It was a familiar scene at the popular La Boheme restaurant in West Hollywood last month, when a gang of masked thieves broke open the door at 2:20 a.m., smashed their way into the office, and carted off the safe with $20,000 inside.
“Our employees are afraid to come to work,” general manager Lucian Tudor said.
His West Hollywood restaurant has been hit by criminals 10 times in the last two years.
“Customers are not feeling safe anymore to walk the streets of West Hollywood,” Tudor told the NBC4 I-Team.
As the I-Team revealed in a September report, restaurant burglaries are up 103% in Los Angeles from 2019 to 2023.
“It’s the wild, wild west,” said Suzanne Tracht, owner of Jar restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, which was hit by masked burglars in August, who stole a safe holding $2,000.
“Even if they get caught, they don’t go to jail, they get out the next day,” Tracht told NBC4.
The I-Team examined police and court data from recent restaurant burglary cases in LA.
Of 717 restaurant burglaries reported in 2023, there have only been 13 arrests. Of those arrested, some have been immediately released, and court and jail records show some have gone on to commit additional crimes.
Like the case of convicted restaurant burglar Guillermo Vejar, who has a felony record dating back to 2006. In January, Vejar was charged with receiving stolen property and was released without bail pending trial. Just 10 days later, he burglarized a downtown LA sewing machine business but wasn’t arrested at the time. A week later, he burglarized a restaurant, Cafe de Alley on East Pico, and was again released, this time on $20,000 bail.
Three months later, Vejar was sentenced on all three felonies, but instead of serving time for each crime, he was allowed by the court to serve the sentences simultaneously.
When the I-Team asked the Los Angeles Police Department if there might be fewer restaurant burglaries if there were stiffer sentences, Commander Giselle Espinoza said, “I would hope so.”
The I-Team also found cases like the one involving 19-year-old Cordell Taylor, who burglarized a North Hollywood restaurant in March, a week after being arrested for carrying a loaded gun and being let go with no bail. The month after his restaurant burglary, he was arrested for stealing a car, and again released without bail. This summer he was sentenced to county jail for all three crimes, and was also allowed to serve his sentences concurrently.
The I-Team asked LA County District Attorney George Gascon to discuss cases like those involving Vejar and Taylor, but his office told us in an email, “Due to a very busy calendar, DA Gascón is not available to sit for the interview.”
In a statement to NBC4, Gascon’s office said, “These offense are legally considered non-violent, non-serious charges. As a result in the earlier arrests, our office did not seek cash bail. Once it was apparent that these two men were repeat offenders, our office did in fact seek cash bail. Both Vejar and Taylor have now been sentenced to state prison terms for their crimes, to be served in local custody.”
Some owners of the restaurants which have been repeatedly targeted by criminals want tougher penalties.
“Of course I want tougher penalties. And also, I want more police on the streets,” Tudor said.
The city of West Hollywood actually reduced the number of cops on the streets in 2022, but in LA this year, Mayor Karen Bass and the city council added funding for more officers.
But some restaurants that have been targeted by crooks, like La Boheme, are now thinking of moving their restaurants out of the LA area.
“We’re seriously thinking of leaving California, and the main reason is the safety and well-being of this community, which is going downhill for the past three or four years,” Tudor said.