Legacy of the Bling Ring: When Stealing From the Rich and Famous Had Its Own Moment in the Spotlight

What now is widely considered just a gross violation became a bizarre Hollywood spectacle, feature-film treatment included

By Natalie Finn Jul 21, 2017 2:00 PMTags
Bling Ring, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel BilsonMelissa Hebeler / E! Illustration

Almost nine years ago, a handful of kids from a really nice part of the San Fernando Valley got it into their heads that crime paid.

Or at least that crime could help them dress like Paris Hilton.

And so in October 2008, Rachel Lee and Nicholas Prugo set off for Hilton's $5.9 million home in a gated community bridged between Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks, Calif., after finding her address online. Not having anything plausible to tell a security guard, they scaled a hill behind the development to access the neighborhood.

They rang the heiress' doorbell to see if she was home, figuring at least they could get a sighting in if she was there. No answer, so they looked under the mat and actually found a spare key to the front door. So in they went and Lee treated herself to her own gifting suite in Hilton's closet. She and Prugo also stole about $1,800 apiece, cash they'd found sitting in Paris' various purses, and he swiped a bottle of Grey Goose vodka on the way out.

Reality Stars Who Have Been Behind Bars

"We wouldn't be masked, we wouldn't be in gloves. We wouldn't be conspicuous—we'd be just natural-looking so if anything ever happened we'd just be like, what? We're normal kids. It wasn't that we were criminals," Prugo later told Nancy Jo Sales, author of The Bling Ring, which in turn inspired Sofia Coppola's 2013 film of the same name starring Emma Watson—which is not to be confused with the 2011 Lifetime movie of the same name.

Yet of course they were criminals, ones who with their aspirant blend of audacity, greed, cunning and, ultimately, stupidity caused quite a stir, enough so that they ended up with far more fame than their actions deserved. But if achieving their own celebrity was one of their goals, then they hit the nail on the head by choosing actual celebrities as their victims.

Prugo would tell Sales that Lee was far more ambitious than he was as far as stealing items went, and that he was mainly trying to keep her happy because he liked her, but his conscience didn't seem to be eating at him all that much.

Over the next 10 months, Prugo, Lee and sometimes a few of their pals would break into homes belonging to Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, Brian Austin Green and Audrina Patridge, stealing more than $3 million in cash, clothes, jewelry and other personal items, including a handgun belonging to Green.

Which, ironically, was all done in an attempt to look classy, so far as the way in which celebs with all their monetary resources can at least buy the material trappings of class.

They went back to Hilton's house four more times, including once when, Prugo says, he snorted cocaine that he found there. Their final visit was on Dec. 19, 2008, as Hilton had apparently never even noticed that anything was missing the previous times. But on that last visit, Roy Lopez Jr., a friend of another girl who started coming along, Courtney Ames, stole a reported $2 million worth of jewelry, which he carried out in a Louis Vuitton bag. (Hilton later let Coppola film inside her home.)

Most Expensive Celebrity-Owned Jewelry

Patridge's home was burglarized on Feb. 22, 2009, and The Hills star later estimated they stole about $43,000 worth of stuff, including jewelry that had been her great-grandma's. "Rachel Lee was a big fan of me," she told Vanity Fair, saying she'd heard that from the cops. "I was her target. She's a little obsessed girl, I gotta tell you. She's going to get what she deserves." Patridge had posted surveillance video from that night on her website in hopes someone could help identify the culprits.

Bilson's home was burglarized six times between April and May 2009, with thieves making off with $130,000 worth of property, according to police.

Alexis Neiers, whose name became the most recognized thanks to her short-lived E! series Pretty Wild (which was in production before she was linked to any crime), said that she was wasted and didn't know what her friends—Prugo, Lee and Diana Tamayo—were up to when they drove up to what turned out to be Bloom's home in the Hollywood Hills on July 13, 2009, though she knew that the trio had been burglarizing celebrities' homes.

She was reluctant to go in, she claimed, but she did.

Ian Gavan/Getty Images

According to Neier's account, Prugo cut a hole in a wire fence around the property, they crawled through it and an unlocked back door did the rest. According to Sales' Vanity Fair profile that spawned The Bling Ring, Prugo, Tamayo and Lee stole $500,000 in Rolex watches, Louis Vuitton luggage, clothing and artwork from the British actor, while the intoxicated Neiers went outside and threw up.

"I'm a firm believer in Karma," Neiers later told Sales, "and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I see myself being like an Angelina Jolie, but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet. God didn't give me these talents and looks to just sit around being a model or being famous. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country, for all I know."

Untangling the Kardashian Real Estate Empire: A Comprehensive Guide to the Family's Vast Array of Homes

Ultimately, she was trying to stay out of jail, because the group's crime spree caught up with them at the end of the summer.

Lee, Prugo and Tamayo burgled Lohan's house on Aug. 23, 2009, and three days later the LAPD shared surveillance video of the break-in with TMZ, which when combined with Patridge's video (also picked up by TMZ) helped with the conclusion that the same people had hit both houses. Since Lee and Prugo hadn't exactly kept quiet about their exploits, tips started to come in and the rest was textbook detective work history. 

Prugo, who was arrested on Sept. 17, 2009, and in a few weeks time confessed to everything, including crimes that authorities hadn't even connected him to. He told the cops that Lee was the mastermind, she being the one who admired the famous ladies' designer wardrobes so much. (He said Lee was interested in Miranda Kerr's and Megan Fox's clothes when they hit Bloom's and Green's places.) He ended up charged with seven counts of residential burglary.

At Bloom's house, "Alexis grabbed a Louis Vuitton laptop-size bag and she was rocking it as a purse. Miranda Kerr had a dress there by Alex Perry—like, a one-of-a-kind runway dress. She took that," Prugo told Sales.

Mug Shot Mania

Neiers was arrested on Oct. 22, 2009, and charged with one count of residential burglary for the Bloom break-in. Ames and Lopez were also charged with one count apiece of residential burglary, for Hilton's house. (Paris, meanwhile, got most of her jewelry back.) Tamayo was charged with two counts of residential burglary of Lohan's house and attempted burglary for an aborted attempt to break into Ashley Tisdale's place. The High School Musical star's friend was at the house at the time.

Lee, who reportedly asked police, "What did Lindsay say?" when a detective told her that she had spoken to all of the victims, was charged with three counts of residential burglary, for Hilton, Patridge and Lohan.

They had sold off some of the goods, including Green's gun, to club promoter and ex-con Johnny Ajar, who was later arrested and charged with possession of narcotics and a firearm. 

Celebrity Mega Mansions

Here's how it all played out with the courts:

• Neiers, facing a maximum of six years in prison, pleaded no contest in May 2010 to residential burglary and was sentenced to six months in county jail, a two-year suspended sentence and three years of probation, as well as ordered to pay restitution to Bloom. She ultimately spent 30 days in jail.

She battled substance abuse but sought treatment and ended up meeting the man who would become her husband in AA. She and Evan Haines married in April 2012 and are now parents of a daughter, Harper.


• In October 2011, Lee pleaded no contest to burglarizing Patridge's home and was sentenced to four years in state prison. (The Lohan-related charge had been dismissed, as were charges of conspiracy to commit burglary and receiving stolen property.) She was granted parole on March 28, 2013.

• Prugo pleaded guilty to two counts of residential burglary and was sentenced to two years in prison; he was released after a year with credits for good behavior and time served. However, he was sentenced to 160 days in jail in 2014 for violating his parole—an infraction later connected to him being charged 2015 with solicitation to commit sexual assault and with three counts of stalking for his alleged role in a plot to hire a person to rape a female acquaintance. In 2016 Prugo pleaded guilty to misdemeanor stalking and was sentenced to three years of probation. (A judge dismissed the solicitation charge due to insufficient evidence.)

Alexis Neiers Talks The Bling Ring and Past Substance Abuse: "I Thought I Was Going to Die a Junkie"

• Tamayo pleaded no contest to one count of burglary and was sentenced to three years of probation and 60 days of community service. When The Daily Beast reached out to her in 2013, she texted, "Hi, I have chosen not to talk to any media because I want that to be in my past. But I will say that my life has changed. I've found God and starting to get my career with fitness and nutrition going. Thank you, have a beautiful day."

• Ames pleaded no contest to burglary and was sentenced to three years of probation and 60 days of community service.

• Lopez Jr. pleaded no contest to receiving stolen property and was sentenced to three years of probation and time served.

"When I was in California, the Bling Ring thing kind of followed me," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2013 from Texas, where he was working in an oil field. "I went to apply for a job, and some girl was like, 'You're the guy from TMZ.' But out here, nobody knows about it. Even my parole officer was like, 'Really? You were a part of that? Do I have to worry about A Current Affair coming to my office?"

• Ajar pleaded no contest to possession of cocaine for sale, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and one count of receiving stolen property. He was sentenced to three years in prison in 2010 but was out the following year.

Getty Images; Jennifer Graylock/INFphoto.com

Now, these kids didn't invent crime. They weren't even particularly good at crime, nor were they suave cat burglars, like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Their thieving ways were soon found out. But they did apparently revive the notion that committing crimes against celebrities, to steal from the rich and give to themselves, might be a good way to experience a few thrills, get their hands on a little fast cash and maybe acquire a designer coat or some diamonds along the way.

Lack of glamorous fates aside, they made headlines—and got a slick, zeitgeisty movie made about them for their efforts. Though by the time the film came out, everyone who helped contribute to thickening the plot was either hoping to distance themselves or had at leaset gained a little perspective.

American Zoetrope

"This obsession is what makes the Bling Ring so prevalent almost 5 years after the initial robbery took place and it is because, I believe, that a majority of society is just as sick as these teens were," Neiers wrote on her blog in 2013 when The Bling Ring opened. "We are obsessed, I believe because we want an inside look into the real life of these celebrities and we enjoy publicly scrutinizing people because they 'sin' differently then we do. It is a method of distracting us from having to look at our own actions and sick behavioral patterns. The story of teens robing [sic] the homes of celebrities is artificial and has no real depth and substance and I can only hope that Ms. Coppola decides to shed light to this truth."

One of the investigators who worked on the case consulted on Coppola's film, but she maintained that she wasn't trying to tell the story exactly as it was. "It's not a documentary," she told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival, where The Bling Ring premiered in 2013. "We made a movie, and I'm not too concerned with [the real-life bling ring's] reaction."

Alas, there's always someone (or a bunch of people) who think they can take an idea and improve on it.

Stars and Their Cars

When Miley Cyrus' $100,000 Maserati was stolen in May 2014, along with some jewelry, the culprits were rumored to have been inspired by the Bling Ring, if not their glamorous fates. But the law caught up with Tyler Ross, who was sentenced to five years in prison, and Naomi Charles, who got a year in county jail. The following year, Rusty Edward Sellner was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading no contest to residential burglary for a December 2014 break-in at Miley's house.

She has since sold the house for $6 million, having put it on the market perhaps not coincidentally in January 2015.

More recently, however, another string of burglaries has been roiling the rich and richer, encompassing actors, athletes and musicians. A reported $200,000 worth of property was lifted from Nicki Minaj's L.A. home in February, a week before a reported $2 million worth of jewelry was stolen from a safe at Alanis Morissette's house. Also that month L.A. Dodgers star Yasiel Puig reported a burglary at his Sherman Oaks home and $170,000 worth of stolen goods, while now former Lakers star Nick Young reported $500,000 worth of jewelry and other valuables stolen from his house. Kendall Jenner had $200,000 worth of jewelry stolen on March 16, and then Jaime Pressly's home was burglarized days later.

Emmy Rossum's home was then burglarized sometime between March 22 and March 24 while she was away, with $150,000 worth of jewelry being reported stolen from two different safes. Then, sometime between May 27 and June 6, there was a break-in at David Spade's home and a reported $80,000 worth of items were taken. None of the celebrities seem to have been at home when the burglaries occurred.

Police have not said whether any of these crimes appear to be connected.

How Celebrity Victims of the Hollywood Crime Wave Are Fighting Back—and Why They Should Be Careful About Social Media

But despite the "Bling Ring" proving that if a celebrity leaves his door open, someone just might walk right in, people still don't tend to take preventative security measures until it's too late.

"Celebrities are definitely easy targets," celebrity security expert Mark Chinapen, CEO of event services company Big Time Affairs, told E! News in March. "Most celebrities are just like most people—they don't think anything will happen to them until something does."

American Zoetrope

Meanwhile, it was just general visibility and the seemingly enviable glitz of the Hollywood party scene, dominated by the likes of Hilton and Lohan at the time, that was all the rage when Lee, Prugo and their pals tried to nab a piece of the pie for themselves in 2008 and 2009. Now it's social media and the Instagram life that is said to be leaving would-be thieves slavering.

But does that mean no famous person should ever show off (or just take a simple photograph) of her surroundings or some of their stuff?

Asked by BBC News in 2013 if she thought the celebrity lifestyle was to blame for other people coveting the celebrity lifestyle, Emma Watson admitted that was an interesting question.

"I don't think anyone's really to blame, necessarily," she said, thoughtfully, "because if the public is demanding a certain thing then that's kind of what the media and, therefore, what celebrities are going to supply as a result. I do think...celebrity culture's definitely got to fever pitch sort of level. But I don't know if I would particularly point the finger at any particular party, it's just something that's evolved out of our culture, for whatever reason."

Watson was also asked if she could picture a Bling Ring 2.0 scenario ever happening, even if extra security measures were put in place.

"Definitely," she said, pointing to the disappearance of some diamonds (not hers) in Cannes while she was there promoting the film. "Heists go back a long way and will always continue to happen. I think, um...yeah, I do. I do think it could keep happening, yeah."