LOS ANGELES — The gang members start their days in the impoverished neighbourhoods of South Los Angeles, but their real work begins in some of the city's wealthiest enclaves.
Each day, the gang hand-picks teams of burglars, who ditch their usual attire for button-down shirts and hop into shiny luxury sedans to blend in as they search for prime targets: homes with no one inside and lots of jewelry and other valuables on hand.
Celebrities including Nicki Minaj and Alanis Morissette are among the suspected recent victims of a crime trend known as "flocking," so named because gang members flock like birds to areas where residential burglaries provide the biggest payoff.
They knock on the front door and, if no one answers, break in. The burglars often do not know whose home they are targeting, making it inevitable in Los Angeles that they sometimes hit houses of the nation's best-known actors, singers and other entertainment figures, police said.
Since January, other victims have included Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and Lakers star Nick Young. Actress Emmy Rossum reported $150,000 in jewelry taken last week from a safe in her home.
After news of the burglary broke Tuesday, the "Shameless" star tweeted, "Thank you to the LAPD. I fully support the police efforts and dedication."
Morissette had about $2 million in jewelry and valuables stolen from her Brentwood mansion. Young lost about $500,000 in jewelry and other items during a burglary at his Tarzana home, police said.
So far, no arrests have been made in any of the celebrity cases.
Although some of the recent break-ins have shared similarities, authorities do not believe a single group is responsible or that stars are being targeted. However, investigators suspect that most of the burglaries are being committed by members of the same street gang, the Rollin' 30s Harlem Crips.
Their day follows a regular routine. Gang leaders meet in the morning on their home turf and select crews of four or five people from a pool of about 100 gang members — male and female — who will do the burglaries that day, Los Angeles Police Detective William Dunn said.
The crews rotate so the same people are not seen in same neighbourhoods and become recognizable.
"They are looking for homes where they think there's a lot of jewelry inside, BMWs, Mercedes, brand-new cars in the driveway," Dunn said.
Once they identify a house that looks empty, they send one person to knock on the door, Dunn said.
If no one responds, other gang members break through a side door or smash a window. If no alarm sounds, they head immediately to the master bedroom. In most cases, they are out of the homes within about three minutes and head back to South Los Angeles to pawn any stolen jewelry.
"They don't take televisions or laptops or iPads," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Michael Maher, a member of the agency's specialized burglary task force. "Typically it's a hunt for cash, jewelry and weapons."
The teams take care to look for houses that appear free of surveillance cameras or other security systems. If someone answers the door, they will say they are at the wrong house and just walk away, police said.
Authorities will not discuss security measures at any of the houses that were hit, so it's unclear if those homes had alarms or fences. But, speaking generally, police said many people do not turn on their alarms and buy cheap safes that can be muscled out by determined burglars.
Even if an alarm does go off, the noise sometimes just motives the teams to work faster because they know they can be out of the house by the time the alarm company calls the homeowner, then contacts police, Dunn said.
Gang members arrested for "flocking" have told investigators their goal is to get about $10,000 per day from the burglaries, Maher said. The money is used to support the gangs and create bail funds to free members who get arrested, Maher said.
"These gangs have become more sophisticated, and flocking is a large portion of that," Maher said. "It is sort of evolving what was a street-level thug. We see high-level gang members driving extremely expensive vehicles, wearing very nice clothing committing residential burglaries."
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Michael Balsamo, The Associated Press