After two days of deliberations, a jury found cosmetics heir Andrew Luster guilty Tuesday of raping three women after inviting them to his seaside Ventura County home and knocking them out with a potent anesthetic he slipped into their cocktails.
Luster, 39, a self-employed investor and great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor, was not present when the verdicts were announced. He fled in the middle of his three-week trial and is believed to have left the country.
His attorney stood alone at the defense counsel table as the seven women and five men on the jury walked into court with a thick envelope containing their verdicts on 87 criminal counts. The jury found Luster guilty on 86 of them.
They included 20 counts of rape by use of drugs, 17 counts of rape of unconscious victims, two counts of poisoning and four counts of drug possession. Luster was also found guilty of oral copulation by use of drugs and sodomy by use of drugs. The jury deadlocked on one count of poisoning.
No rape victims or relatives of Luster were present when the verdicts were read aloud by Ventura County Superior Court Judge Ken Riley, who told jurors he was uncertain when or whether the defendant would be sentenced.
Although Luster faces the equivalent of a life sentence, his fugitive status has raised questions. Riley said he needed to research what Luster's rights are.
The judge told jurors it was his decision to ease the terms of Luster's house arrest, which allowed the defendant to move about unmonitored during the day. Luster skipped bail and disappeared on Jan. 3 during a holiday break in the trial.
The judge said he granted a defense request to modify the terms of Luster's $1-million bail release to allow the defendant to prepare for trial.
"At the time I thought it was a legitimate request," Riley said. "As it turns out, I made a mistake."
Riley told jurors that Luster's flight was well-planned, well-financed and involved assistance from other people. Local authorities and the FBI are continuing to search for Luster.
Jurors left the Ventura courthouse under police escort and did not talk to reporters. But they told attorneys on the case that the evidence was overwhelming.
During the trial, prosecutors played two videotapes recorded by Luster that showed him engaging in sex acts with two women who appeared to be unconscious.
On the tapes, which were played in open court, Luster engaged in sexual intercourse with the women several times while manipulating their bodies like dolls. In one tape, he inserts objects, including a lighted marijuana cigarette, inside a woman's vagina.
Prosecutors argued that Luster was a serial rapist who preyed on women and fulfilled his "sick fantasies" by drugging and then raping them. The defense argued that the sex was consensual, and portrayed the videotapes as harmless homemade porn with women who were pretending to be asleep.
"They felt the tapes were extremely graphic and disturbing evidence, and that they obviously showed Mr. Luster was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Deputy Dist. Atty. Tony Wold said.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, defense attorney Roger Diamond said he was disappointed but not surprised by the verdicts, given his client's flight, which jurors were allowed to consider during their deliberations.
Diamond said he was put at a disadvantage after Luster ran. "It was basically impossible to try this case without the client," he said. Looking to TV cameras at a news conference, Diamond urged his client to return and said he has a strong case on appeal.
Luster, who lived alone in Mussel Shoals, was arrested outside his home on July 18, 2000, after a UC Santa Barbara student told police he had raped her there.
During a search of the house, Ventura County Sheriff's Department detectives found the videotapes in a locked bedroom closet.
Authorities also seized cocaine and other drugs, as well as weapons. Luster was charged with multiple counts of rape based on the university student's report and the two videotapes. He was initially held on $10-million bail after prosecutors persuaded a judge that he was a flight risk.
An appellate court later ruled that bail amount excessive and lowered the sum to $1 million. The court also ordered Luster held under house arrest pending trial.
Luster's trial got underway in December after months of court delays, during which defense attorneys argued that detectives and prosecutors framed Luster, tampered with evidence and persuaded witnesses to lie.
Judge Riley refused to allow the defense to raise those issues at trial, however, finding there was no evidence of law enforcement misconduct.
Regarding sentencing, Riley asked attorneys in the case to file briefs on whether Luster can be sentenced while a fugitive. A hearing has been set for Feb. 18.