LOS ANGELES (WASHINGTON POST) - In the ritzy Los Angeles-area neighbourhoods inhabited by celebrities and professional athletes, the chances of a luxury car carrying well-dressed passengers raising any sort of alarm are slim.
It was by using this disguise that a crew suspected of burglarising various residences belonging to high-profile singers, actresses, athletes and Hollywood producers were able to go undetected as they scouted potential targets and carried out organised break-ins, according to Los Angeles police.
But the police announced on Tuesday (Oct 2) they had arrested four people who allegedly looted the homes of celebrities, such as singers Rihanna and Christina Milian, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Robert Woods.
The police believe the suspects also had plans to target Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, as well as actors Viola Davis and Matt Damon.
"Initially, it was believed these homes were being burglarised at random," Captain Lillian Carranza, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Commercial Crimes Division, told reporters. "However, detectives learned this was not the case."
The suspects, Ms Carranza said, belong to a "small specialised group of gang members and associates," who are believed to be responsible for at least two dozen other burglaries and taking property - ranging from expensive watches to firearms - worth millions of dollars. The police also recovered US$50,000 (S$69,000) in cash.
Additionally, the authorities said it appeared the thieves had more burglaries planned. A search of one of the suspects' homes revealed a list of potential targets and their addresses, including James, Davis and Damon, Ms Carranza said. She added that the people on this list have been contacted and warned.
An investigation is ongoing and the police expect more arrests to be made.
The alleged thieves described their strategy as "flocking," Ms Carranza said."They flock like birds to areas where the rich and famous resided," she said.
Targets were selected "based on social media postings and touring or travel schedules," Ms Carranza said. Using that information, they knew when the homes would likely be empty, she said.
After scouting the homes in their nice shirts and cars, the police allege the suspects would switch to a larger vehicle and swap their button-downs for hoodies to carry out the burglary.
"One burglar knocks on the front of the door, testing the premises to see if anybody would answer," Ms Carranza said. If there was no answer, the thieves would enter the home through a window or door and make a beeline for the master bedroom, she said.
They would then "search for specific items" they could "easily carry out," such as money, jewellery, firearms and watches, Ms Carranza said.
She added, "They usually exited the home in minutes, very often taking flight before the alarm company could reach out and notify the homeowner or the police department."
Last Thursday (Sept 27), however, when Woods's Woodland Hills home was being broken into while he played against the Minnesota Vikings at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a neighbour witnessed the suspects fleeing into their getaway vehicle and called the police, Ms Carranza said.
Shortly after, the police stopped the vehicle in the south Los Angeles area for an unrelated incident, but noticed a firearm and "what appeared to be stolen property in the vehicle," Ms Carranza said.
Two 19-year-olds, Tyress Williams and Jshawne Daniels, and Damaji Hall, 18, were arrested on suspicion of burglary, the police said. Hall's mother, Ashle Hall, 34, was also later arrested on suspicion of grand theft.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office announced on Tuesday that Williams was being charged with four felony counts of first-degree residential burglary in connection with breaking into homes owned by Rihanna, Puig, Woods and singer Tota Matthieu.
Williams was arraigned on Tuesday and pleaded not guilty, the Associated Press reported. Charges were not immediately filed against the other three suspects who remain in jail, according to the AP.
Over the past two years, there have been a rash of burglaries involving celebrity homes in the Los Angeles area, according to the LA Times.
In 2017, Grammy Award-winning singer Alanis Morissette's Brentwood mansion was broken into and US$2 million in jewellery was taken, the LA Times reported.
A month later, then Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Young came home from a game against the Orlando Magic to find that his Sherman Oaks home had been burglarised, ESPN reported. According to the LA Times, nearly US$500,000 in valuables were taken.
More recently, there have also been reports that rappers Wiz Khalifa and Post Malone were hit by thieves.