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'Bling ring' detective's work on movie could hurt prosecution's case

April 19, 2012 | 12:30 pm

Sofia Coppola is curating a new exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe

When filmmaker Sofia Coppola set out to tell the story of the “bling ring,” she wanted the movie to have an authentic, docudrama sensibility.

So Coppola reached out to Brett Goodkin, the Los Angeles Police Department detective who cracked the case of the starry-eyed youths from the San Fernando Valley. Four years ago, their lust for stardom and money led them to raid the homes of young Hollywood celebrities, making off with Paris Hilton’s designer clothes and Lindsay Lohan’s artwork.

The veteran police investigator signed on as a technical advisor to Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” even playing himself on screen. In a scene he recently filmed, he slapped handcuffs on Emma Watson, the actress playing one of the burglars Goodkin nabbed in real life.

Police officers have served as paid consultants on Hollywood projects since the dawn of the crime genre. But experts said Goodkin’s actions are highly unusual because the case is still in court, where his financial interest in the film is certain to become an issue raised by the defense.

Goodkin never notified prosecutors of his work on the movie, though his testimony is likely to be central at the trial of three remaining defendants. Informed by The Times of Goodkin’s role, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office expressed shock: “We did not know, and now that we do we have to evaluate what impact this may have.”

Legal experts said Goodkin’s consulting work could significantly complicate the prosecution’s case.

“This looks very unsavory, and it could make a big difference in attacking the credibility of the investigator,” said Thomas Mesereau, a criminal defense attorney who defended Michael Jackson in his 2005 child molestation trial. “Clearly, it presents a conflict of interest if someone’s investigation becomes oriented toward creating a story or entertainment. It’s certainly going to taint the investigation’s motives and make them look unprofessional.”

Stanley Goldman, a professor of law at Loyola Law School, called Goodkin’s involvement in Coppola’s project “a great birthday present for the defense.”

“It’s got to give the prosecutors pause as to whether they want to just try to settle this case before it gets in front of a jury,” Goldman said.

Goodkin also finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being on “The Bling Ring” payroll along with a key member of the gang, Alexis Neiers, whom Coppola has also hired as a consultant.

In a police report, Goodkin described the group’s activity this way: “While this activity started as a twisted adventure … fueled by celebrity worship, it quickly mushroomed into an organized criminal enterprise.”

Indeed, the police officer always seemed to grasp what was so tantalizing about the case, and frequently spoke to media outlets about it, including "Dateline" and Vanity Fair.

But when first contacted by The Times about the film, Goodkin was initially hesitant to discuss his Hollywood ties. “I’m distancing myself from that thing. I don’t want it to look untoward,” he explained.

He said that he informed LAPD supervisors of his work on the production in January. But an LAPD spokesman said that Goodkin is now under investigation for failing to get proper approval for his work on the film.

Asked what kind of details he provided to Coppola, he said they mostly discussed police procedures about search warrants and helicopters, and he did not reveal much information about the case itself.

“All she knew from me was very generic cop kind of stuff, ensuring that her end product was plausible,” said Goodkin, who received between $5,000 and $6,000 for his work.

Still, attorneys for at least one of the bling ring defendants expressed outrage at Goodkin's role.

“For him to be paid to play himself in a film where he is a critical witness against my client is highly inappropriate, and I’ll certainly make sure the jury knows about it,” said Robert A. Schwartz, who represents defendant Courtney Ames.

Ames, Diana Tamayo and Roy Lopez Jr. have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

Nicholas Prugo, thought to be the ringleader of the group, has already accepted a plea deal that will send him to state prison for two years. Rachel Lee, the daughter of a North Korean immigrant who allegedly masterminded the crimes with Prugo, is currently serving a four-year prison sentence.

Neiers, the subject of a 2010 E! reality show “Pretty Wild” that followed her to Hollywood clubs and on modeling gigs, is now on probation after serving 30 days of a 180-day sentence.

Coppola paid Neiers and her family for the movie rights to two years of their life stories.

“The bottom line is that Sofia Coppola was going to make this movie with or without my help, so why not give input and help her to make it a little more accurate?” said Neiers, 20.

The financial incentive to consult on the film was especially imperative for Neiers’ friend and so-called “sister,” 22-year-old Tess Taylor, who was in the grips of a heroin addiction when approached by the movie’s producers.

“Tess needed some help when she was first getting sober so she could go to Pasadena Recovery Center, and we were really blessed because they cut her a check before it was ever due,” said Neiers’ mother, Andrea Arlington, who for many years let Taylor live under her roof and served as her mother figure.

Accused bling ring member Prugo was also approached about serving as a consultant on the film for up to $20,000, but his attorney advised him not to take the money because it might affect the case.

Goodkin apparently did not share those concerns, and said he was interested in participating in the movie because he wanted to learn about the filmmaking process.

“I wanted to see what Sofia was going to do with the story. It’s interesting to see how things work in a factory town, and I’m certain I’ll never work on a movie again,” he said. “Look, it’s not like I was chosen because I am detective of the year. We don’t choose the cases we get. It’s not like there’s a character based on me. It’s not like I’m Bruce Willis.”


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-- Amy Kaufman

Photo: Sofia Coppola. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times