Robbing the Rich in L.A.

The latest Los Angeles crime spree might make a good caper movie. A crew of two, maybe three, shadowy burglars figures out how to break into million-dollar mansions dotting the pricey hillsides above L.A. Clad in gloves and ski masks, the crooks case the homes of the rich and absent, then skirt the security systems by climbing in alarm-free second-story windows before quickly grabbing cash, jewels and the occasional rare book. If the stuff's in a unanchored safe, they just pick it up and go. Los Angeles Police Department detectives think the crew has struck more than 50 times since late last fall. The haul so far: about $7 million and counting.

Last week, baffled L.A. police announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the real-life gang the locals are beginning to give Hollywood names like "Ocean's Eleven" or "Burglars to the Stars." They've struck fear among the homeowners of posh communities such as Bel-Air, Brentwood, Encino and Holmby Hills, who have long assumed that elaborate surveillance systems and private security patrols would shield them against this sort of intrusion. "They are professional, deliberate and speedy," says L.A. city councilman Jack Weiss, who represents some of the hardest-hit hillside neighborhoods, whose winding roads and tall hedges have made it harder to spot the perps. "The irony is that the relative isolation of the homes in these communities has unfortunately created the opportunity for these guys."

Police won't name names, but the weekend of the Grammy Awards, the bold crooks busted into the empty Hollywood Hills residence of country stars Faith Hill and husband Tim McGraw, who happened to be at another home of theirs in Nashville. They also visited the home of former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing and her husband, Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, according to a Los Angeles Times report. The burglary crew also scored at the Hollywood Hills home of Duran Duran bassist John Taylor and his wife, Juicy Couture cofounder Gela Nash-Taylor. And last January, the thieves reportedly lifted a cool half million in cash and jewelry from the Bel-Air digs of Los Angeles Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley.

The wealthy L.A. neighborhoods are a "target-rich environment" for burglars, says Kenneth Garner, an LAPD deputy chief with a gift for understatement. Indeed, this territory is home to some of the priciest real estate in the country. In Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, Bel-Air and Brentwood, houses can cost $3 million and up; swimming pools, art collections, Porsches, Lamborghinis and Bentleys abound. Of course there are less well-heeled residents, too, who got in before the market went berserk. But then there's William Randolph Hearst's 29-bedroom Beverly Hills estate, which reappeared on the market recently for $165 million—a record U.S. asking price. Not bad for house made of pink stucco.

Tracking the burglars hasn't been easy. "They seem to know when people aren't home," says Steve Twining, president of the Bel-Air Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council, a residential advisory group. Police aren't sure how the burglars pick the houses—or how they are figuring out when residents will be away. The high hedges and big properties make it easier to case a house at night without being seen. And while most of the houses have sophisticated alarm systems, people often don't bother turning them on when they leave, says LAPD's Garner.

The LAPD's West Division has put a task force of 10-plus detectives on the case; plainclothes patrols have joined the chase. This week police began distributing photos from a video that charts one of the gang's few mistakes. It shows men without masks and was apparently taken by a surveillance cam outside a home shortly before it was robbed. The pictures show two muscular African-American men in their 20s. "We think in the next couple of weeks, we'll get a break and identify the suspects," says the LAPD's Garner. Homeowners are also pitching in. Twining says his group just bought the LAPD two infrared scopes—the better to see warm bodies moving around in the dark. And a security company is stationing cameras on the roads leading to and from Bel-Air hoping to catch a glimpse of the thieves' car the next time they pay a visit.

This is hardly the first time L.A.'s tony temples have been targeted for theft. Garner says new rings pop up every "four or five years"—carrying out a string of robberies that ends when they either get caught or move on. A Spaniard named Roberto Caveda was recently on trial in L.A. on charges related to what prosecutors contend was a spree of 28 break-ins between 2004 and 2006 that grossed about $15 million (a price tag boosted by the heist of a $10 million painting by Edgar Degas). Police say Caveda—also called Ignacio del Rio, since authorities still aren't sure of his real name—considered himself the "James Bond of the burglary world." On Tuesday, a jury convicted him on all counts, including burglary, attempted burglary and receiving stolen property. (He plans to appeal, says his lawyer, Mark Bledstein). Cops are hoping the "Ocean's Eleven" crew will soon meet the same fate.