The Thin Blurred Line

A Ventura County Rape Case Shows How Difficult It Can Be to Judge the Truth When Sex Takes Place in a Hard-Partying Haze

On the night his life changed forever, Andrew Luster and a friend drove north to a bar in Santa Barbara called O’Malley’s. Especially on weekends, the bars and clubs along State Street, where O’Malley’s is located, overflow with tourists and with students from UC Santa Barbara, many of whom fully expect, as a pretty blond 21-year-old named Carey did on that warm Friday night in July 2000, to “get messed up.”

Until that night, Luster’s famous heritage had served him well. He had a trust fund of nearly $1 million and a $600,000 cottage on the beach in Mussel Shoals, a Ventura County community. He was 36, handsome, with thick dark hair, green eyes and a trim, toned body from years of boating and surfing. He took fishing and surfing trips to Mexico and Costa Rica and slept with a string of beautiful young women. Usually he didn’t brag about how he got his money, but on that summer night at O’Malley’s, he wanted to impress Carey, so he says he casually mentioned that he was related to the legendary cosmetics tycoon Max Factor.

What happened over the next 12 hours, after the couple left O’Malley’s together, is hotly debated. But three days later, Ventura County sheriff’s deputies arrested Luster at his house and charged him with drugging, kidnapping and raping Carey “Doe.” (Her last name is being withheld under a Times policy of protecting the identities of sex-crime victims.) The graphic evidence investigators found at Luster’s house–16 videotapes in his bedroom that allegedly show him having sex with other women, some of whom appear drugged, almost comatose–led to additional criminal charges by two women Luster had dated in the past.

His status as a great-grandson of Max Factor became a liability for him overnight as the media played up the celebrity angle. The kidnapping charge, the possibility that Luster was “a clear and present and immediate danger to women,” plus the fear that he might flee, led a judge to set his bail at $10 million. Unable to come up with the $1-million bond, Luster sat in jail for five months. In all, Luster was charged with 87 counts of kidnapping, drugging, sodomy and rape. Prosecutors alleged that Luster is a serial rapist who drugged three unsuspecting women with the illegal substance gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and, without the knowledge of his two former girlfriends, videotaped them in various sexual acts. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The defense, however, claims that this was never a GHB-induced rape case. “Plain and simple,” says Roger Diamond, one of Luster’s lawyers, “this is a case about prosecutorial misconduct and we plan to get to the bottom of it.” The defense claims that prosecutors have withheld key evidence, altered witness statements and coached the three women complainants who, Luster’s lawyers claim, are “gold diggers” out to get their client’s money.

In interviews last March, before the judge imposed a gag order, Luster and his defense team denied all of the charges against him. The women consented to have sex, Luster said, and if the two videotapes now being used as evidence were viewed in their entirety, they would show that the women knew they were being videotaped.

He also contended that he never gave any of them GHB. “My life has been ruined because police and prosecutors jumped to conclusions,” he said. “They wanted to make me their GHB poster boy. They’re doing this to punish me for my lifestyle, which doesn’t fit in with their conservative values. In 20 years I haven’t gotten anything except a few speeding tickets. Had they thoroughly investigated [Carey Doe] before charging me, they would have discovered she lied” about how things transpired during their encounter. But, Luster said, “they allowed the case to go forward to boost their careers.”

Two and a half years after Luster’s arrest, his case still is not resolved. He remains under limited house arrest, an electronic-monitoring device attached to his ankle, as he waits for his trial to begin in the coming weeks. The high-profile case once seemed solid, but at this point it’s hard to predict how a jury might react to some of the evidence that has emerged since the charges were first filed.

As the pretrial debate between Ventura County prosecutors and Luster’s defense team continues, Luster’s case opens a window on the persistent problems that arise when the criminal justice system is confronted with accusations of drug-induced sexual assault. These cases often present difficult challenges, including physical evidence that vanishes quickly from the human body and built-in cultural biases against men and women who sometimes get caught up in a partying lifestyle. Such cases also often hinge on the meaning of “consensual” and the ability of a jury to sift the truth from a subculture of sometimes easy sex, performed in a haze of drugs and alcohol, that obscures traditional meanings of guilt and innocence.

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