Why L.A. prosecutors threw the book at Winona -- An allegedly damning videotape added up to some stiff penalties
Winona Ryder
Credit: Winona Ryder: David Buchanan/ZUMA Press

The most coveted video in Hollywood isn’t that Oscar screener of ”The Lord of the Rings” — it’s a Saks Fifth Avenue security tape of Winona Ryder from the day of her Dec. 12 bust for allegedly pocketing $4,760 worth of high-end goods (including two Judith Leiber handbags and some pricey hair clips).

Due in part to evidence allegedly caught by security cameras, L.A. prosecutors took an unusually hard stance toward the two-time Oscar nominee, charging her Feb. 1 with four felonies: grand theft, commercial burglary, vandalism (apparently of security sensors on the items), and possession of a controlled substance. At her arraignment Feb. 5, Ryder, 30, pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted, she could face nearly four years in jail. That would end her age of innocence.

The aggressiveness of the L.A. district attorney’s office stunned Hollywood’s legal community. ”I can’t imagine any worse situation for Ryder,” says one high-profile defense attorney in L.A. ”They’ve thrown the book at her. Either we’re dealing with really incriminating evidence against her or someone’s out to make an example. Post-O.J. [Simpson], no prosecutor in this city wants to be perceived as cutting anyone the slightest break because they’re a celebrity.”

Ryder’s attorney, Mark Geragos, who has said his client had prescriptions for the drugs she was carrying and receipts for the merchandise, was similarly dumbstruck by the charges. ”One would think it was Ma Barker involved as opposed to someone involved in something that would normally be treated as a misdemeanor,” he says. ”I don’t believe for a second they can point to any other case where they’ve charged felony vandalism under these types of circumstances.” (Ryder’s publicist issued a statement on her behalf, deeming the charges ”grossly exaggerated.”)

Naturally, prosecutors see the matter differently. ”She’s charged with taking between $4,000 and $5,000 worth of merchandise from Saks,” scoffs Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the DA. ”That’s a little different than slipping a pair of socks from Sears into your purse. If you or I walked into Saks and walked out with that type of merchandise, we’d be charged with a felony.”

Especially if it were caught on tape. According to a source at Saks, store cameras captured Ryder clipping security tags off merchandise with scissors and cutting herself in the process, leaving bloodstains in the dressing room. ”When you see that tape,” the source says, ”there’s no doubt what she was doing.”

Why would Ryder, who earns up to $5 million per film, allegedly purloin two purses? One possible defense: psychological compulsion. ”Celebrities don’t shoplift because they need the material they’re stealing; they do it for the thrill,” says UCLA psychiatry prof Sanjaya Saxena, noting many shoplifters suffer from impulse-control disorder. ”They have irresistible urges to steal, and get some sort of…high when they steal.” Adds psychotherapist Linda Barnes: ”There’s an addictive quality to it. It’s like alcoholism; it’ll take on a life of its own.”

While sticky-fingered stars are nothing new, Ryder is one of the few to actually be arrested for shoplifting. (In 1970, a pre-”Angels” Farrah Fawcett was twice arrested for shoplifting, and twice convicted and fined for a lesser charge of trespassing; 1945 Miss America Bess Myerson was fined $100 after a 1988 shoplifting arrest in Williamsport, Pa.) More typically, authorities and stores look the other way. Says the manager of a Beverly Hills boutique, ”The store doesn’t want the publicity and would prefer to address the problem without involving the criminal justice system.”

Ryder, who appears opposite Adam Sandler in June’s ”Mr. Deeds,” won’t be so lucky. Her case moves forward with a March 11 hearing; no trial date has been set. Still, it could only be a matter of time before that dreaded tape surfaces in public. Says Gibbons, ”If the case gets to preliminary hearing phase or trial, the tape will be shown in court.” Sadly, that may become Ryder’s most watched performance in years.