WOODLAND HILLS >> A gate across Jeni Bianco’s driveway didn’t stop someone from stealing her new Range Rover Sport earlier this month, just hours after Bianco put her beloved Teacup Yorkie to sleep.
A few nights later, surveillance cameras caught three people with flashlights exiting a car and walking toward the service gate of Bianco’s home. And last weekend, Bianco heard banging at the locked service gate in the middle of the night. When her husband Jim went outside, he saw two cars circling their home at high speeds “like piranhas,” she said.
“They don’t seem fazed by much,” said Bianco, a celebrity wardrobe stylist. “They’re really getting ballsy.”
• RELATED STORY: LAPD arrests 3 suspects in Valley ‘knock knock’ burglaries
At least two other homes on their Woodland Hills street near Taft Charter High School have been hit by burglars in recent weeks. At one, a Tesla was stolen out of a garage, she said. Now, Bianco, her husband and some of their neighbors are fighting back.
They are sharing information and photos of suspicious characters through Facebook groups, the Nextdoor app and group text messages at all hours. Sometimes, Jim Bianco goes outside with a large spotlight to patrol the area, or he joins his neighbor, Rick Grayson, and others to examine unusual activity and compare notes.
“I think it’s good that as a group we go out there and show we’re paying attention to these people that are on our block and don’t belong there,” said Grayson, who moved into the neighborhood with wife Lisa in October. “They know we’re watching.”
The Graysons already had an alarm system and surveillance cameras, but they recently installed a Wi-Fi-enabled camera system at their door for extra security.
The Biancos hired a private security guard to stand watch outside their home for a time. Now, Jeni Bianco is working on securing commitments from neighbors in an effort to pool their money to hire a guard for the neighborhood.
“The idea is to let them know we’re getting together as a community, and you’re not welcome here and just sort of … chase them into another area,” she said.
• RELATED STORY: How social network Nextdoor is becoming a new way to neighbor
Bianco was echoing the message of LAPD Topanga Division’s Senior Lead Officer Sean Dinse, who encouraged residents at a recent neighborhood watch meeting to pull together to combat the problem.
Dinse, a 19-year LAPD veteran, recently created a Facebook page called “SFV Door Knockers.” It provides a platform for Valley residents to share their videos and surveillance footage of potential “knock-knock” burglar suspects approaching their front doors, along with details about when and where the incidents occurred and any vehicle descriptions.
The public Facebook page, which had some 325 members as of Thursday, was designed to help Los Angeles police identify those who could be targeting a community.
“The same (burglars) are going from one neighborhood to the next,” Dinse said. “This is another means to kind of put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Dinse’s parents’ home in Porter Ranch was hit by “knock-knock” burglars in October, he said. One of the suspects, caught on surveillance video carrying out their safe, was arrested. His court case is pending. Earlier this month, the suspect was arrested again after he was caught casing homes in the community, Dinse said.
“It wasn’t surprising,” he said. “I feel it’s just a matter of time before one of these guys hit your house.”
• RELATED STORY: LAPD launches Valley ‘knock knock’ task force amid rash of celebrity break-ins
Los Angeles police launched a San Fernando Valley Knock Knock Burglary Task Force in early February to combat these burglaries, which often target affluent neighborhoods. The thieves are usually criminal street gang members from South Los Angeles who knock on a door and if no one is home, signal to an accomplice who will gain entry from the side or the rear of the home, said Lt. Todd Hankel, who oversees the task force and is commanding officer of LAPD’s West Valley Area detectives.
The announcement of the task force came amid a rash of break-ins as celebrities’ homes. More than $300,000 worth of jewelry was stolen from the Tarzana home of former Lakers guard Derek Fisher in January. Los Angeles Lakers star Nick Young had about $500,000 worth of cash, jewelry and other valuables taken from his Tarzana home in February. And a February burglary at the Sherman Oaks home of Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig netted about $170,000 worth of jewelry and other valuables.
There are probably more than 100 such burglars operating in Los Angeles County looking for money, jewelry and firearms in these homes, Hankel said. They often strike between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m., and they have been known to remove unbolted safes and disable alarms.
Roughly a quarter of the more than 1,000 burglaries that occurred last year in LAPD’s West Valley Area — which includes the communities of Encino, Tarzana, Lake Balboa, Northridge, Reseda — were believed to be committed by organized “knock-knock” burglars, according to the LAPD.
Dinse, of the Topanga Division, urges residents to get to know their neighbors and communicate regularly because they’re the “first line of defense” in such crimes.
“They’re technically the wall around your house,” he said.
Tom Hays, who lives near the Biancos and is a long-time resident of the neighborhood, said he’s noticed a new sense of camaraderie and awareness among his neighbors as a result of the recent problems.
“If there’s anything positive, it’s that people are exchanging ideas and exchanging information and the neighborhood has become more close,” Hays said.