Channel 4 documentary 'Bling Ring' reveals truth behind gang who burgled celebrity homes

Channel 4 documentary ‘Bling Ring’ reveals truth behind gang who burgled celebrity homes

It was the crime spree that sent Hollywood reeling. Over a period of 10 months, a host of stars fell victim to a string of burglaries in the Hollywood hills, the burglars making off with around $3m (£2.3m) in cash, jewellery, art and designer clothes.

But the culprits were not professional thieves, and these were no Ocean’s 11-style heists, meticulously planned and executed. Instead, the burglars were a group of celebrity-obsessed teenagers, who used social media to identify when the stars would be out of town and their homes would be standing empty.

Now, this astonishing true story is to be told in a three-part Channel 4 series, The Bling Ring. The Bling Ring was one of the names given to the group when their burglaries first made headlines, alongside The Burglar Bunch and the Hollywood Hills Burglars.

It is not the first time their exploits have been captured on film. A 2011 TV film, also The Bling Ringdramatised their story, as did a 2013 film, also The Bling Ringdirected by Sofia Coppola and with Harry Potter star Emma Watson playing one of the gang.

But whereas those films fictionalised their exploits, including changing the names of the gang members, and were criticised for taking a Hollywood-style approach to the truth, Channel 4’s documentary version does its best to uncover the truth.

Featuring interviews with gang members, as well as with police and other experts, The Bling Ring aims to give the definitive account of how a group of teenagers terrorised Hollywood and left stars wondering whether they would be next.

The bulk of the gang were from the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, where average incomes are more than double the US average. Rachel Lee, the ringleader, had won a creative arts scholarship despite being expelled from another high school, and was said to have been obsessed with reality television.

She had befriended Nick Prugo when he started at the high school – following his own expulsion – where Diana Tamayo was student body president. Lee and Prugo apparently bonded over their interest in fashion and celebrities. Alexis Neiers and Courtney Ames were part of Lee’s circle, while Roy Lopez worked with Ames in a restaurant. Ames’ boyfriend, Johnny Ajar, sold some of the stolen items, but is not thought to have taken part in any of the burglaries.

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The gang used social media to discover their victim’s schedules and Google Maps to find the best routes into their properties. Their first victim, in October 2008, was socialite and hotel heiress Paris Hilton, apparently chosen because the gang thought she was likely to leave cash lying around and to leave her door unlocked.

As it happened, her door was unlocked, although the gang had found her key under a doormat anyway. They made off with clothes and personal items, Lee rifling through Hilton’s belongings while Prugo acted as look-out.

They were to return to Hilton’s home on at least four more occasions, although it was only when Lopez stole around $2m worth of jewellery, cash and clothes that she realised she had been burgled.

Over the next 10 months, the gang burgled the homes of a roster of celebrities, including Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox and her then boyfriend, Beverly Hills 90210 actor Brian Austin Green; O.C. actor Rachel Bilson and reality TV star Audrina Patridge, some of them on more than one occasion. The gang gained access through unlocked doors, cutting through security fences and, in one burglary, Tamayo crawled through a pet flap.

But it was breaking into Lindsay Lohan’s home in August 2009 that was to lead to their downfall. Prugo’s image was captured on a surveillance camera. He was traced, quickly confessed, and police trawled his social media to identify other members of the gang.

Although all the Bling Ring initially pleaded not guilty, they all eventually changed their pleas to no contest, accepting their conviction but without an admission of guilt.

Lee, the alleged mastermind, received the harshest sentence of four years, although she served just 16 months. Prugo served a year of his two year sentence, while Neiers served 30 days of a 180-day sentence.
Ajar, who also pleaded no contest to selling cocaine and possessing a firearm – a handgun taken from Brian Austin Green’s home – served just under a year of a three-year sentence. Tamayo, Ames and Lopez were both sentenced to probation, with Tamayo and Ames also ordered to do community service.

The gang subsequently went their separate ways and have largely tried to avoid the spotlight. Lee trained as a hair stylist, while Neiers became a counsellor at a drug rehab centre. Ames went back to college, Tamayo embarked on a career in fitness and nutrition, Lopez reportedly moved to Texas and Ajar worked in live events.

Prugo has found it hardest to stay out of trouble. He was briefly returned to prison in 2014 for violating parole, and a year later was put on probation for stalking a Hollywood beautician. For him, escaping the shadow of the Bling Ring has proved no easy task.

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