stolen goods laid out on a table
Entertainment

Everyone Loves a Hollywood Robbery

For as long as celebrities have existed, they’ve been stolen from. And as the robberies have evolved, so has the security.
March 17, 2021, 11:00am
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A series that explores the endless appeal of the physical footprint of celebrity.

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here.

In March of 1963, a Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, newspaper reported via a wire story from UPI on a string of burglaries in New York. Over the span of a few months, a slew of celebrities, including the comedian Jerry Lewis and the actors Joan Fontaine and James Mason, had been relieved of tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry, in what the paper referred to as “Gotham Gem Thefts.” “Jewel thieves have looted an estimated $20 million from hotel rooms and apartments in the area since World War II,” the paper reported, citing a litany of crimes in affluent areas frequented by the rich and famous.

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The New York burglaries were hardly the first to make waves among Hollywood’s elite. In 1919, the silent-film star Bert Lytell was robbed of $875 in cash and $150 in goods; in 1931, movie actress Mae Murray had her home broken into. Burglars stole rugs and furs estimated to be worth $10,000.

Decades of thefts show that celebrities are naturally vulnerable to these attacks, as visible public figures with an assumed amount of wealth. But with the rise of social media and the inevitable flaunting it entails—lives filled with money, high-end clothes, cars, fancy watches, and jewelry—aspiring thieves are more tantalized and empowered than ever. In recent years, attempts to steal from the upper echelon have become even more elaborate—and, courtesy of a relentless news cycle and rabid voyeurs—infamous.

Most know the legend of the early aughts, when Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, Megan Fox, and Orlando Bloom were among the targets of the Bling Ring. The crew of seven robbed celebrities of about $3 million in personal property and tried on their clothes while they were at it. Years later, in 2016, Kim Kardashian West was the victim of an armed robbery during Paris Fashion Week at her hotel, planned according to her social media activity and, in particular, posts where she was seen showcasing her expensive jewels. (For reference, while a “burglary” refers to entering a building without permission with the sole intent to commit a crime, a “robbery” involves an attempt to harm the victim’s person.) Kardashian West was tied up, put in a bathtub, and held at gunpoint while the thieves, dressed as police, stole $10 million worth of jewelry, including her engagement ring. She had previously displayed the 20-carat ring given to her by her then-husband, Kanye West, on Instagram.

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Since then, the quiet uptick in thefts has continued. Beginning in 2017, Rihanna, Christina Millian, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, and Rams wide receiver Robert Woods were allegedly targeted by a group of 13 people in their late teens and early twenties who identified their victims via social media. These new crews took considerably more than the Bling Ring’s $3 million total, stealing $2 million worth of jewelry from Alanis Morissette, $1 million in jewels and handbags from The Real Housewives of Beverly HillsKyle Richards, and up to $200,000 in property and part of the famed watch collection of John Mayer. Dr. Dre’s home was the target of an attempted burglary this past January while he was in the hospital with a brain aneurysm. Many of these thefts reportedly took mere minutes to complete.

In an October 2018 news conference, Captain Lillian Carranza, the commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Commercial Crimes Division, said of that year’s targets, “The victims’ homes had been selected based on social media postings and touring or travel schedules of the owners. The burglars believed no one would be home and that the homes would contain sought-after valuables that they might be interested in.” (I reached out to Carranza, but she eventually stopped returning my emails.)

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Additionally, police said the celebrities were chosen after the gang members employed a tool called “flocking,” in which they troll affluent neighborhoods while dressed in expensive clothes and driving expensive cars to blend in as they suss out their next victims.

These security breaches have received almost zero sympathy from the public. When Kardashian West was robbed, she was accused of staging it. There were Halloween costumes mocking the incident. The Bling Ring saga was turned into a Sofia Coppola movie starring Emma Watson as a fictional version of the burglar and reality TV star Alexis Neiers, of “Nancy Jo, this is Alexis Neiers calling” fame. Paris Hilton, one of the most prominent victims, took part in the film—in a club scene—and even lent her home to the production, as it (and her personalized decor with her face on throw pillows) were hard to re-create.

This reflects a growing public resentment of fame, wealth, and privilege that’s erupted in the age of Fyre Fest scams and being famous for being famous. Fans nowadays are savvier about how systems of wealth, prestige, and celebrity work, and less tolerant of how celebs flaunt said wealth—and they’re perhaps less than sympathetic when a small percentage of that wealth gets taken away. Still, there’s more to these crimes than social media activity. Our celebrities struggle with something many of us take for granted: normalcy.

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Paris Hilton was still learning new things about her incidents years after they occurred in 2008. “I didn’t know they tried to take my dog. I didn’t know they were selling my things on Venice Boardwalk,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. She also didn’t know the robbers had been in her home on six separate occasions, which isn’t that hard to comprehend, considering she often left a spare key under her front doormat. Another celebrity target of the Bling Ring, Orlando Bloom, had the same fatal flaw of leaving his keys in easily accessible places.

Homes, celebrity or otherwise, are simply boxes that have openings, doors, and windows that can be breached, and it’s up to the owner to secure these openings to the best of their ability, explained Chris McGoey, a security expert.

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“Sadly, if someone wants to get in, they’re going to get in,” said Rebecca Edwards, a reporter for SafeWise, a research, testing, and review site. “If they’re willing to dedicate the time, attention, and energy to it, they can make it happen.”

Celebrities should ostensibly have advanced security systems that can thwart any burglar. But many times, they install these systems only after they have suffered a break-in. After Kardashian West was robbed, she armed her home with 24/7 guards who check on even her closest family members as if they’re about to enter the White House. But erecting a fortress is neither practical nor desirable for many—even stars. Aside from the cost and nuisance of never being alone, Edwards said, “I think that we can go overboard and that can build into our own paranoia where you got used to having [security] 24/7, and then [when] that’s something you couldn’t afford anymore, or it wasn’t practical, you would feel really vulnerable without that. And, you’re playing head games with your own security perception, like your sense of safety.”

It’s possible that these stars, despite having more reasons to button up than the average person, are seeking normalcy and end up being more reactive than proactive.

This raises the question: What would happen to Kim K should this overprotective security system suddenly not be there? It depends. “If she wants to continue that lifestyle, she has to go to that expense and that extreme to protect herself and her family,” McGoey said.

Kardashian West isn’t the only celebrity who reacted to a burglary. When Kyle Richards was burglarized, she told People she was shocked because she had “very tall gates on the house, a state-of-the-art home security system, and my housekeeper was sleeping there at the time. I thought, ‘I don’t believe that, that’s not possible.’” But, as Edwards warned, Richards’s home wasn’t as secure as she thought. The alarm system wasn’t engaged because it was missing a panel from installation. Richards has since upgraded with all-day alarms, along with working cameras, five dogs, and “two armed guards on the property.”

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Ellen DeGeneres and her wife Portia de Rossi also took the armed guard route after their home was burglarized. This past July, TMZ reported that the couple got “a new security company, installing laser sensors and cameras around the entire property and hiring armed patrol guards.” After his home was targeted in 2018, LeBron James hired at least 10 armed guards to roam his residence at all times. Celebrities often have more than the normal amount of people entering and exiting their homes, leaving room for the occasional window or door to remain unlocked, Edwards explained, or someone could simply forget to set the alarm. It’s possible that these stars, despite having more reasons to button up than the average person, are seeking normalcy and end up being more reactive than proactive.

Whether they’ve been burglarized or not, Robert Siciliano, an expert on personal and home security, told Vulture that since celebrities are so easy to track—and even to track down, via their addresses on star maps—many go to extremes to maintain privacy. “[Celebrities] begin to rent properties under their name, but they live at an address that’s listed under their agent’s cousin’s name. So they actively make an effort to be anonymous in a number of different ways,” Siciliano said. “It often takes something bad, something tragic, to occur before people recognize they need to make a change in their life or their lifestyle.”

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Larsa Pippen, Scottie Pippen’s ex-wife—and the Kardashian sisters’ estranged friend—said she was forced out of her home before being robbed. The robbery, which happened in October 2020, is peculiar in its own way. Pippen reportedly had a stalker in Los Angeles, so she went to Miami for a few days; during this time, burglars foiled her elaborate security system by cutting the electricity to her entire block, and made off with various high-end and personal items. Pippen told the Hollywood Raw podcast that her immediate reaction was to keep a shotgun on every level of her home to keep her family safe. And, so far, so good.

Stalking is another phenomenon related to, but not always connected with, theft, that plagues the celebrity community. It’s another way to feel close to fame while maintaining some sense of anonymity. Even straight-up burglars, McGoey said, are often seeking out more than just material things: They’re seeking an experience. “They’re star-struck and they want to go inside and mingle in their home and sit in their chairs and put on their clothes or eat their food,” McGoey explained. (That said, other burglars, especially in the post–Bling Ring universe, are clearly more keen to get the goods and keep it moving without experiencing the joy of luxury living.)

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Hilton said the most “bizarre” aspect of the whole ordeal was the apparent need of the Ring to experience her celebrity. “They were so obsessed that they just wanted to steal our lives. It’s a scary world we’re growing up in now,” she said. A similar situation occurred in 2017. A woman broke into Drake’s home in Hidden Hills to wear his hoodies and drink his beverages. That’s it.

All provoke different levels of concern from the public; while some feel a sense of indifference when a celeb’s material things are stolen, there’s more of an emotional connection when the threat is to the person’s physical self. Take Kardashian West; initially, people rolled their eyes at her attack when it seemed she was simply robbed after publicizing her jewels. But the narrative changed when she explained just how traumatizing the experience was on Keeping Up With the Kardashians—that it was not just her things that had been stolen, but her personhood violated.

These robberies and burglaries persist, and the way we take them in through social media and headlines becomes more up-to-the-minute and precise, leaving more openings for security to be breached.

The experts VICE spoke with claimed that the biggest defense against being burgled is for celebs to stop posting their whereabouts on social media, but that can’t be their only tactic. According to McGoey, they need to also commit to a lifestyle of proactive security. “Very few are willing to make that commitment unless they’ve had close calls or they’ve had some real scares, and then they might become committed to it,” he said. “But most of them become lax after a while. And then they’re susceptible again.”

They do, of course, have a more drastic option.

“Security drones,” said Edwards. They don’t need to be manned by anyone, and at $10,000 a pop, “you set [them] at different access points, kind of like motion sensors throughout the property. And when motion or light or whatever is detected that isn’t supposed to be detected, the drones come out of their little bag, like a little nest where they charge, and they fly out to whatever sensor is going off. And it gives you live video coverage of what’s happening.”

That’s an extreme solution, but if celebrities want safety, then extreme is the least they can do.

Follow Mariah Smith on Twitter.