Teenage kicks: How the 'bling ring' gang used Twitter to burgle Hollywood homes
When six American youths were caught breaking into the homes of Hollywood celebrities – using Twitter and Google Earth to assist them – the 'bling ring' gang achieved instant notoriety. As the last sentences are handed down, and a movie of their crime begins shooting, Lena Corner gets the inside story on this very post-modern scandal.
Saturday 02 June 2012
"Goodbye world," read 21-year-old Nick Prugo's final tweet on 15 April this year. Shortly afterwards, his Twitter timeline – usually full of links to his favourite tracks and clichéd nuggets of positive thinking – went dead. The son of a successful Hollywood studio executive and not long out of high school, Prugo had signed off and disappeared into the notorious LA City Jail. There he remains, accused of seven counts of residential burglary – a series of crimes which could see him facing more than 14 years behind bars.
But these were no ordinary robberies. Prugo is charged with breaking into the homes of a series of celebrities including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. Last month he took the stand offering a deal whereby in return for testifying against his alleged partners in crime – Courtney Ames, Roy Lopez and Diana Tamayo – all but two of the charges would be dropped. If grassing on his former friends proves successful, Prugo could be looking at a sentence of just two years. He is due back in court next month for the verdict.
Prugo's hearing is the latest instalment in a saga that has dominated America's gossip pages since he was first arrested back in September 2009. Prugo is a member of the 'bling ring' – a group of affluent, club-hopping, (mostly) teenage Valley kids who, motivated by a warped obsession with celebrity, proved to be one of the most precocious burglary gangs in Hollywood history. They used Twitter to track when their targets were out, Google Earth to work their way into their mansions, and came away with a haul worth more than $3m. It's a story so perfectly of the moment it's as if it were lifted straight from the pages of a movie script.
Now Sofia Coppola, who came from Hollywood 'royalty' and has long been preoccupied with the vacuous nature of celebrity, has started making the movie. Shooting began in March (with Emma Watson as lead) and it looks as if the f film will be out even before the final few perpetrators have been sentenced for their crimes.
"Nick is feeling very despondent right now," says Prugo's lawyer, Markus Dombois. "He is physically very small and slight and is going to find jail difficult. I'm concerned for his safety. He was never the ringleader in all this. He's not completely without blame but he was like the little brother tagging along, he did it out of infatuation. He doesn't have a problem testifying against these people. At first they were his friends but now he realises how morally bankrupt they are."
The bling ring spree started towards the end of 2008 at the $4m Hollywood Hills mansion belonging to Paris Hilton. Initially, the perpetrators consisted solely of Prugo and his friend Rachel Lee, a classmate from Indian Hills high school in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. They met when Prugo transferred there after being kicked out of his previous school for non-attendance. Lee was outgoing and popular – recipient of the highly coveted 'best dressed' award in the 2007 Indian Hills Year Book. By contrast, Prugo was quiet and awkward. She took him under her wing and the pair quickly became inseparable.
"In a platonic sort of a way Nick was in love with Rachel," says writer Nancy Jo Sales, who was one of the first to pick up on the story and is now a consultant on Coppola's movie. "He was a shy, troubled guy who followed this alpha female around. She kind of got him to do her bidding."
Prugo says they decided to target Hilton's place because they figured she was "dumb". The pair arrived at her mansion nervous and under the cover of darkness to find she had gone out leaving the key under the mat and both the door and her safe unlocked. "They found cocaine lying out on the bed and jewellery all around the place," says Dombois. "It was like stepping into a store on Rodeo Drive when the owners were out."
At first they were discreet. When Hilton returned she didn't even notice she had been broken into. But it didn't take long before things escalated. Lee started carrying around Hilton's door key, like a trophy, on her own key chain. She began bragging about their deeds to friends and the ranks of the bling ring swelled to around six. And it was Lee who introduced the bling ring break-in rallying cry of, "Let's go shopping".
"It became like a party atmosphere and Lee kept getting more people involved," says Sales. "I think they may have all had different motivations but certainly the designer labels were the main draw. They were totally obsessed with luxury brand names like Chanel and Prada. Nick told me that when they went into these starlets' houses they were just so shocked at the amount of clothes they would have – bags and bags of things that hadn't even been opened. I think that they idolised these people but at the same time there seemed to be a weird resentment, too – a feeling of you've got way more than you need so I'll take them from you. It was a great thrill. There was a feeling of power. They would go out wearing these clothes and joyriding around LA."
As time went on, their deeds began to buy them access to the celebrity world they so coveted. Adorned in their pilfered luxury labels and buoyed by their increasing sense of notoriety, they started getting into fashionable clubs such as Les f Deux and Miyagi's bar on Sunset Boulevard, where LA wannabes would gather in the car park after hours. They started hanging out with celebrities and, rumour has it, one of the bling ring even started a dalliance with a famous actor. For a while it looked as if their crimes were beginning to pay.
But it wasn't long before the net started to close. On Oscar night 2009, while she was out working the red carpet, they robbed the home of Audrina Partridge, star of The Hills, a faux-reality show, ironically also about the lives of a group of pampered LA fashionistas. "I watched the security video," said an incredulous Partridge, "expecting to see these big scary guys, but instead it was these kids." The bling ring made off with $43,000 worth of her possessions including a laptop, jewellery and jeans, which Partridge said, "were made to fit my body to my perfect shape". She posted the surveillance video straight on to her website.
Then, after being burgled four more times, Hilton finally woke up to what was going on – only after one bling ringer, Roy Lopez, allegedly helped himself to more than $1m-worth of her jewellery, stuffed into a Louis Vuitton tote bag. Another big haul was found in the house of Orlando Bloom when, joined by Indian Hills classmate Alexis Neiers, they came away with a Rolex watch collection as well as artworks totalling nearly half a million dollars. "Lee was moving to Las Vegas," explains Dombois, "and she fancied some artwork to furnish her new place."
The final straw came when they broke into Lindsay Lohan's place. According to Prugo, Lohan was Lee's fashion icon and her ultimate celebrity prize and she made the journey from her new home in Vegas specially to do it. The resulting surveillance shots, showing them casually stuffing their bags, picks out their faces as clear as daylight.
"The security videos are amazing," says Sales, "Nick always looked very jumpy and scared, but Rachel was so blasé that at one point she went to the toilet and had a bowel movement. Can you imagine doing that in the middle of robbing someone's house? It's mind-blowing."
But by this stage the videos hardly mattered as the bling ring's bragging had seen to it that the police had already received numerous tip-offs. Detectives simply used Facebook to work out who was friends with who, to put together the final pieces of the puzzle. One by one, at the tail-end of 2009, the members of the bling ring were arrested.
"It's one of those cases that defines a moment in terms of youth culture and media culture," says Sales. "Some of the attitudes of those kids were really unpleasant and disturbing and it holds up a mirror to things we are witnessing in American youth culture right now – the obsession with celebrity and the obsession with fame. Unfortunately, there is just no shame any more. The only currency is fame itself."
What it also demonstrates is the level of confusion we have now reached between celebrity and non-celebrity – and in turn, reality and non-reality. "The other striking thing it shows is how the wall between celebrities and ordinary people has completely broken down," continues Sales. "It's absolutely permeable now. You have celebrities acting like real people – making themselves all the more available and accessible all of the time. And you have real people acting more and more like celebrities by having reality shows and tweeting to their followers. There used to be a sense that Hollywood celebrities were god-like creatures who rarely came down from the mountain and mingled with the common folk. Now it's completely blurred."
Dombois agrees. "I think these kids felt the people they were robbing weren't actually real people – because they were celebrities. And I also think they felt they were vicariously participating in the whole celebrity lifestyle," he says. "In LA today, for some people, attention and fame is worth much more than any amount of money could ever be. I think that may be what has happened here."
Tellingly, when the bling ring's activities were reaching a crescendo, Alexis Neiers, then aged 18, who describes herself as a hip-hop and pole dancing teacher, was actually shooting a pilot for her own reality show. The original intention was that it should be yet another programme about a Hollywood party girl but, no doubt, to the glee of the producers, it quickly morphed into the story of her battle to stay out of prison.
The show, entitled Pretty Wild, was commissioned immediately and premiered on E! in March 2010. Neiers's court hearing duly turned into a media circus. She chose her outfit carefully, had her make-up touched up on the court bench and coyly pleaded no contest to felony burglary. She was sentenced to six months and ordered to stay clear of Orlando Bloom's home. In the event she was out in just 30 days, which fitted in perfectly with filming schedules. The show was never commissioned for a second series.
"Neiers was only being filmed for a pilot that might or might not happen," says Sales. "Then she got a reality show because of the burglary and then she actually does become famous. It's like the dog eating its own tail."
It's also worth pointing out that the very celebrities that the bling ring so admired – Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan – had themselves been regularly waltzing in and out of jail (Lohan five times in as many years). These days, when Lohan has a court appearance, the attention it attracts is far greater than anything she commits to celluloid – as if the courthouse steps have superseded the red carpet in a twisted new pecking order. And, as if the story couldn't turn any more in on itself, Neiers actually found herself, for one night, in a cell right next to Lohan. "It was insane," she told Extra, the American celebrity news show. "It was mayhem. They put us on lockdown all day. I got the feeling the girls were actually excited. They were screaming 'I love you Lindsay, I want to be your girlfriend'."
Inevitably, all the members of the bling ring ended up, with help from expensive lawyers, fighting their corners and pointing fingers. Lee is currently doing four years in Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, central California. "The last two years of my life have changed me from an irresponsible and childish drug and alcohol addict towards becoming a responsible adult," she wrote in a letter to LA Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler before being sentenced. "I was really messed up from so much substance abuse as well as poor choices of friends."
Out of all of them, Prugo seems to have suffered the most. After his arrest he said he was finding it difficult to breathe, sleep and eat. "I was even losing my hair," he says. And in his naivety, after his arrest, he confessed to crimes that the police had no idea he had committed.
Despite her guilty verdict, Neiers still flatly denies everything. "Eventually my story will come out," she said, doing the rounds on yet another chat show. "I witnessed a robbery. I didn't know whose house it was at the time until I woke up one morning with cops all round my house. It was devastating. I did make a bad choice of friends and I was out drinking that night and got taken to a very bad place. I already had a career going, I had goals, I had a show. Why would I do something like that?"
As her 'celebrity' career limps on, it's a denial that betrays a distinct lack of remorse. "Aside from perhaps Prugo, I just don't think they had any sense of consequence whatsoever," says Sales. "I think it's a hangover from the Bush era – when there was very much a feeling of no consequence. These kids did not seem to have any notion that there would be any outcome to their actions. They were so reckless and so utterly blasé about committing very serious crimes."
And still the bling ring controversy goes on, as it turns out Coppola, again blurring the lines between fact and fiction, has employed some of the perpetrators in the making of her movie. Dombois says that Prugo was offered $20,000 to consult on the movie but turned it down because he did not want to appear to profit from the case. Neiers, meanwhile, signed up immediately.
"The bottom line is that Sofia Coppola was going to make this movie with or without my help," she says, "so why not give input and help her to make it a little more accurate?" Also, she says, the pay cheque proved particularly helpful as her 22-year-old 'sister' Tess Taylor (not a birth sister, but a friend who had grown up living with her) was in the throes of heroin addiction and the money earnt would pay her way through Pasadena Recovery Centre.
The detective who led the investigation, Brett Goodkin of the Los Angeles Police Department, has also been employed by Coppola to play himself in the film. With three defendants still possibly facing trial, he has been accused of jeopardising their cases. "It's very generic cop kind of stuff," he said in his defence. "It's not like I'm Bruce Willis." Meanwhile, David Diamond, the lawyer for the bling ring defendant Roy Lopez, has just subpoenaed Coppola to have access to the entire payroll so he can see exactly who has been paid and for what. The story looks set to rumble on and on through the courts.
"It's a fascinating case which is why Coppola is making a movie out of it," concludes Dombois. "People may be saying these people are losers and criminals, why would you glorify them, but it's a societal and cultural phenomena and that's why it's of such interest. And why is Coppola making the movie right now? It's all about money – you've got to hit while it's hot. You've got to remember, we're talking about America here."
THE DIRTY HALF-DOZEN
Twenty-one-year-old Prugo was a founder member of the bling ring. He was on prescription drugs for ADHD. Prugo would surf the internet to establish the target's itinerary and address.
Lee had a tricky relationship with her mother and stepfather and moved to Las Vegas not long before the break-in at Lindsay Lohan's house. Her Audi A4 was used as the getaway car.
Neiers claimed to be so inebriated on the night of the break-in at Orlando Bloom's house that she had no idea what happened. She was found guilty and served 30 days.
Ames, another student at Indian Hills, had been a good friend of Lee's since 8th grade. The LAPD has pictures of her at Les Deux nightclub wearing a Diane von Furstenberg leather jacket allegedly belonging to Paris Hilton.
Lopez, a bouncer and the oldest of the group, at 27, was charged with one count of residential burglary of Paris Hilton's home and allegedly stole up to $2m of her jewellery.
Student president who was voted as having the 'best smile', Tamayo reportedly once aided the burglary operation by crawling into a target's home through a cat flap.
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