Members of the so-called Hollywood burglar bunch were reunited Wednesday, though the occasion was far more bitter than sweet. Seated in a drab courtroom in Los Angeles Superior Court at nine in the morning, four members of the group—who allegedly went on a nearly year-long crime spree, breaking into the homes of celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Orlando Bloom and stealing $3 million worth of loot, including designer shoes and clothing—sat in icy isolation from one another, avoiding eye contact or any other kind of exchange.
All four—18-year-olds Courtney Ames and Nicholas Prugo; 19-year-old Diana Tamayo, and Roy Lopez Jr., who is 27—who are charged with various counts of first-degree burglary for committing at least one of the 10 raids, pleaded not guilty. A preliminary hearing is set for January.
“Courtney Ames tries to be badass, she comes to court with a bouncer,” attorney Sean Erenstoft said.
Their attorneys and relatives, however, were far less discreet about the simmering rage that’s been building between the parties. Sean Erenstoft, the lawyer for Prugo, who is charged with committing eight burglaries, said later on the telephone that in court he was receiving “death glares” from Ames’ stepfather, a boxy man who wore a Tony Soprano-esque leather jacket. As for Ames herself, she was dressed in all black, with dyed hair to match (save for a bronze streak down the middle), and sat sullenly between him and a hulking, stone-faced, African-American man who was described by her lawyer as a “friend,” but seemed to function as a bodyguard.
“Courtney tries to be badass, she comes to court with a bouncer,” Erenstoft said, hours after the hearing. He added that Ames has made “terrorist threats” against Prugo—who has been deemed the rat of the group, seeing as he was the first to confess and identify the others—telling him that “snitches get stitches.”
Wednesday was the latest episode in a drama that is captivating the public and the media for its bizarreness and its implications about a celebrity-obsessed culture in which seemingly no price is too high for a taste of fame. In recent weeks, the suspected crooks—who hail from a well-to-do suburb north of Los Angeles—have become mini-celebrities themselves, lapping up the attention from the paparazzi who now regularly trail them, and appearing almost daily on TMZ.com and other celeb Web sites, as well as in cover stories in the Style section of The New York Times ( Vanity Fair is also on the case). Their lawyers, too, have been enjoying the limelight—Erenstoft, who has a deep tan, slicked-back hair, and a Dick Tracy jawline, has been on the Today show and has supplied colorful quotes (usually discrediting Ames) to a plethora of media outlets. When another accused burglarette, 18-year-old Alexis Neiers, arrived at her arraignment a few weeks ago (she also pleaded not guilty), she was trailed by the camera crew that’s taping her and her sister—Playboy model Tess Taylor—for an E! reality-show pilot.
After the court session, Neiers put her newly honed acting chops to work, delivering perfectly polished sound bytes to reporters: “This is a very difficult time for my family and myself right now,” she said. “I just want to say thank you for respecting my privacy, and I'm really looking forward to my day in court and to getting this all cleared up.”
(During Neiers’ preliminary hearing, held Tuesday, she admitted to getting sick and urinating in Orlando Bloom’s bushes, but said she was too inebriated to actually steal anything, or know why she was there. Her arraignment is set for December 15.)
On Wednesday, the kids were much less rehearsed. When called to stand, Tamayo, wearing a tight, black, pin-striped suit, tugged anxiously at her hair and inhaled deep gulps of breath. Ames never lost her listless stare into nowhere.
The only one who looked remotely camera-ready was Prugo, who has undergone a drastic makeover since the early days of the case, when his hair was dyed dark and worn in an uneven, shapeless cut. On Wednesday, new highlights and a stylish coif were on display. His baby face was covered in wisps of scruff. Wearing a dark blazer and a slightly askew lavender tie, he could have passed for a young Tom Cruise. He sat quietly in the front row, looking alternately nervous and nonchalant as he played with a silver ring on his left hand.
The actual drama of the day was short. All four suspects pleaded not guilty. Erenstoft made a motion to have Prugo tried separately from the rest of the group—arguing that Prugo’s statements have already been used in Neiers’ preliminary hearing—but was denied.
Afterward, everyone filed out of the room and dispersed in different directions. Ames sat down on a bench outside, her tall “friend” standing protectively in front of her. When this reporter went to talk to her, he put out his hand and shook his head, motioning to not come one step closer.
Ames’ lawyer, Robert Schwartz, was more approachable. “We stand behind the not guilty plea,” he said. “We believe that the evidence will eventually exonerate Courtney.”
As for Prugo, Schwartz said: “If Prugo becomes a witness against my client, we will thoroughly attack his credibility.”
When Erenstoft was told about Schwartz’s comment later, he said: “I don’t think that Courtney does herself any good when she’s already confessed to a number of crimes she’s accused of. It may sound like they’re tough-talking, but it sounds to me like she may have already confessed.”
David Diamond, the attorney for Lopez, who’s suspected in the raid on Hilton's home, said, simply: “My client, Roy Lopez, was never in or near Paris Hilton’s house, at any given time.”
Another suspect, 27-year-old Jonathan “Johnny Dangerous” Ajar, has not been directly charged with crimes related to the actual burglaries, but is facing felony weapons and drug possession charges from when authorities searched his house.
Yet to be charged is Rachel Lee, 19, who’s been characterized as the ringleader of the group, and who was arrested in October in Las Vegas, where stolen goods were discovered at her stepfather’s house. Court documents that were accidentally leaked last month indicate that Prugo has told detectives that it was Lee who chose the celebrity targets, while he would gather information and photos on the Internet. Prugo said that when he was nervous about stealing from Lohan once they’d broken in, because they’d already been captured on surveillance cameras, Lee allegedly said, “You’re already here. You might as well come inside and get something for yourself.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.