At around 2am on the night of 10 October last year, a slumbering Los Angeles suburb was disturbed by sirens, as LAPD squad cars converged on a mansion in the well-heeled neighbourhood of Calabasas, just over the hills from Malibu. The emergency services had fielded a 911 call claiming shots had been fired in the house; the gunman, they were told, was threatening residents in the smart gated community, and had vowed to turn his weapon on the police if they showed up. Armed officers swept the 1.3-acre property and those next door, but found nothing. The owner of the 10,000sq ft house – 18-year-old Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber – was away on tour. The 911 call was a hoax, and Bieber the latest victim of a dangerously popular prank: ‘celebrity swatting’.
Swatting was once a practical joke played by online gamers: if a Call of Duty mission went badly, a particularly vindictive player might place a hoax call to the police, bringing a tooled-up SWAT team to the door of his or her opponents.
Now, however, the joke is on Hollywood’s biggest stars. It began with a smattering of incidents: a fake hostage situation at Miley Cyrus’s home in August, another at Charlie Sheen’s. Police helicopters swarmed over Ashton Kutcher’s place in October, at a cost of $10,000 (Dhs36,731) to taxpayers. And then, in November, a caller alleged a woman was tied up with duct tape in one of Simon Cowell’s six bathrooms.
In December, Hollywood police arrested the 12-year-old boy responsible for the Bieber and Kutcher calls, and it seemed the fad might have faded. But then, in mid-January, the homes of Tom Cruise, Chris Brown and the Kardashian family were all “swatted” within five days of one another. After machine gun-toting cops closed down her street, Kim Kardashian’s half-sister and fellow reality star Kendall Jenner tweeted, “kids are really stupid. You know you can get arrested for something like this? #pointless lol”.
It’s probably no coincidence that Bieber, Kutcher and Cyrus have all appeared on the MTV show Punk’d, in which celebrities prank each other with rarely hilarious results. But the LAPD is not amused. The department has had to prepare its officers to anticipate false alarms when they answer an emergency call.
Fearing the spread of the phenomenon, the city’s police chief Charlie Beck has demanded tighter laws and stricter punishment for the perpetrators.
In 2009 a Massachusetts teenager was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his part in more than 250 swatting incidents, but the California boy is reportedly more likely to receive counselling than jail time. To place the calls, he used a device designed to help deaf people send phone messages by typing text. Men can alter their voices to sound like women. Hacking software can bounce calls through several internet providers to disguise its origins. All this technology is freely available online.
Celebrities get to fly in first class, live in spectacular homes and enjoy the adulation of millions. But these days they also have to endure an increasingly bizarre selection of criminal behaviour. Lisa Bloom is a leading Los Angeles lawyer who has represented a number of high-profile clients, including Lindsay Lohan’s father and Mel Gibson’s ex-girlfriend. “We’re seeing a perfect storm of factors,” she says. “There’s now unprecedented access to information via the Internet: we can go online and find out people’s addresses and what they’re doing minute-by-minute.
“At the same time there’s a huge rise in the level of interest in celebrities. People have always been interested in movie stars, but it used to be that they would do a movie and then be hidden behind the curtains of their homes. Now we have entire TV networks devoted to celebrity news. American college students can name more Kardashians than they can wars we’re in. Celebrities are expected not just to make movies, but to be out there doing public appearances, TV shows, tweeting, posting on Facebook and Instagram. So people think they’re really connected to their favourite stars, that they’re their friends.”
Between October 2008 and August 2009, a handful of bored, moderately well-off 18- and 19-year-olds from Los Angeles researched celebrities’ addresses online, used Twitter and TMZ to figure out when those celebrities would be out of town, and then burgled their homes.
The victims of the so-called “Bling Ring” included Lohan, Rachel Bilson of The OC and Megan Fox. In less than a year, the teenagers stole possessions worth approximately $3m (Dhs11m); mostly, they were taken with the trappings of celebrity: expensive jewellery and make-up, designer clothing, Louis Vuitton luggage.
One of their first marks was Paris Hilton, because, they later admitted, they considered her sufficiently “dumb” to leave her house unlocked. In fact, they found her front-door key under the mat. Hilton was burgled at least five times, Bilson six. After a single night at Orlando Bloom’s, the gang walked away with $500,000 (Dhs1.8m) worth of watches, clothes and art. They’d allegedly targeted Bloom because his then-girlfriend, now-wife Miranda Kerr was a Victoria’s Secret model, and ringleader Rachel Lee wanted some new underwear.
Winton, whose newspaper coined the “Bling Ring” moniker, believes the perpetrators of these strange new offences are fixated primarily on their quarries’ stardom. “They commit the crimes not for normal criminal motives,” he says, “but for the celebrity status of the victims. In the case of the Bling Ring, they were less interested in what they got than who they got it from.”
The teenagers were finally hoist with their own petard, when Lohan and reality TV star Audina Patridge released security footage of the burglaries at their homes to TMZ, which published the clips, leading to the suspects’ identification. Police also used Facebook to trace the connections between members of the gang, who, it turned out, were not so far removed from the celebrities they’d victimised.
Almost all of them were from wealthy Calabasas. One, Alexis Neiers, now 21, was filming her own reality show at the time of the robberies. She plainly confused herself with a star, telling an interviewer before her arraignment in 2009, “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 organisation. I want to lead a country, for all I know.”
In a way, Neiers is a celebrity now. The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola’s film based on the affair, starring Emma Watson, will be released in the US in June. In the meantime, Neiers’ reality show Pretty Wild has been broadcast, and, like lots of celebrities, she has spent time in rehab. As she awaited sentencing – she was jailed for one month for her part in the burglaries – she was incarcerated in a cell once occupied by Paris Hilton. In the cell next-door was Lindsay Lohan. Yet these distinctly modern crimes are also an iteration of darker, more disturbing ones that existed well before the web. “If you follow the court system in Los Angeles,” says Winton, “You’ll find restraining orders and protection orders for A-list stars being taken out every day.”
Among the Hollywood names who’ve involved the police in stalking incidents in recent years are: Kunis, Cyrus, Halle Berry, Alec Baldwin, Madonna, Jennifer Aniston, Keira Knightley, Michael Douglas, Anna Kournikova and Steven Spielberg. The LAPD has an entire unit, the Threat Management Unit, devoted to tackling stalkers. It was set up in response to the 1989 murder of sitcom actor Rebecca Schaeffer, who was shot by an obsessed fan.
Bieber, who recently surpassed Lady Gaga to become the most-followed celebrity on Twitter, is something of a crime magnet; the two facts may or may not be connected. In December it emerged that a convicted killer with an unhealthy fixation on the androgynous young star had plotted his murder. Dana Martin, 45, who is serving two life sentences in a New Mexico jail, was so infatuated by Bieber that he commissioned a tattoo of the Canadian’s face on his leg. But when Bieber failed to respond to his fan-mail, he hired two hitmen to strangle the teen with a paisley necktie before his sold out concert at Madison Square Garden in November.
Fortunately for Bieber, Martin had a change of heart, and turned in his accomplices before they could carry out his orders. The show went off without a hitch.