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Breaking Into Hollywood

 

The inside story of how a gang of rich Hollywood club kids robbed the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, and Audrina Patridge for over a year, until the cops came closing in and the former friends began turning on one another. In the end there was only one man left standing. 

The burglars were amateurs. That much was clear from the security video. Prowling around the perimeter of Lindsay Lohan’s Hollywood Hills home on August 23, the two girls periodically covered their heads with hoods and scarves. The guy didn’t even bother, apparently figuring that a baseball cap was enough to obscure his identity. Still, they were able to pry open a window and break into Lohan’s home, where they rifled through her belongings, taking clothes, some jewelry, and a blue-faced Rolex watch the starlet’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Sam Ronson had bought her.
 
Time was, the Manson family haunted these hills, striking fear into the hearts of the rich and photogenic. Forty years later, Hollywood was once again being simultaneously terrorized and captivated. But the culprits this time were just a knuckleheaded crew of errant teenagers enraptured by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s cult of celebrity. They would pick out the jewelry and designer clothes from the pages of fashion magazines, target the celebrities who had what they wanted, and then track their locations and movements using online sites like TMZ and celebrityaddressaerial.com (a kind of map to the stars’ homes using helicopter photography). From there it was easy: Hop a fence, open a window, and rummage through enough closets until they found what they were looking for. Call it the Home Invasion Shopping Network.
 
bling ring
 
In one short year of operation, from October 2008 to their arrest in October 2009, the crew’s hit list of brand-name marks—Paris Hilton, Lohan, The Hills’ Audrina Patridge, The O.C.’s Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, Brian Austin Green, and Ashley Tisdale of High School Musical—netted them a reported $3 million in cash and swag. The same magazines and Web sites they fetishized ate it up. TMZ dubbed them the Burglar Bunch. The Los Angeles Times went with the Bling Ring. Media blog Gawker made their pitch for the Beverly Hills Bandits. Whatever you called them, it was apparently a story tailor-made for Hollywood, especially when the culprits—young, wealthy, and attractive—were finally collared.
 
On August 26, three days after the Lohan burglary, Los Angeles police released the surveillance video, noting the striking resemblance to the crew that was caught on security camera robbing Audrina Patridge’s home in February. By mid-September the base-ball-capped crook had been ID’d as Nicholas Prugo. Stories quickly spread about the then 18-year-old club kid. The previous February he’d been arrested for cocaine possession. In August he was busted for a DUI. Unfounded speculation swirled that it was an inside job, and an anonymous source even told TMZ that Prugo and Lohan were buddies and that he’d regularly visited her on the set of her straight-to-cable effort Labor Pains. Rumors spread that he was her former drug dealer out to collect an unpaid debt. (Not so, said the police.)
 
It wasn’t long before the authorities had rounded up Prugo’s alleged coconspirators. Within a month Diana Tamayo and Courtney Ames, both 19, along with 18-year-olds Alexis Neiers and Rachel Lee, had been arrested on suspicion of up to 10 separate burglaries. Most had known each other at Indian Hills Continuation High School for troubled teens, located about 40 minutes from Beverly Hills. Roy Lopez Jr., 27, a bouncer at Sagebrush Cantina bar and restaurant, where Ames was a waitress, was also arrested and accused by police of fencing stolen goods. Prugo was quickly labeled the ring--leader, and just as quickly diverted the blame to Lee, a stiletto-heeled Korean-American looker who was arrested in Las Vegas on October 22. Police found three computers, three photos of Paris Hilton, a jar of marijuana, a Korean passport, and more than $20,000 in $100 bills.
 
According to Det. Brett Goodkin, the LAPD officer in charge of the case, the group meticulously pieced together the stars’ travel itineraries from gossip sites, paparazzi photos, and the ubiquitous TMZ, and planned their attack and escape routes using Google maps and other common Web tools. “We know for a fact that they hit Paris Hilton several times, and the total amount was a little more than $2 million,” Goodkin tells me. “And that $2 million heist is attributable to Prugo and Lee. It absolutely was that crew.” Attorney Blair Berk, who is representing some of the celebrities targeted, claims that Web sites like TMZ actually create the problem by encour-aging the invasive practices of the paparazzi and rewarding such behavior by giving any willing miscreant his own moment in the sun.
 
“It’s really frightening,” says Patridge, the gang’s second victim, after Hilton. “Being on a reality show, I became a bit desensitized to all the paparazzi and the public knowing so much about me. But now people know where I live and go to dinner. On the other hand, I realize this is an industry and people are profiting from it. There’s really not much incentive for these gossip sites to change.”
 
The privileged crew seemed to live their lives as if they were on a reality show themselves. The tabloids called it celebrity worship, but that would require reverence or awe. Ames told the New York Post that inside Paris Hilton’s home Prugo put on Hilton’s shoes and began to dance, saying, “Don’t I look good?” They didn’t bother with ski masks or surgical gloves; getting caught was the whole point. And really—why isn’t this a reality show? Those video images from Lindsay Lohan’s surveillance camera look like nothing so much as a teaser reel for MTV.
 
By late October a third man had been identified as part of the gang. Jonathan Ajar, 28, a.k.a Jonnie Dangerous.
 
From police reports it was clear that Ajar was cut from a different cloth than the rest of the crew. Among the items reportedly recovered by police in a raid on his apartment in a strip mall-infested stretch of the San Fernando Valley were “a diamond-encrusted Cartier Tiger watch, numerous gold and diamond bracelets, and cut diamonds in a bag weighing more than 42 carats,” as well as “illicit drugs and a stash of weapons,” including body armor and a Sig Sauer handgun that belonged to actor Brian Austin Green. Ajar was identified as Ames’ boyfriend, a club promoter at the hip Hollywood hot spot Les Deux Café and a convicted drug dealer who police warned was “armed and dangerous.”
 
Elizabeth Gonet, Jonnie’s mother, is a fiftysomething cashier at one of Washington State’s ubiquitous Fred Meyer grocery stores. A devoted Christian, she’s been working for some time on getting her son to accept the Lord. He’s a smart kid, she tells me, but she’s worried. If she hears from him, she’ll let me know. Almost im-me- diately, a blocked call pops up on my phone. It’s Jonnie Dangerous.
 
We talk for a while—mainly about TMZ and its founder, Harvey Levin, who he thinks is promoting the idea that Jonnie is armed and dangerous, which he’s afraid is going to get him killed. “I ain’t Billy the Kid,” he says.
 
Jonnie tells me he’s about four and a half hours from L.A., in the Vegas area, and if I can come and meet him, he’ll sit down with me and tell me his story. Afterward we’ll drive back together and he’ll turn himself in to the authorities.
 
The next day around noon, Jonnie shows up at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino on Vegas’ way-off-the-Strip west side in a tinted BMW 525i of dubious provenance. Tall but doughy, he has a stone-cold glare and a cultivated menace that are undercut by a faint resemblance to a young Rodney Dangerfield. “I could stretch this out for 15 years, but I’m turning myself in,” he says. “I don’t really want to hide out the rest of my life. Your stomach drops when you see a cop. You 
think you’re going to get pulled over, beaten.”
 
As he runs through his biography, it’s clear that Jonnie’s life is about as far as possible from the glitzy upbringings of his fellow suspects. Jonnie came up in the projects near Reseda, drug-dealing and gangbanging. “My family is crazy,” he says. He calls his father “a truck driver and career criminal who was burnt out on drugs.”
 
After his parents split, when he was two, Jonnie and his brother and sister grew up as welfare kids, living in shelters or his grand-father’s garage. Later he lived in cars or on the street, until a cocaine trafficking conviction in Wyoming led to a two-year stint in federal prison at 22. He’s always had the nickname Jonnie Dangerous, which he says he got from never backing down from a fight.
 
“My dad was doing time in a state prison at the same time I was doing federal,” recalls Jonnie. “He told me, ‘Congratulations. You’ve made it to the big time.’ ”
 
bling ring
 
After prison, and a brief stint clerking at a law firm, he fell into promoting events at Les Deux—a career that saw him rub shoulders with the likes of will.i.am, Suge Knight, and Biohazard’s Evan Seinfeld. “I was moving a pound of chronic a week, breaking it up into eighths for sale. I’d pay $1,600 for an ounce of cocaine and sell it for $100 a gram,” he says. “I drove a Lincoln Navigator for a while. I had a good time. Who else can say they had Playmates at their birthday party?”
 
At Les Deux, Jonnie thrived, promoting parties, dealing drugs, and living out his Hollywood player fantasies. A hot spot catering to bold-faced names such as Lohan, Hilton, and the cast of The Hills, Les Deux is one of a number of Los Angeles destinations where celeb worshipers can hobnob with the celebrities themselves, and where the lines between glamour and crime get fuzzy. According to Detective Goodkin, it’s no wonder the club became a magnet for a group of bored teenagers. “We’ve had historic problems with them since the Hollywood renaissance,” he says of the club and the ease with which the underage can indulge there. “There are a tremendous number of nightclubs around. The celebrities now party in Hollywood, and these kids want to be part of it.”
 
Jonnie says he first met Courtney Ames at a Hollywood restaurant cum nightclub called the Green Door. She and her friends—high school students at the time—all had fake IDs, and 
one night at Les Deux he talked a group of them into getting body-painted in honor of his birthday. Through them he met Nick Prugo, Rachel Lee, Diana Tamayo, and the rest of the gang. They were not unlike a lot of too-privileged-for-their-own-good teenagers, spending 
more time club-hopping and partying than studying.
 
“They all come from a rich little neighborhood in upper Calabasas, living in million-dollar homes,” says Jonnie. “Courtney has an Audi A6. Nick had a Honda because he’s not as well to do as the others. Diana drives a Navigator. Rachel drives a brand new Audi.”
 
Wealthy, bored, and prone to bad behavior—both Lee and Prugo had been expelled from Calabasas High School—most of the group ended up as students at the Indian Hills school. With only 72 students in total, it’s the type of institution where troubled kids land when they’ve failed out or been kicked out of everyplace else. Given the environs, the group understandably looked outside Calabasas for adventure. A privileged enclave and bedroom community over the hills from Malibu, its main claim to fame is as the home to both the world’s largest Rolex and the Menendez brothers.
 
Living on the margins of the glamorous world of Hollywood they obsessed over, it’s little surprise that many of the crew have tenuous connections to the entertainment industry: Neiers’ father, Mikel, is a cinematographer, her sister Tess Taylor is a Playboy model, and the whole family starred in a recent pilot for E! that centered on Neiers as a struggling actress and aspiring model. Courtney Ames’ stepfather is former welterweight Randy Shields, who once beat Sugar Ray Leonard as an amateur in a split decision and is now working personal security and “writing a screenplay.” Prugo’s father, Frank, is a former NBC functionary, now a senior executive at IM Global, an international film distributor responsible for such releases as I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Paranormal Activity. Nick himself once starred in the dramatic recreations for a “documentary” that aired on the Discovery Channel called Little Lost Souls: Children Possessed?
 
The Prugo family’s reaction to their son’s recent troubles is telling. “Mr. Prugo is having a banner year with Paranormal Activity making tens of millions of dollars,” says family lawyer Sean Erenstoft when asked how Mr. Prugo was handling the situation. “He’s devastated over having the spotlight stolen from him.” According to Erenstoft, Nick has long struggled with self-esteem as well as drugs and alcohol, and he easily fell under the influence of the Mean Girls types at his school. “Rachel Lee was the ringleader,” Erenstoft insists. “She had a way about her.” He claims that Lee, whose parents recently split, started out stealing from unlocked cars before moving on to celebrity targets and coaxing her friends along for the ride.
 
“I don’t believe they were close to Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton,” Jonnie says of the group’s reported connection to their targets. “They did all this research, but I didn’t pay much attention. I didn’t want to be involved. But they were spending all their money from the crimes on bottle service at the clubs. It wasn’t just my club; it was every hot club in the city. And they drink horribly. Courtney, I tried to tell her, ‘You can’t act like that.’ Nick would blow chunks all over the place.”
 
We plan to leave Vegas early the next day, and a little after noon Jonnie shows up in the sun-baked parking lot of my hotel. I flash him to stop and ask if he’s got any contraband or stolen pro-perty on him. He pulls a new Sony VAIO laptop from his trunk and hands it over to me.
 
“This is Audrina Patridge’s,” he says. “She can have it back.” He says the battery is missing because Prugo was convinced it could be traced if he left it in. Before we leave town, Jonnie wants to stop at Best Buy and replace the battery pack. I convince him that at this point it’s probably best to get it off his hands, and I run it in to the concierge, telling him a lawyer I know will be by to pick it up later to turn it over to the police and get it back to Patridge. Soon we’re on 
the Pearblossom Highway en route to Los Angeles.
 
We stop at a gated home 30 minutes north of Hollywood with a speedboat and Jet Skis littering the yard, where we meet some of Jonnie’s homeboys, including a surfer Jonnie describes as one 
of the top marijuana farmers in Southern California, and Jordan, a half Trinidadian ex-con he’s known since childhood and whom he considers a brother. This is part reunion of survivors from the old ’hood, part going-away party, and part wake: Friends keep rolling joints, making toasts, and pouring out generous drafts into the yard for the soon-to-be dearly departed. By the next day Jonnie has turned all his possessions (including the Beamer) into cash, and he passes the attorney $2,500, saving only $500 for the tattoos he and Jordan have planned as his going-away present.
 
That night Jonnie shows up at my place with Jordan and two girls in tow, one of them, Courtney Ames, cradling a Chihuahua puppy in a white blanket. She’s wearing the rosary necklace TMZ suggested came from Lindsay Lohan. Ames insists she bought it retail.
 
It’s been a rough time for Ames. She tells me she was sentenced to 26 days jail time and drug and alcohol treatment for a recent DUI. Of the burglary charges, she’s casually dismissive. “Oh, I’m pleading not guilty to that.” She was arrested just a week ago as she was leaving home for a psychology class at a local community college. “Courtney doesn’t deserve any of this,” says Jonnie. “Seriously, her involvement is less than mine.” According to Neiers, who also denies involvement—but whose reality show is now on the rocks—Ames’ only real connection to the burglaries was that she worked at the Sagebrush Cantina with Roy Lopez Jr. Another friend claims that Ames and Prugo had been best friends, but she distanced herself after the burglaries, and a hurt Prugo ratted her out in retaliation.
 
Isaiah Negrete, the tattoo artist, arrives, lays out his kit, and be-gins to draw Jonnie and Jordan’s choice of design—vintage Colt pistols on the sides of their torsos, for easy access in the big house. Before they start, I overhear Jonnie and Courtney discussing some-thing intently, and his mood seems colored by it the rest of the evening. Later he confides to me that she is pregnant with his child. As the evening winds down, I find the young lovers a cheap hotel on the edge of Hollywood where they can spend one last night together.
 
The next day just before their noon checkout time, I pick up Jonnie and Courtney at their hotel. Jonnie is understandably glum. Unlike the rest of the crew, he has a record, and the material recovered at his apartment by the authorities goes far beyond stolen property. “There was a P226 Sig that there is no clip for, a Remington semiautomatic shotgun that was not loaded, and 
the Brian Austin Green pistol, a .380,” he says. “I ended up buying Green’s pistol because the stupidest fucking thing to do would be to let them run around with that. These kids are fucking idiots, man.”
 
He says there were also approximately 50 Xanax and five ounces of psychedelic mushrooms, bagged up as party favors, and that he bought one of the watches that came from Orlando Bloom’s house, which he will gladly return. Jonnie expects to be charged with nine felony counts. But he steadfastly denies that police recovered a bag full of stolen uncut diamonds from his house or that he was in possession of stolen jewelry he planned to fence.
 
“I can barely pay my rent. I live in a one-bedroom apartment in the ghetto. They’re trying to make me the link to the criminal underworld. I wasn’t trying to make a career out of this. I’m not into robbing people anyway. It’s not my nature,” he says. “Still, I’ll do a couple of years. It doesn’t look like anyone else is going to do any time.” When I ask what he’d like to do with the rest of his life once he gets out, he says, “I would love to be an instrument of God, and love, and of service.” Then, out of nowhere, he says, “Fuck you, Harvey Levin.”
 
As we head to the lawyer’s office and Jonnie’s ultimate date with destiny, he speed-dials seemingly everyone he’s ever met. “I’ll see ya when I see ya, dog,” he says over and over again. We rendezvous at a Pavilions Supermarket on Ventura, and Jonnie kisses Courtney one last time and climbs into his lawyer’s late model Audi coupe. Nearing the precinct, I see a phalanx of news cameras waiting. Instead of marching in the front door, the lawyer turns on a side alley and into an adjacent parking area, where he parks in a spot reserved for the mayor. Almost as soon as Jonnie lights a cigarette, a chain-link gate swings open and a hulking Mr. Clean type meets us on the other side.
 
This is Detective Goodkin, who raises his meaty hands in the air, signaling Jonnie to do the same. Goodkin tells him to turn around slowly and place his hands on the car, then they cuff him and walk him into the station. The whole thing takes maybe 30 seconds. 
Goodkin later tells me he’d been shadowing Jonnie the entire time I was with him—that Jonnie spent two hours in a gun store in Henderson, Nevada, and that they would have taken him down in a second if they hadn’t learned Jonnie planned on turning himself in. He confirms that Jonnie was right in claiming he didn’t have a cache of jewelry or uncut diamonds in his apartment, just some jewelry remnants. But he believes the drugs they found were pack-aged to sell and that Jonnie’s only telling half the story.
 
“These weren’t mastermind criminals, but they did develop a sophisticated skill set,” says Goodkin. “They were really good at stealing shit, but they had no way to monetize it. They needed a fence, and that fence was Jonnie. When Courtney began sleeping with Jonnie, he became it. Jonnie represented to these kids the one guy they could go to.” Goodkin also disputes Jonnie’s claims that while he may have bought the stolen goods, he wasn’t the connection to the Hollywood underworld. “Bloom, Patridge, and Brian Austin Green—he had their property, from three different heists. We know for a fact that he has a jeweler contact. Remember that when he’s talking to you he’s being duplicitous.”
 
“Still, he did the right thing, turning himself in,” he adds. “You know, I like Jonnie. He clearly has a code. The error he made with these kids was that even if he said, ‘If you tell anyone, I’ll fucking kill you,’ when confronted with the real trouble they are in, these kids can’t not talk.’ And it’s a silly assumption that it was only Nick Prugo.”
 
He reports that Rachel Lee, in particular, has been orchestrating a virtual online campaign to deflect attention. “She did a media attack on the Internet. She claims she turned herself in to the police—not true. She planted an Internet story saying, ‘I’m a production assistant on movies, and I worked on a straight-to-cable Lohan film, and I saw Nick Prugo in her trailer.’ She created the impression that it was an inside job. It wasn’t. None of the victims knew any of them.”
 
At this point everyone involved is doing all they can to divert blame and cast it on their former friends. “All these kids are talking,” say Goodkin. “That’s why Nick Prugo is in protective custody right now. We’ve talked to everybody, and they’re all snitching each other out. All of them are little rats.”