“Free Winona” Ryder: When The Hollywood Star Got Busted For Shoplifting

Winona Ryder, Saks Fifth Ave surveillance video/YouTube [screenshot]

LOS ANGELES, CA — On December 6, 2002, two-time Academy Award–nominated actress Winona Ryder received a definitive review from Superior Court Judge Elden Fox.

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Almost exactly one year earlier, Beverly Hills cops arrested Ryder after she walked out of a Saks Fifth Avenue store with approximately $5,500 of stolen goods.

Since then, the Beetlejuice and Reality Bites star had been convicted on felony counts of shoplifting, vandalism, and theft after a highly (perhaps even appropriately) dramatic trial. Now at her sentencing, Judge Fox told Ryder, “It is not my intention to make an example of you.”

The judge ordered Ryder to perform 480 hours of community service by April 7. She also had to pay more that $10,000 in restitution and court costs, as well as receive psychological counseling. Of course, Ryder was also reminded to stay out of trouble. As a parting shot, Judge Fox warned: “If you steal again, you will go to jail.”

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What a trip. Winona Ryder’s journey from Tinseltown A-lister to convicted felon and, for a while, punchline of endless pop-culture jokes, commenced on December 12, 2001.

As surveillance-camera videos would later reveal in court (and to the world), Ryder stopped into the Beverly Hills Saks that day and drifted about the store, gathering items to, ostensibly, try on in the dressing room.

Once inside the changing area, though, Ryder reportedly took a pair of scissors from her purse and removed price markings and sensor tags from the materials. A security guard would later testify that she heard “snipping” sounds from behind the door and then peered through the slats to witness Ryder in action (hence the subsequent count of “vandalism”).

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In addition to the theft, arresting officers also reported that Ryder was in possession of powerful prescription narcotics. Among them was oxycodone, an increasingly prominent opiate nicknamed “Hillbilly Heroin” — a term that would enter the popular lexicon largely in the wake of Winona’s folly.

Los Angeles District Attorney Stephen Cooley pursued Ryder’s case with noticeable zeal. He assembled a team of eight prosecutors and spent the ensuing months turning down plea bargains from Ryder’s big-ticket attorney, Mark Geragos (who’d go on to represent the likes of Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson).

Winona Ryder, despite her priciest efforts, would have to have her day in court.

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Initially, Ryder claimed a movie director had “assigned” her to shoplift in preparation for an upcoming role. Nobody bought that (because it patently wasn’t true).

Once on trial, her attorney contended that Ryder thought she had an open account at Saks and could just bypass the checkout counter. That didn’t fly either (because it’s also kind of amazingly untrue).

Throughout the proceedings, the jury repeatedly watched security video of the Girl, Interrupted star’s big heist. They convicted Ryder on three of her four charges, dismissing only burglary.

As if to keep the gossip machines running on full blast, post-trial transcripts revealed that the number of nuclear-strength drugs in Ryder’s purse was eight, and that two other high-end Beverly Hills shops had also suspected her of boosting merchandise.

Unlike so many of her fellow Hollywood felons (especially other former child stars), Winona Ryder rose to the occasion of her probation and turned around both her private life and public image.

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In 2004, citing Ryder’s commendable adherence to her probation requirements, Judge Eldon Fox reduced her conviction to misdemeanors and lightened up her court-ordered restrictions.

In the years since, Ryder has reinvented herself in more mature roles, scoring an entire generation of new fans as the mom on the hit Netflix series, Stranger Things.

Ryder has since described the stealing episode as the low-point of a dark, foggy period when she overmedicated herself for depression.

She now credits the arrest and sentencing with putting her back on track, once telling Interview magazine, “In a weird way, it was almost like the best thing that could have happened.”

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Main photo: Winona Ryder, Saks Fifth Ave surveillance video/YouTube [screenshot]