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Tips on Luster Search Pour In

Ventura County authorities work on securing a federal arrest warrant as the date-rape suspect's trial continues without him.

January 08, 2003|Tracy Wilson and Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writers

The search for fugitive rape suspect Andrew Luster continued Tuesday as Ventura County law enforcement officials sifted through dozens of potential leads while at the same time trying to compile enough information to obtain a federal arrest warrant.

Investigators have been checking airports and looking at bank and cell phone records in an attempt to track down the 39-year-old great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor. They suspect Luster, who faces a life prison sentence if convicted of drugging and raping three women, jumped his $1-million bail last week during a break in his trial.

Tips on Luster's possible whereabouts poured in Tuesday in response to news reports of his flight, said Eric Nishimoto, spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

"We are at the point where we are going through the leads we have, prioritizing them, and trying to determine where to look," Nishimoto said. "The one advantage to dealing with somebody like him, who has a lot of contacts and money, is the fact that there are a number of trails we can follow."

The Sheriff's Department and the Ventura County district attorney's office each have one investigator working full time on the case, as well as backup investigators. "Obviously, we have limited resources," Nishimoto said.

That is one reason why local authorities are trying to obtain federal assistance.

During the last two days, prosecutors have scrambled to compile information that would enable the FBI to obtain an arrest warrant for Luster and give them authority to investigate leads in foreign countries.

At the same time, authorities are working to put together a list of leads on places Luster may have gone -- homes of relatives, former girlfriends or friends, and any of his previous residences.

"Once we have the [federal] arrest warrant, the issue is ... where do the leads take us," said Gary Auer, chief investigator for the district attorney's office.

Meanwhile, Luster's criminal trial continued in his absence.

Santa Monica-based attorney Roger Jon Diamond stood alone at the defense counsel table, his bulky briefcase parked in the chair where his client once sat alongside a four-member defense team.

Co-counsel Kiana Sloan-Hillier walked out Monday after Superior Court Judge Ken Riley declared Luster a fugitive and issued a warrant for his arrest. She has yet to return.

Investigator Bill Pavelic, a former Los Angeles police officer, also walked out -- angrily clutching his briefcase -- after prosecutors called him as a witness outside the jury's presence and asked whether he helped Luster flee.

"It is insulting," he snapped. "You know damn well I didn't."

Diamond also asked to leave the case, but Riley ordered him to stay on and defend Luster, who faces 87 criminal counts, including rape, sodomy of an unconscious person, sexual battery, drug possession and poisoning.

Defense attorneys, who did not give an opening statement, have maintained that Luster engaged in consensual sex with the purported victims, whom they described as embarrassed party girls lying about the sexual encounters.

But prosecutors allege that Luster used a potent date-rape drug to knock out the alleged victims, erasing any memory of the sexual assaults.

On Tuesday, a 23-year-old former UC Santa Barbara college student, identified as David Doe, said he believes Luster drugged him and his friend, Carey, after they met at a Santa Barbara bar in July 2000. Doe said he has only a spotty memory of the events that night, but testified he began feeling nauseous and tired after Luster handed him a glass of water on a dance floor.

Carey told detectives that Luster raped her at his Mussel Shoals beach house after they drove there from the bar. It was her report that led investigators to search the home, where they seized videotapes of two additional sexual encounters that prosecutors contend are rapes.

Diamond tried to discredit David Doe on Tuesday, pointing out a number of occasions in which the college graduate admitted lying to police about the events on July 14, 2000.

Doe acknowledged that he had sex with Carey in the backseat of Luster's car while driving to the defendant's house, but lied about the encounter when interviewed.

"I didn't want it to look like she was promiscuous," he testified.

Under Diamond's questioning, David Doe also admitted that he didn't want the case against Luster to "fall through" based on his sexual encounter with one of the alleged victims. Carey is expected to take the stand today.

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