To catch a thief

A new crime wave is sweeping America's wealthiest streets. Burglary gangs armed with inside information are targeting the millionaire mansions of Hollywood's elite - and the LAPD is baffled. Gary Humphreys investigates
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The Independent US

The fashion designer is in no doubt about who's to blame for the ransacking of her Japanese-modern villa. "When LAPD said they weren't going to be responding to alarms any more, they sent a signal to every burglar living within a hundred miles of this place," she says, looking out at the swimming-pool at her home, which is situated in a leafy fold of Nichols Canyon, about two miles north of Sunset Boulevard.

The fashion designer is in no doubt about who's to blame for the ransacking of her Japanese-modern villa. "When LAPD said they weren't going to be responding to alarms any more, they sent a signal to every burglar living within a hundred miles of this place," she says, looking out at the swimming-pool at her home, which is situated in a leafy fold of Nichols Canyon, about two miles north of Sunset Boulevard.

In fact, the LAPD announcement, made in January of last year, was to the effect that the department would no longer be responding to unverified alarms at addresses where there was a record of two false alarms in the previous 12 months - a scaling-back imposed by a lack of resources. But whatever the particulars of the strategic withdrawal, the fashion designer, a single woman in her mid-forties, who requested anonymity fearing that the police would leave her high and dry, felt it as a betrayal. "It was the fact that they made such a big announcement of it," she says, shaking her head. "I mean, how stupid was that?"

Stupid enough, if the increase in burglaries in the city's ritzy West Side over the past 12 months is anything to go by. An area of 124 square miles, the West Side contains some of the city's most valuable real estate, and is currently under attack, or at least that's the widely held view of its residents. Neighbourhood associations are coming together to share horror stories, and setting up websites to post advice and warnings.

"Everybody's getting broken into," says jewellery designer Loree Rodkin, who was herself burgled at the end of last summer. "I was talking about my experiences to an agent from CAA [Creative Artists Agency] the other night, and he said, 'me too'. He was upset because they'd taken pictures of him from when he was a child; pictures of his grandmother. Stuff you can't replace." Like many others, Rodkin was astonished by LAPD's decision to cut back on alarm responses, even more so by the way it was shouted from the rooftops. "I didn't get it," she says. "What was it saying to the bad guys?"

The truth is, the announcement was made loud and clear in part for political reasons. LAPD Commissioner William Bratton, formerly of the New York Police Department, wanted to exert some real pressure in his ongoing struggle to augment a police force that he feels is woefully undermanned. By the time Bratton left New York, where he served as Police Commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, there were 35,000 cops on the municipal payroll. Since his move out west, Bratton has gone on record many times stating that even if LAPD's meagre 9,000 troops were doubled it would still not be enough to police the sprawling 468 square miles for which it is responsible.

The bad guys couldn't agree more. Nils Grazillius, an LA-based private investigator, believes the city has long been a draw for criminals. "Everyone knows LAPD lacks resources, and motivation," he says. "If you're going to kill someone, you do it in LA. If you're going to dump a body, you do it in LA. But," he adds, "what's going on in the West Side is new. Organised crime is becoming involved. And that changes a lot of things." Grazillius, who claims to be answering an increasing number of post-burglary distress calls from the well-heeled residents of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, believes people call him because they want him to do the job the police aren't doing, starting with trying to recover their property.

In fact, LAPD's record has improved under Bratton, at least in terms of the crime rate. "Serious crime" was down 13.6 per cent in 2004. But on the West Side, the general perception is that the police are losing the war against the house-breakers.

"They have one car assigned to burglaries for the whole of West LA," complains Sheila Vance, an eyewear designer who was burgled twice in October last year. The lone car she refers to - the police call it the "U-boat" - is assigned to respond to "low priority" calls where the victim is sure that the suspect has already left the property. On a busy night it can take hours for the U-boat to surface at the scene. When Davis Factor, great-grandson of the cosmetics magnate Max Factor, was burgled just over a year ago, he called LAPD at 1.30am. The police finally showed up at six in the morning.

For Vance and Factor, who both live on Mulholland Drive, the situation is all the more galling because they are so close to the protective umbrella of Beverly Hills Police Department without actually being under it. Beverly Hills PD has 140 officers covering just six square miles, and all the resources necessary to respond to alarm calls within minutes. "We have a 90210 zip code," says Vance ruefully, "but we don't have Beverly Hills security."

Of course, the current situation is not just about police resources or attitudes. There are the resources available to the criminals to consider. The people who hit Factor's residence grabbed only a few wristwatches and a laptop computer, and while that kind of opportunistic hit-or-miss burglary has always gone on, what is more worrying to the residents and police are the well-timed and perfectly executed burglaries which are becoming disturbingly common.

Sheila Vance is in no doubt that the attacks on her home, and subsequently on her personal office, which resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property, were carried out by professionals. Prior to the first burglary, post went missing from her mail box. On the night of the break-in, despite there being a car in the driveway, a TV turned on and a barking dog inside the house, the criminals knew the coast was clear. Vance believes that they had been watching her and her husband for some time. "They broke in through the master-bedroom window. Somehow they knew there were no motion detectors installed."

For Grazillius, the Vance burglary has all the hallmarks of a Russian mafia job. "The Russian crews are very hip to alarm systems," he says. "They know that more often than not there won't be sensors on the upper-storey windows, because that's the kind of security package people buy. Typically, they'll go in through a second-storey window, clear out the master bedroom and then work their way down through the house."

Even if they set off motion detectors, they still have time to get away. Once alerted, the alarm company has to call the house. If they don't get an answer with the pre-agreed code, they call the police, who in turn dispatch a car. "The whole process can take 10 minutes or longer," says Grazillius, "plenty of time for the burglar to be out the door."

One burglar, a man who is thought to have committed as many as 40 break-ins in the leafy ultra-select enclave adjoining Beverly Hills over the past couple of years, has raised the kind of in-and-out technique Grazillius describes to the level of an art form. He is known as the Bel Air Burglar, and the closest the police have come to pinning him down is some CCTV footage showing a grey-haired man in his forties going over a wall. He tends to target the master bedroom, taking any valuables on display before heading for the safe which he'll open if he can, and even take with him if it's not too big or heavy. He has yet to leave a fingerprint, and on the rare occasions he has set off a motion detector, makes his getaway in less than a minute.

What worries people most about the Bel Air Burglar, apart from his apparent ability to go in and out of locked premises at will, is his knack for picking targets and for showing up just after the residents have left. So good is he at what he does, that many people suspect him to be a part of the community. Someone who mingles, someone who blends in. But the truth is, the whole privileged community, from Pacific Palisades on the coast, across to the parched slopes of the Hollywood Reservoir is extremely permeable, with gardeners, maids, cleaners, delivery men, cable TV and telephone engineers, to name but a few, going in and out of the most carefully secured properties pretty much around the clock. Add to that the personal trainer, or pilates instructor, or even estate agent, who may have gained the confidence of the head of the house in the 12 months they've been trying to sell their insanely overpriced home, and you have a scenario in which the transfer of crucial information about the where and when of things can take place pretty much unimpeded.

So what is a frequent-flying, hard-partying millionaire to do? Nils Grazillius believes it's very simple. "Those who make themselves indigestible don't get swallowed," he says. Indigestibility comes in many familiar forms, starting with solid locks, a good alarm system, a brace of big dogs, and, this being the land of the Second Amendment, a handily located firearm. And, if you're going to use a gun, make sure that use is effective. "A wrongful death suit is easier to defend than personal injury," is the chilling advice from Grazillius. "You don't want to be in court looking at this guy sitting in a wheelchair, with his high-school football coach standing behind him, saying what a great athlete he used to be."

Davis Factor and Sheila Vance are working on their indigestibility. Factor has fitted his house with surveillance cameras, motion detectors, lights and dogs, while Vance is replacing her alarm system with something much higher tech. She doesn't want to say which one, but she can now monitor the inside of the house via the internet from anywhere in the world.

Feisty Loree Rodkin, who lost faith in the highly sophisticated alarm she'd had installed prior to the break-in at her house, has taken a slightly different approach. "After the burglary, I went gun shopping," she says. Nor did she stop at the purchase of a weapon, but went out and got herself some serious training. "I am like Annie fucking Oakley," she adds cheerfully. "I could shoot you through the heart from a mile away."

Fortunately, she may never have to prove her marksmanship. Rodkin is leaving the leafy seclusion of the hills for a high-rise apartment building somewhere in town. Living out in the woods, even with a swimming-pool, was getting a little too edgy. Does she regret having to move? "Not really," she says. "The idea of stellar views, and just not having to think about all this security stuff is very appealing." And the pool? "I used it twice last year," she says. "In the end it was just a really expensive night light."