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Ventura County

Luster Had Opportunity for a 12-Hour Head Start

The rape suspect's monitoring device allowed him to go out from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

January 08, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Andrew Luster was as much as 12 hours ahead of the law by the time Ventura County authorities realized he was missing.

It was the very situation that "house arrest" is supposed to prevent.

Rigged with an electronic ankle bracelet, Luster, 39, could theoretically stray no farther than 150 feet from his Mussel Shoals house. If he did, a radio transmitter in the device would flash a message to a unit affixed to his home telephone, which would relay it every 15 minutes to a private monitoring service.

The message: He is "out of range."

The meaning, as it turned out this weekend: The Max Factor heir on trial on suspicion of a lurid series of alleged date rapes has vanished.

The problem: The monitoring service had been told to ignore the message between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Luster was the only adult in the county on house arrest, said Patrick Neil, the probation official who oversees "community confinement" and juvenile hall programs. About 100 juveniles accused or convicted of crimes are kept in their homes for as long as four months with the help of a monitoring device.

Many, however, are allowed to attend school, go to therapy sessions and meet with counselors. During those times, the monitoring service is told to ignore the devices' "out of range" signals.

That was also the case with Luster, Neil said.

In October, Superior Court Judge Ken Riley agreed to ease the terms of Luster's house arrest. By this week, Luster was allowed to be away from his beachside home from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Neil said.

On Friday, Luster's first "out of range" signal came at 8:30 a.m., Neil said. Since that was permissible under Riley's order, no alarm was raised by probation officials until after Luster failed to return to his home by his 8 p.m. deadline.

From time to time, juvenile offenders have skipped out, despite their ankle bracelets. The devices have no positioning system, but generally, Neil said, offenders haven't gotten far.

In Los Angeles County, electronic monitoring is used extensively on "low-risk" adults. It worked without a hitch for nearly 95% of them, according to a 1997 report by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

In Ventura County, the results of a pilot program for adults in 1994 and 1995 were unimpressive.

Offenders given a choice between staying at home and serving their terms in jail often chose jail, Neil said. Many couldn't afford the monitoring fees -- $50 a day in Luster's case -- and others knew that, with time off for good behavior, they would serve a shorter time behind bars than they would at home.

"We were a bit surprised when we ran this pilot program and it got up and died," Neil said.

Electronic tethers have been imposed by judges in at least 33 states. Despite their widespread use, there have been some embarrassing failures.

In 1999, a convicted drug dealer in Newark, N.J., managed to resume his sidewalk drug dealership despite the device that signaled his location 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He used extension cords.

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