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Celebrities testify before grand jury in 'bling ring' burglary case

July 2, 2010 | 11:46 am

Several young celebrities, including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom, gathered at the same downtown location two weeks ago for an appearance that had nothing to do with a movie shoot or a club opening.

After receiving subpoenas, the young stars testified before a Los Angeles County Grand Jury in the case against five reputed members of the ‘bling ring,’ who authorities said broke into the stars Hollywood Hills homes and made off with millions of dollars in art, cash, clothes and jewelry.

On Friday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patricia M. Schnegg unsealed the grand jury indictment that charges five reputed members of the ring -- Nicholas Frank Prugo, Rachel Lee, Diana Tamayo, Courtney Ames and Roy Lopez -- with several counts of conspiracy to commit burglary and receiving stolen property during the year-long crime spree.

The latest twist in the case comes as the defendants were out on bail and had been preparing to answer charges filed in 2009 by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office at a preliminary hearing.

The indictment bypasses the need for a preliminary hearing during which a judge decides whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. It enables the celebrity victims to avoid testifying in a trial.

Even with the indictment, Los Angeles police detectives said the fundamental facts of the case remain the same.

The ring was largely composed of young women who attended a continuation high school in Agoura Hills and had a taste for the luxury goods and accessories worn by young celebrities.

The group initially targeted wealthy homeowners in communities in western Los Angeles County, investigators said, and then turned their attention to big names, using such websites as Twitter, TMZ.com and celebrityaddressaerial.com to learn the location of stars' homes and figure out their public appearances or travel schedules.

In addition to Hilton, Lohan and Bloom, alleged victims included Megan Fox, Brian Austin Green, Audrina Patridge, Rachel Bilson and Ashley Tisdale. All but Tisdale testified before the grand jury.

Lee, who detectives described as the ring leader, was involved in all of the crimes, Los Angeles Police Department detectives said. Others are accused of participating in one or more of the burglaries.

One such player was Alexis Neiers, the 18-year-old Calabasas woman who pursued fame on a cable TV reality show and pleaded no contest to a single felony count in connection with a home burglary. She is currently serving 180 days in Los Angeles County jail.

Convicted drug dealer Jonathan Ajar, who allegedly helped a "bling ring" sell off the stolen items, also is serving time behind bars after a no contest plea in March to several felonies.

But members of the ring got careless, according to detectives. Prugo and Lee were captured on surveillance video footage breaking into the homes of Lohan and Patridge.

Shortly afterward, in September 2009, the detectives got a big break in the case when CNN's West Coast security manager informed police that the friend of a fellow CNN employee overheard Prugo and Lee at a party "boasting" that they had done the burglaries at Patridge's and Lohan's homes earlier in 2009.

The friend, identified as protected witness two, provided links to the alleged burglars' Facebook pages, according to an affidavit filed by LAPD Det. Brett Goodkin seeking to search Prugo's home.

That same month, detectives arrested Prugo, who implicated six other suspects. Prugo, who previously was charged in connection with seven burglaries, provided the LAPD with a detailed statement about the crimes.

The home of actress Rachel Bilson was broken into three times, and "bling ring" members took a television, DVD player and up to $300,000 of Chanel merchandise, according to an LAPD search warrant affidavit.

Suspects got a hold of the house keys to Paris Hilton's residence and broke in three times, taking cash and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, police said.

In all, LAPD detectives estimate the total take by the ring at more than $3 million.

-- Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton

Photo: L.A. Times files