan Fox, meanwhile, left the patio doors open. "You grabbed a suitcase and filled it up with whatever you wanted," Mr Prugo later told Vanity Fair. At first, the gang stole for fun, rather than money. They partied at their victims' houses, and from time to time, the initial four members were joined by Ms Neiers, together with the gang's sixth alleged member, a local nightclub bouncer called Roy Lopez.

The "Bling Ring" left fingerprints everywhere, and walked gleefully past surveillance cameras without even attempting to cover their faces. When Ms Ames first appeared in court, she even wore a necklace that had been stolen from the home of Lindsay Lohan. Police took it from her minutes after the hearing.

"These kids were stealing for kicks. They wanted to see inside celebrities homes, and to fill their own wardrobes with famous people's clothes and jewellery, and they don't seem to care if they were caught," says author and showbusiness commentator Gayl Murphy, who is following the trial. "They were celebrity groupies, a sort of radicalised sleeper cell. It was all a big game."

The Bling Ring is accused of committing nine different burglaries between November 2008 and September last year. The staggering audacity of their behaviour had an impact felt throughout the local entertainment community. "I was interviewing Miley Cyrus the other day, and I asked why she'd stopped using Twitter," adds Ms Murphy. "She said it was because she doesn't want people knowing where she is all the time. You can see why: shouting about the fact that you're hanging out in Aspen or Monte Carlo might make you look fab, but if the wrong people are listening, it can also cost you."

The net started to close around the Bling Ring last spring, when Paris Hilton reported a burglary. Months earlier, some expensive lingerie and a bottle of vodka had gone missing from her closet. She initially thought she'd misplaced it. But now $2m worth of jewellery had also vanished, and she was suddenly sure criminals were to blame.

A few months later, Orlando Bloom called with a similar story. Designer watches worth $500,000 had disappeared from his dressing table. He realised he'd almost certainly been robbed. The LAPD sent in the team that had visited Ms Hilton's home.

At Mr Bloom's house, the cops looked through security camera film and saw footage of people walking casually into his house when he'd been out of town.

In August, Ms Lohan gave them their big break: $85,000-worth of clothes and jewellery had vanished from her house. She also had security camera footage. And the detectives who watched it swiftly noticed that the criminals in Ms Lohan's film were the same people who had burgled Mr Bloom. Within hours photographs of the Bling Ring had been circulated.

The first arrest, of Mr Prugo, happened in early September. His five co-conspirators were picked-up soon afterwards. The group of six are now preparing for their days in court.

When police originally came to arrest Ms Neiers they found the makers of Pretty Wild there, waiting to film them. Footage of the incident has helped her show rapidly gain viewers as the trial approaches.

More recently, Ms Neiers refused to accept a plea bargain that would have seen her avoid jail in return for pleading guilty. Instead, she will tell the jury that (although she was videoed walking into Mr Bloom's house) she was drunk at the time, and didn't know a burglary was being staged. It's an ambitious argument.

"The evidence against her is so strong that I can't understand why she passed up that plea deal," says Royal Oakes, a legal analyst who covers high-profile trials for NBC. "It's a felony burglary case, and if the prosecution wins she could get six years. She's really rolling the dice here."

But rolling the dice will also make sure that Really Wild gets to include footage of a dramatic trial. And in a case that has its roots in the fetishisation of fame, a defendant who takes a bizarre decision to risk jail in order to increase her own celebrity profile wouldn't seem all that out of place.