High above the Encino Reservoir, streets curl like ribbons atop the Santa Monica Mountains. Evergreens shield the well-tended lawns from prying eyes. On a sleepy afternoon in February 2006, a white pickup rolls to a stop near the peach-colored house where a prosperous electronics importer lives with his wife and their son. The truck is an ordinary 1992 Dodge. There's nothing unusual about the driver who exits the vehicle and moves toward the family's home. He is clean-cut and darkly handsome, with intense eyes and the physique of a middleweight boxer. He wears running shoes, board shorts, and a sun visor. He could be a contractor, a gardener, or a houseguest. He could pass for a man in his twenties or thirties. He could be just about anyone, and that is precisely the impression he wants to leave.
Other cat burglars may operate at this elevation, but none can approach this man's level of expertise. One month earlier, the "Hillside Burglars" began a three-year run that will expand to include a reported 150 jobs around Bel Air and Beverly Hills, and the teenage "Bling Ring" will gain notoriety three years later for stealing some $3 million in property from celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. Those thieves are rank amateurs compared to this guy. In 16 months, he has broken into more than a thousand homes up and down the San Fernando Valley. According to the police, his haul is worth anywhere from $16 million to $40 million. And yet because he has cultivated so many aliases, law-enforcement officials have been hard-pressed to learn his real name—Ignacio Peña Del Río—much less comprehend his unlikely background.
Del Río can easily scale a second-story balcony. For greater heights, he uses a homemade grappling hook. He is a virtuoso lock picker and an expert at defeating alarm systems. He knows how to cut phone lines and confuse motion detectors. In the bed of his Dodge pickup are some of his tools: drills, bolt cutters, angle grinders, a sledgehammer, a blowtorch, a glass cutter, a railroad pick, a handheld cable puller that can move four tons, a hydraulic jack that can lift six. For a job that requires surveillance, he brings a DVR with miniature cameras and a wireless monitor. He rips safes from walls; he steals artwork, heirlooms, gold coins, silver ingots, wedding rings, diamond-encrusted chokers, a Cartier Panther brooch, even a bronze medal from the 1984 Summer Olympics—whatever he can grab in the few minutes he's inside a house. He hoards his loot in a storage locker off Ventura Boulevard, existing at once as a hermit and a high roller: He lives in a ratty UPS-style box truck that he owns and showers at a 24-hour health club yet dresses in Calvin Klein and Burberry. Del Río doesn't need to play this game. The great ones never do. Ordinary thieves steal for money. The best do it for sublime reasons: to exercise a forbidden expertise, to undermine society, often just to feel alive. Some, like Del Río, adopt a Robin Hood philosophy (although they rarely get around to helping the poor). We deplore their crimes even as we romanticize their genius. See Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. As Sherlock Holmes once said of Charles Peace, the legendary cat burglar of Victorian England, in the short story "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client": "A complex mind. All great criminals have that." Indeed, the first reaction from investigators who capture elite burglars is generally not reproach but grudging admiration. The cat accomplishes what the rest of us can only imagine. He is an artist working in adrenaline.
Like other top-drawer burglars, Del Río shuns drugs and alcohol and keeps himself in impeccable shape, exercising for hours every day. He fits the profile: a gifted obsessive who displays a lust, even a primal need, for action. As he approaches the peach-colored home in Encino, he knows that Detective Bill Longacre of the LAPD is hunting him and closing fast. This does not deter him. As if this were just another Friday, the city's most accomplished thief slinks through a bedroom window and into crime lore.
HE WAS BORN INTO AN AFFLUENT, SUPPORTIVE FAMILY IN ASTURIAS, SPAIN, IN 1974. One of his sisters is a lawyer. Another is an architect, as are his brother and his father. As a teenager, Del Río attended the Colegio de la Inmaculada, a prestigious 120-year-old Jesuit boarding school in Gijón that counts the billionaire banker Emilio Botín among its alumni. In 1992, the young Spaniard left home for Michigan to participate in a high-school exchange program, and there he began his rap sheet: He was busted in Ypsilanti for shoplifting spark plugs. A year later he was arrested in Gijón for a burglary. He avoided jail by paying a fine and, in 1998, returned to the United States. Using credits from a community college in Madrid, he enrolled in the University of San Diego. He loaded up on classes, graduated a year later with a business degree, and headed for L.A. to pursue his dream of becoming a professional fighter.
Del Río had studied kickboxing since childhood. He could unleash a foot at head level as easily as a fist. For a time, he bounced around the local fight scene, working, he says, as a sparring partner for WBF lightweight champ Juan Lazcano at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Boxing Club. He practiced Brazilian jujitsu and trained for his pro-boxing debut, a fight he won by majority decision at the Hollywood Park Casino. But he soon committed his considerable talents to another pursuit. As Del Río sculpted his body, he began counterfeiting his life.
He'd always been acutely intelligent. "[In his studies], he barely had to exert himself," one friend told Del Río's hometown newspaper. More telling, though, was his penchant for gamberradas, minor acts of hooliganism and vandalism. Instead of outgrowing his passion for criminal behavior, Del Río plunged headlong into it, often between boxing training sessions. Using Photoshop and databases of birth and death records, he created fake driver's licenses with real names. He then applied for credit cards, using them to purchase electronics, which he would later fence. But this grew tiresome. As far as he was concerned, he was accruing "a whole bunch of junk" to sell for half the price. It wasn't worth the hassle. Burglary? That was different. "More satisfaction, more adrenaline, more everything," he says.
In 2004, Del Río began pursuing this rush in earnest. A 30-year-old olive-skinned nomad, he found himself a new family, a band of west-side crooks from L.A.'s ethnic Romani community. He apprenticed under two women who taught him the art of distraction burglaries: The "looker" keeps watch, the "doorman" lures the homeowner from the house, and the "ghost" strikes. Half the time, Del Río worked as the doorman; half the time, he was the ghost. But, he says, he grew unhappy with his teachers and their methods. The Romani mostly targeted senior citizens suspicious of banks. Del Río knew he could be more effective on his own. More important, he wanted to hit wealthy folks.
"I was disgusted with society," he says. "I saw [it as] selfish, fake, and money-oriented. I separated myself from my family. . . . I would steal from the rich and help the poor."
But he did not help the poor. He helped himself. The architect's son, raised in a family of high achievers, had finally discovered his talent. Away from the Romani, he homed in on his own kind, breaking and entering with a boundless energy into the homes of well-heeled families like the one he'd left behind in Spain.
Most of the time his methods were instinctual and easy. He'd knock on the front door. If no one answered, he'd check the windows, then walk to the back of the house. He'd put on gloves and a headlamp and pop a lock or a window with a flathead screwdriver. Enter, loot, and leave. He reconnoitered neighborhoods dressed in workout clothes, probing residents for helpful tips. "The best tool I ever had," Del Río says, "was the human brain. Being able to read people's minds and being able to influence them, I was able to get into many places without tools, gather information, finish the job, and get away if caught, always without using violence." He was so good at talking his way out of trouble that despite being stopped by police patrols dozens of times, he claims, he shrewdly escaped being taken into custody. The only variables Del Río couldn't control were his luck and when it would run out.
On December 20, 2005, a man at a Public Storage facility mistakenly opened the locker of a promptly paying customer instead of the one belonging to a deadbeat. Inside were neatly stacked suitcases, bags, and paintings. The first bag was packed with guns and ammo. As the police would soon learn, the guns were stolen by Del Río, who liked to take them apart and study them. He brazenly practiced his marksmanship downtown at the Los Angeles Gun Club, a short drive from LAPD headquarters.
Stolen goods worth as much as $40 million were packed away in Del Río's storage
locker when it was discovered by the LAPD in late 2005.
The ATF arrived to claim the firearms. The police visited the locker the next day and took what was left. And what was left was astonishing: 74 watches, many of them Rolexes; 248 bracelets, most of them gold; 546 necklaces, pendants, charms, and chains made of precious metals and gemstones; 572 rings of every imaginable make; $150,000 in gold coins that a couple had saved to send their daughter to college; thousands of collectible stamps; 26 Swiss gold bars; and an Edgar Degas pastel of ballerinas later revealed to be fake, but at the time estimated to be worth $10.5 million. It took Detective Bill Longacre and seven of his colleagues a week to catalog all the evidence.
Longacre began matching stolen property with items from police reports. Painstaking work, but he had to locate victims, witnesses, to build a case. On the back of one charm bracelet, he found a first name—Steven—and a date. He prayed it was a birthday and started calling every Steven of a certain age in the vicinity of the crime scenes. This is how Marsha Kline, Steven's mom, got her jewelry back.
A few months earlier, Longacre—a Winston-puffing, Budweiser-drinking 35-year veteran of the LAPD—had been assigned to look into a rash of burglaries in the well-to-do neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley and the Mulholland corridor that runs through the mansion-studded hills overlooking Los Angeles. With little to go on, the detective reverted to basics. He plugged information from about 40 cases into a 20-column grid. Patterns emerged: daytime crimes, rear and side entry, second-story entry. Longacre had a modus operandi and an area of operation. Now he needed a face and a name.
In the locker, Longacre also found gold- and gem-testing kits, books on alarm bypassing and safecracking, and a USB drive. On it, the as-yet-unknown thief had saved several Photoshopped IDs. The cards had dummy names, but the images were real. The detective spent three days combing through mug shots in a police database. Bleary-eyed, he found one that seemed to match the photos on the USB drive. The man in the picture was booked under the name John Matthew Emerson. The mug shot was taken in 2000 after a shoplifting arrest in West Hollywood. Before he'd begun his burglary career, Del Río had been caught pinching small items like MET-Rx packets from stores. Emerson was one of the aliases he used. It was the one that made it into the database. Longacre forwarded the image to police divisions in the Valley. He was counting on the thief to keep stealing.
Del Río did just that, upping his burglary count throughout January 2006. What's more, he was so outraged that the cops had emptied his locker that he hired lawyers to call Longacre and demand the return of his property. Del Río's mercurial personality—brooding one moment, manic the next—had been on display before. He'd been booted from a gym in Los Angeles for kicking an owner during an argument. Later he would tell people he was bipolar.
At some point, the disgruntled burglar slipped through a fence near a Mormon church in Granada Hills. He carried a two-foot-long piece of black plastic pipe and a shovel. Inside the pipe was his haul for the month, an estimated $500,000 worth of cash and jewels. A few steps into the wild sunflowers, Del Río began to dig a hole. He had chosen this hiding spot well. The power lines overhead generated an electrical field that disrupted metal detectors.
THE DEL RÍO WHO ENTERS THE HOUSE IN ENCINO—HIS FOURTH JOB OF THE day—on February 16, 2006, is far less meticulous. The home is a difficult target: There's only one exit off the property and only one road out of the neighborhood. A single mistake will leave him trapped. With his screwdriver, he opens a window and slips inside, then foolishly ignores one of his own rules: Check every room. He fails to notice the live-in maid waking up from her nap. The police quickly respond to a call from the homeowners, and four officers bear down on the property with guns drawn. Del Río sees them as he's climbing through a rear window and reverses course, running out the front door. There's no escape. Cornered, he drops to his knees in the driveway and says, "I give up."
For cat burglars, there's no thrill without a challenge. No real reward. But the frequency and heightened risk of Del Río's thievery in 2006, the uncharacteristic carelessness, suggest a subliminal motive. After the storage-space breach, he knew Longacre was after him. But he continued to prey on the same neighborhoods. "Some crooks want to be caught," says the detective. "That's their way of stopping their antisocial behavior."
When Del Río is booked, he gives the name Roberto Caveda, an alias with a sentimental appeal—Calle Caveda is the street Del Río 's brother lives on. It's in Gijón, where the master criminal first put his toe on the wrong path. A detective who'd seen Longacre's photos immediately recognizes Del Río 's face.
Hours later, Del Río yanks out the drawstring of his shorts and ties his socks to it, hooking the makeshift noose around a sprinkler head in the ceiling of his holding cell. By the time the guards get to him, the sprinkler has flooded the station. He attempts suicide twice more in the months ahead. In lockup at the Van Nuys courthouse, he garrotes himself with his pants and nearly dies.
Because Del Río attempted to kill himself several times while in custody,
he was restricted from shaving or cutting his hair. He refused to eat prison food
and lost 25 pounds.
Because of the restrictions placed on him afterward, he goes days without shaving and his hair grows wild and curly. Repulsed by the prison food, he drops 25 pounds. As the months pass, Del Río takes to mumbling gibberish and shadowboxing naked, hoping the court will deem him insane. The trial drags on, mainly because—against his attorney's advice—Del Río refuses to plead guilty. In July 2007, the jury convicts him on multiple counts of burglary, attempted burglary, and receiving stolen property. Only then does he begin cooperating. In exchange for having his 10-year sentence reduced by almost a third, he helps return property to his victims.
In the back of a sedan on the 405 Freeway, en route to a studio where, as part of a deal with prosecutors, Del Río will film a training video for the LAPD, he confesses to Longacre that he was plotting to melt down much of his haul and ship it to Spain. Around the same time, he draws a treasure map for the detective leading to his buried loot. It's precise down to the fraction of a meter, with an X to mark the spot.
Left: Del Río stowed cash and jewels worth an estimated $500,000 inside of a pipe which he buried beneath power lines that prevented metal detectors from working properly. Right: He later drew a treasure map—precise down to a fraction of a meter—guiding police to the hidden loot.
Since December 2009, Del Río has been housed at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. He'll be deported upon release in 2013. I began communicating with him after he was incarcerated, asking him about his life. Some questions he answers. Most he evades.
One question he never answers is "Why?" It's the obvious and simple question: Why would someone like Del Río, who could have been almost anything he wanted choose the path he did? There's no easy explanation. Steeped in the Jesuit tradition, which exalts service to a greater cause, Del Río fills his phone calls and letters with concern for starving children and earthquake victims. "I knew I was good at what I was doing," he says, with a trace of pride. "I knew all the money I had. Can you imagine if I go to Africa and open a place for a doctor and buy all the medicine? Can you imagine how many lives you could save?"
But Del Río freely admits that his noble designs may only have been the justification he needed to steal. When I press him for more, he shuts down. He can't reconcile his notion of himself with reality. He dismisses every portrayal of himself in the media as "unrealistic." Yet when offered the opportunity to right the record, he refuses. At one point he tells me that "when you're faithful to your principles, you can be fearless." It's a choice bit of insight. What principles he possesses, he betrayed. And Ignacio Del Río —boxer, daredevil, master thief—is terrified. On the phone, he nearly breaks into tears describing his fear of talking to me. He's afraid of what I'll write. But more than that, he's afraid he'll have to confront himself.
In the end, there's little romance in being a great cat burglar. It's a lonely, selfish fantasy and a unique addiction. In prison, Del Río has withdrawn even further into his familiar emotional architecture. He spends a lot of time in "the hole" for his gamberradas against the system.
"I can't stand anybody telling me what to do," he says. "I got no rules." He keeps to himself, he adds, spending hours shadowboxing in the yard or meditating in his cell. He's back on a fighting diet. He is training again. For what, though, it's hard to know.