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Ventura County

Defendant in Date-Rape Case Missing

The great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor disappears while under house arrest in Mussel Shoals. His bail had been $1 million.

January 06, 2003|David Kelly and Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writers

An arrest warrant has been issued for accused date rapist Andrew Luster after he failed to check in with a probation officer Friday, violating his $1-million bail and leading Ventura County authorities to suspect he has fled the area.

Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor, is charged with 87 criminal counts that include sexual battery and poisoning. He is scheduled to appear in Superior Court this morning when his trial resumes.

If he fails to show up, law enforcement officials will declare him a fugitive and will seek federal help in tracking him down.

"I have no reason to believe he won't show up," said Luster's attorney, Roger Jon Diamond, who said he last talked to his client on Friday and fears he may have been in a car accident. "Flight is inconsistent with everything I know about him."

The 38-year-old Mussel Shoals resident has been under house arrest for the past year. He was last heard from on Friday morning, when he checked in with probation officials. But 12 hours later he failed to check back, as required under the terms of his house arrest, authorities said.

"We received a request from probation to go check on him," said Eric Nishimoto, spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. "We knocked on the door but didn't receive an answer."

Investigators, armed with a search warrant, entered his shabby, white stucco beachfront house Saturday but found no sign of Luster, who lives on a family trust fund.

He is accused of bringing three women to his home, drugging and raping them. Many of the attacks were videotaped and have been shown in graphic detail at his trial, which began Dec. 16. In one scene, Luster is shown inserting objects into the vagina of a woman who appears to be unconscious. Only once, when the tape shows Luster sodomizing the woman, does she show expression, wincing and jolting sideways before falling back onto a bed.

Defense attorneys maintain that Luster engaged in consensual sex with the women and that they were willing participants in pornographic films.

The sensational case has highlighted the use of gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, the so-called date-rape drug. Slipped into a drink, the drug renders victims unconscious.

If convicted on all charges, Luster faces life in prison.

Prosecutors have maintained that he was a major flight risk. They have argued in court that Luster has deep pockets and foreign contacts.

Bail was initially set at $10 million. But an appellate court lowered it to $1 million, stating that the original bail was 20 times the standard amount set in sexual assault cases.

Luster posted bail and submitted to house arrest. Last October, Superior Court Judge Ken Riley agreed to modify the terms of Luster's house arrest to allow him more freedom.

During the holiday break in the trial, Luster was permitted to meet with his Los Angeles lawyers between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. His passport remains in the custody of the county sheriff.

Diamond, who said 60% of the $1-million bail is Luster's money with the remainder coming from his mother, filed a motion for a mistrial last week.

The trial can go ahead with or without Luster. Under state law, if a defendant knows about his or her trial but voluntarily fails to appear, the case can move forward and a verdict rendered.

Meanwhile, in Luster's Mussel Shoals neighborhood, residents said they hadn't seen him since last Thursday.

"I am very glad he's gone," said one neighbor who, like others, did not want to be identified. "He's always around. He sits in the house and looks out with his binoculars."

She said she saw people searching Luster's home Saturday night.

"I bet everyone I knew that he'd leave," she said. "What does he have to lose?"

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