To Catch a Thief

updated 08/11/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE PHOTO SHOOT ITSELF WAS A cozy affair—supermodel Elle Macpherson, all alone in her rented bungalow on L.A.'s Mulholland Drive, posing in front of a camera with a self-timer for what she later described as "some nude or partially nude photographs." It was only after that intimate shoot that Macpherson, 33, found herself ensnared in a sordid drama featuring burglary, blackmail and the "boy toy" defense.

Her ordeal came to a head on July 4 when Macpherson helped police bust Michael Mishler, 29, for allegedly breaking into her bungalow and stealing $6,000 in cash, jewelry valued at $100,000 and some 15 photos. Mishler, along with William Holt, 26, is also charged with extortion, for threatening to post those explicit pictures on the Internet if Macpherson didn't pay $60,000. The blackmail bid was foiled when police nabbed the duo during a phony money drop in an L.A. shopping complex.

Claims by Mishler that he had dated Macpherson—indeed, that he was her spurned "boy toy," in the words of his lawyer Lawrence Young—were vehemently denied by the model at a press conference last week. "I have never met Mr. Mishler," she declared, "and with any luck I will never, ever meet Mr. Mishler." (Her lawyer Bert Fields has filed a defamation suit against Young.) Mishler and Holt, now in the L.A. County Men's Central Jail awaiting trial, have both pleaded not guilty. Macpherson, having wrapped her latest movie, Mom's Up on the Roof, slipped away on vacation to an undisclosed location. As for Elle's personal pictures—dubbed "art photos" by Fields and "sexually explicit" in an investigator's report—they are safely sealed away in the office of the Los Angeles district attorney.

It was a rare bit of bad nudes for the dazzler from Down Under, who has built her career on baring almost all. Macpherson's cyber-scare began on June 23, the morning after she returned to L.A. from Paris. Her driver Mike Ceballos handed her an envelope he'd found in her Ford Explorer, which had been left unlocked in her open garage. It contained a note demanding that she pay $60,000—or the extortionists would post nude photos of her on the Internet. The threat was accompanied by eight shots from Elle's private shoot.

"I flipped out," Macpherson told investigators when they arrived to interview her. "I was really scared." The photos were among those kept in her bungalow, in a diary belonging to her boyfriend of 18 months, French financier Arpad "Arki" Busson, 34. Macpherson recalled last seeing the diary in her bedroom June 11, four days before the visiting Busson noticed that $6,000 he'd left there, in an open drawer, had vanished.

Macpherson agreed to help police set up a sting, and on June 27 investigators from the DA's office stuffed fake bills into envelopes dusted with fluorescent powder. At 11 p.m., as demanded, the packet was placed on top of Macpherson's mailbox. But three hours later the money was still there; the blackmailers had spotted the cops. They sent Elle a second note on July 1, jacking up their demands by $20,000 and telling her to await another call on July 4.

When one of the extortionists, his voice disguised electronically, got her on the phone, she agreed to have her manager Stuart Cameron deliver the payoff. In a follow-up call the same eerie voice told her to drop the money on the third floor of the garage of the Beverly Center shopping complex. Police put the area under surveillance, and at 8:30 p.m., Cameron delivered the envelope.

Three minutes later a red Dodge Intrepid stopped, and a young white male jumped out to retrieve the package. Once he got back in, police gave chase and quickly caught and arrested Mishler and Holt. Inside the rented vehicle, police found two mobile phones, an electronic voice-distorter, a laptop computer, a loaded .38-caliber handgun, a passport and the fake cash.

Mishler, a computer whiz and self-described inventor, may not have been a stranger to the Mulholland Drive compound; he reportedly lived out of his Winnebago in the area. Chris Little, a security guard who once roomed with Holt, says Holt told him that Mishler knew the code to the compound's security gate. In any case, L.A. security expert Don Crutchfield, a private investigator for celebrities who once handled security for Marlon Brando, faults Elle for not locking her car or garage. "To leave doors unlocked and money in an open drawer," he says, "why not just put up a neon sign?"

Little also describes Holt, a miniblind salesman who had been Mishler's partner in a failed speaker-manufacturing business, as a "very trusting" person who might have been duped into participating in the crime. Mishler, who was convicted for burglary in 1989 and once served prison time for stealing a Ferrari, "tended to want to do everything in a big bang," says Pierre Hoffmann, owner of an auto-supplies company who hired Mishler in January to design decorative lights for cars. "He was going to make his money really quick. He was always in it for the quick killing." Mishler also bragged of dating Elle. Says Hoffmann: "He told me I wouldn't like her because she smokes."

Smoking mad is more like it. Macpherson, peeved at the media for having "extrapolated" Mishler's boy-toy claims, wrapped up her press conference by saying, "I truly hope that nothing like this ever happens to any of you." But Crutchfield sees Elle's mess as almost inevitable in a cyber-age of dwindling privacy. "If you take pictures and don't want the world to see them," he says, "burn them."

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
LORENZO BENET, JOHN HANNAH, SHELLI-ANNE COUCH and CHRIS LEE in Los Angeles

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