INSIDE STORY: From High School Students to Celebrity Burglars
By all appearances Rachel Lee, Diana Tamayo and Nicholas Prugo were typical teenagers, living in and around the affluent community of Calabasas, Calif., which is home to many Hollywood stars.
But according to authorities and sources, these teens and their circle of friends had a darker side – having launched into a year-long crime spree that targeted celebrities including Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge and Orlando Bloom in which thousands of dollars of designer clothes, jewelry, bags and other luxury items were taken.
All fingers point to 19-year-old Lee as the alleged ringleader, who had an apparent fascination with Hollywood fashion. In a sting operation Thursday, Lee, Tamayo, 19, Courtney Ames, 18, Alexis Neiers, 18, and Roy Lopez, Jr., 27, were all arrested in connection to the crimes. Nicholas Prugo, 18, was arrested last month and has been formally accused of the Lohan and Patridge burglaries. The gang allegedly located the addresses of celebrities using Hollywood star maps and the Internet, and calculated when the stars wouldn’t be home based on their appearance schedules, a source close to the case tells PEOPLE.
RELATED: Lindsay ‘Okay, But Upset’ After Apparent Burglary
Though Prugo has not yet entered a plea in his case, his attorney Sean Erenstoft stated: “I commend the LAPD for apprehending the major culprits in these capers, and I’m confident that Mr. Prugo will be found to have had a limited role in this case.”
The Student Body President & Her Privileged Pal
Lee, Tamayo and Prugo were classmates, having attended Indian Hills High School, an alternative school for at-risk students. According to the local newspaper The Acorn, Tamayo was the student body president and received a $1,500 “Future Teacher” scholarship after graduating in 2008, while Lee earned a creative arts scholarship.
Their former principal Jeanette Ober acknowledged she was aware of the news story surrounding her former students but told PEOPLE: “I will not be making any statements.”
About a year after graduating, Lee and Tamayo were arrested for shoplifting $85 worth of items from a Sephora beauty store at a local mall on July 29. Both were sentenced on Aug. 20 to a year probation, received fines and were credited with one day in jail.
A source close to the Lee family tells PEOPLE that the troubled teen and her older sister Candice were raised comfortably by a single mother, who is a successful businesswoman in Los Angeles. “Their mom provided everything they needed growing up. She raised them in nice homes,” the source says, expressing shock over Lee’s arrest. “Recently I heard that Rachel hadn’t been getting along with her mom.”
Suspect Filming a Reality Show
Giving the arrests another Hollywood twist, after Neiers posted bail, she was picked up by her sister, Playboy model Tess Taylor, who showed up at the jail early Friday morning with a camera crew in tow. Taylor and Neiers, who also uses Arlington as a last name, are the subject of a reality show pilot for E!.
E! Entertainment issued a statement that said, “Shooting began several days ago and will continue for the next few weeks. We are concerned by recent events, awaiting further details and will be monitoring the situation closely.”
An aspiring model, Neiers declared her innocence to TMZ. “The only reason they came to my house was because they thought I was holding property for Nick [Prugo], they even searched my house and found nothing. I’m innocent in all of this and feel terrible for all the people who got robbed,” she told TMZ.
A friend of Neiers tells PEOPLE the arrest was a surprise but “if you know Alexis it sort of makes sense how she could get hooked up with these guys.” The pal added: “She’s basically a spoiled rich girl, who lives to see celebrities. It’s her whole life.”
And although Courtney Ames’s involvement remains unclear, one friend says Ames was home-schooled for part of high school in Calabasas. “I know the girl, and this is not something she would do,” the friend says. “She’s not obsessed with celebrities.”
When reached by PEOPLE for comment via email, Ames’s only response was “nope BYEEEEE.”
Firearms and Drugs Found
Lee was arrested in Las Vegas, while her friends were rounded up in the Los Angeles area. Police said they recovered some of the stolen property as a result of the search warrants that were executed. They also found three firearms and a large amount of narcotics, they said.
Paris Hilton retrieved her belongings from police on Friday night.
Each of the suspects, except for Lee, was booked for residential burglary, with bail set at $50,000 each, while Lee was held on $3,000 bail for possession of stolen property. As of Saturday afternoon, Tamayo and Lopez remain behind bars. Ames and Neiers posted bail soon after their arrest, while Lee may be in the process of being transferred back to Los Angeles.
• With reporting by SARA HAMMEL, JOHNNY DODD and CYNTHIA WANG