March 4, 2010 — -- In December 2008, it was announced that Paris Hilton's home had been ransacked. An estimated $2,000,000 in jewelry, cash, clothing and other items were reported stolen. The burglars had entered through an unlocked door.
It was a seemingly random act targeting a rich celebrity. Surveillance video captured a lone figure in a hood and gloves fleeing the property at dawn. Police had no leads and no arrests were made.
Two months later, another celebrity's home was ransacked and a reported $43,000 in goods were taken. This time, the victim was reality star Audrina Patridge. Surveillance video captured two people, a man and a woman in hats and gloves, running through the star's expansive home with bags slung over their shoulders, grabbing everything in sight.
Patridge placed the surveillance video on her Web site and appealed for help in identifying the burglars.
Three months passed. Then, on May 9, 2009, actress Rachel Bilson's mother discovered her daughter's home also had been ransacked. Once again, the thieves seemed to target the star's vast store of designer goods.
Two months later, surveillance cameras on actor Orlando Bloom's property captured four hooded figures walking backwards to the door, apparently trying to avoid surveillance. Almost $500,000 worth of goods belonging to Bloom and girlfriend Miranda Kerr were reported stolen.
Over the next four months, four more homes were burglarized in the star-studded hills surrounding Los Angeles, including the home of Linsday Lohan and the shared residence of Brian Austin Green and Megan Fox.
With the theft at Lohan's home, police got their first big break. Surveillance video showed the images of multiple burglars, two of whom looked very familiar. Police were certain they were also involved in the Patridge break-in.
The burglars were dubbed the "Bling Ring."
'I Never Thought It Would Escalate'
Police say the ring's ultimate downfall wasn't surveillance cameras or police work: It was ego. The Los Angeles Police Department says it received a tip that two people had been overheard bragging about stealing from Lohan and Patridge. The two suspects weren't hardened adult criminals: They were teenagers who attended high school in Calabasas, a posh L.A. suburb.
In September 2009, police arrived at the Calabasas home of Nick Prugo. The precocious, shy teen had been identified as a "Bling Ring" member.
"I never thought it would escalate into something that, you know, affected so many people and was so serious," Prugo said in a recent exclusive interview with ABC News' Chris Cuomo.
Prugo, 19, now is charged with seven counts of residential burglary. Each count carries a sentence of two to six years in prison.
Prugo said he was shy growing up and constantly searching for a way to fit in at school.
"I just kind of kept to myself, didn't really talk to anybody, waited for people to approach me," Prugo said.
Prugo's mother, Lynn Prugo, told Cuomo that her son had been an aspiring actor.
"He was acting in sixth-grade plays and stuff, and he seemed to enjoy that," said Lynn Prugo. "He did some background stuff for some of the shows, and we even let him take lessons."
But Prugo said as he moved into his teenage years, he battled a lack of confidence and low self-esteem.
"I kind of looked in the mirror all the time and saw this ugly kid, or like I wasn't good enough and I would always get really down on myself," Prugo said.
Struggling, Prugo transferred to an alternative school, Indian Hills High in Agoura Hills, Calif. There he met Rachel Lee, who he said would change his life.
"She was always really nice to me, always kind of took me under her wing," Prugo said.
Lee was everything Prugo wasn't. She was upper-class, popular, the consummate "it" girl who would bring Prugo into the Calabasas inner circle and introduce him to the vibrant L.A. party scene.
She also had a history of trouble with the law and was on probation for petty theft."Their relationship is very interesting," said Nancy Jo Sales, a writer who profiled the alleged burglars for Vanity Fair. "She was this very powerful girl, who is popular and has this kind of wild streak. He, on the other hand, is this very timid, searching kind of personality. He's friendless and they get together and trouble ensues."
Prugo got to know Lee's friends.
"She introduced me to her friends and they were all pretty and like her and we clicked," said Prugo. "I'm hanging out with all these pretty women and, you know, [it] made me feel good."
His new social network included a teen named Courtney Ames and reality star hopefuls Alexis and Gabby Neiers. Prugo was suddenly thrust into the L.A. nightlife. He started doing drugs, he said.
"I started stealing from my parents for money for these drugs," Prugo said.
Prugo says he suddenly found himself in a daze of boozy, coke-induced all-nighters.
But the real drug of choice for Prugo and some of his friends was celebrity: knowing, hanging around and looking like celebrities.
Prugo said nobody wanted a piece of the celebrity world more than Lee.
The friend obsessively watched reality TV and entertainment programs to see what the bold-face names were wearing, Prugo said. For most teens, that's where it may end, but Prugo says, for Lee and him, it was just the beginning. According to Prugo, the two started to steal luxury items and wallets from unlocked cars at night.
"We'd go around opening cars and finding, like, purses and wallets and that would be easy money," said Prugo.
From there, it escalated, Prugo said. He says they decided they needed to have exactly what the celebrities owned and wore.
"It escalated into our first house," he said.
And it was not just any house: He says the pair decided to burglarize the home of Paris Hilton.
"Rachel called it going shopping," Prugo said.
'They Have Everything'
Prugo said the friends told themselves of their targets, "They are celebrities, they have everything."
Prugo said he and Lee used Facebook and Twitter to track celebrities' movements and used Google Earth to scope out their homes.
"Well, you'd check online to kind of make sure they weren't around," said Prugo. "I mean, these people are constantly shooting movies or they are constantly working."
Prugo and Lee drove to Hilton's gated community at 2 a.m., he said. Prugo says they had noticed a way into the community on Google Earth, and they climbed a hill and arrived at Hilton's front door.
"We'd first ring the doorbell," Prugo said, to see if anyone was home. "Rachel and I looked under the mat, found a key." No key was needed though, Prugo said: Hilton's house was unlocked.
"It was horrifying," Prugo said. "I was really genuinely scared and Rachel's just like going back and forth in the rooms, grabbing clothes for herself and, you know, all this stuff and, I'm just like, 'Can we go?' Like, 'Let's go,' Like, 'Someone's going to come home.'"
Prugo says the pair made a haul.
"I think that's what, you know, led to so many more," Prugo said. "It's because this first time we did this, we found $8,000 in cash. That's a lot of money."
Officer Brett Goodkin of the Los Angeles Police Department said the burglars kept a list of targets.
"These kids knew what they were going to get every time they went in," Goodkin said. "And they had lists, they wanted this and they want that, they wanted that painting, they wanted that watch, they wanted these shoes in that size. And that's what they took."
The Hilton burglary was just the beginning, according to Prugo.
Prugo said the pair committed a burglary "whenever we run out of money or, or if Rachel wanted a new outfit."
Suddenly, Prugo said, more people wanted in on the action, including Diana Tamayo, Alexis Neiers and Courtney Ames.
In the following months, police said, celebrity targets of the "Bling Ring" would include Lohan, Patridge, Bilson, Bloom, Fox and Green.
"When you consider that it's not just a matter of them as a group stealing things, and then, you know, selling some of it and pocketing the money, and the thrill," said Goodkin, "that they're taking people's clothing, you know, even undergarments, and they wear them -- when you consider the surveillance, it's difficult to overlook at the end of the day just how creepy it is."
'There's a Desperate Quality to It'
Police estimated that from October 2008 to August 2009, the "Bling Ring" stole more than $3 million in jewelry and high-end designer brands.
"There are a lot of things about it that suggest addiction, addiction to stealing, obsession, desperation," said Vanity Fair's Sales. "There's a desperate quality to it."
Police said the group began to sell what they stole through a suspect, Johnny Ajar, and others.
Prugo said the seriousness of what they were doing hit him when news station KTLA aired video of the Patridge burglary. "I mean, it was on KTLA and it was all on the news stations, this video," Prugo said. "And they are running me and Rachel, and you are watching this on TV and you are, like, 'Someone is going to recognize you. Oh, my God.'"
Police say the Lohan video helped them crack the case.
"It was quite evident that at least two of the people in the Lohan video we had seen before," said Goodkin. "And a couple of us had recalled where we had seen it, and it was the Patridge video. And that was our first indication that, hey, you know, something's going on here."
Investigators began visiting social networking Web sites to link the suspects.
"It allowed us early on to kind of create kind of a flow chart of, you know, who is this person, they clearly know each other because they've 'friended' each other," Goodkin said.
Prugo and Lee's alleged bragging about their capers at parties was helpful, Goodkin said.
"The fact [that] they bragged about it constantly," he said. "The fact that they didn't know when to give it up. They didn't have that discipline."
Prugo was arrested Sept. 17, 2009. He initially denied any wrongdoing, but eventually he started talking. Police said he gave them a tale they never expected.
"I think it's completely unprecedented in the history of Hollywood," said Sales.
Prugo directed cops to property taken from Patridge, Lohan and Bilson.
"I am not saying that I wasn't a part of it, because I did make the decision to go," Prugo told Cuomo. "But it was that girl that I was infatuated with almost, and I just, like, followed her everywhere. I wanted to keep her in my life."
Prugo said he had stopped speaking with Lee, the friend who meant so much.
Lee and her attorney denied a request for an interview.
Prugo, Lee, Ames, Tamayo and Alexis Neiers are charged with at least one of the 10 burglaries. Ajar has been charged with drug and weapons possession offenses after police searched his home. All have pleaded not guilty.
These days, a dressed-down Prugo is hanging with a new group of friends, wondering what the future holds.
"I mean, this is going to stick and you know, and I accept that," said Prugo. "I am ready for people to judge me. ... I am not looking for pity."