Fugitive Rapist Is Captured in Mexico

Times Staff Writers

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico -- Fugitive rapist Andrew Luster was captured by bounty hunters early Wednesday in this seaside resort town and jailed with them after local police responded to what they believed was a kidnapping.

Luster, 39, the great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor, was taken into custody shortly after 5 a.m. along with several bounty hunters and a video cameraman, said Sebastian Zavala, a spokesman for the Puerto Vallarta police. The bounty hunters had tackled Luster as he was ordering tacos from a sidewalk stand, witnesses said.

For six months, state and federal authorities have pursued Luster, who broke off an electronic monitoring bracelet and fled during a break in his Ventura County trial in January. A jury convicted him shortly thereafter on 86 counts for drugging and raping three women. He was sentenced to 124 years in prison.


Bounty hunter Duane Lee Chapman, 50, started his own search five months ago in hopes of collecting a percentage of Luster’s forfeited $1-million cash bail. Chapman, a wild-looking ex-con who goes by the nickname “Dog,” had been tracking Luster in Mexico for a week after receiving a tip that the fugitive was hiding there.

Chapman apparently caught up with Luster about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday. Witnesses said a man they believe was Chapman grabbed Luster just as the fugitive was ordering tacos from a street vendor a short distance from the beach.

“These guys come along and begin threatening him with tear gas,” said the vendor, Giovanni Balbueno Molina, 18. “He said nothing. They threw him on the ground. He resisted as they put him in handcuffs. I heard them click.... We were all watching.”

One witness, Polo Robles, 21, who was eating nearby, said Luster was placed face down while Chapman disrobed him. Other witnesses said Luster was not stripped.

Three men were taping the incident, according to Robles and several other witnesses.

Zavala said Puerto Vallarta police were alerted to the incident when they received a report of a street fight. When officers arrived, witnesses recounted how Luster was subdued and then bundled into a van headed north.

Two police patrol cars gave chase, intercepting two vans near the Puerto Vallarta Airport. Zavala said officers found Luster inside one of the vehicles. The fugitive was sporting a goatee and identified himself to authorities as David Carrera. Zavala said Luster had his hands cuffed behind his back, but was in good condition.


In addition to Luster, police detained Chapman, his brother, Tim Chapman, 38, and son, Leland Chapman, 25, as well as his agent, Boris Krutonog, 41, and a cameraman, Jeff Sells, 35.

Marco Antonio Inda, a spokesman for the Mexican attorney general’s office in Puerto Vallarta, said Luster is being held while his immigration status is determined. If he is in Mexico illegally, he will be deported to the United States. Otherwise, he will be returned on an extradition order. Inda said authorities had 48 hours to determine Luster’s status.

Late Wednesday, a government spokesman said Luster had been transferred to Mexico City.

James Dickmeyer, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, said the FBI office in the capital was working with Mexican authorities “to try to get this guy returned to face justice in the United States.”

The status of the other detainees was not clear. Mexican authorities said they were looking into whether the bounty hunters had broken any laws.

Beth Smith, Duane Lee Chapman’s business partner, said in an interview from her home in Hawaii that Chapman called early Wednesday to tell her that his team had grabbed Luster. Smith said Chapman was carrying Mace but no other weapons.

“He called me and said, ‘I’ve got him. Call the feds right now,’ ” Smith said. “I think they were out on the street. I could hear this scuffling and people talking. It was a very chaotic scene.”


Smith said she contacted the FBI office in Ventura.

Chapman had been tailing Luster after a tipster contacted him and reported that he had met a man who looked like the fugitive at a resort town in Mexico. “He had been fishing and surfing and partying, and Puerto Vallarta [is] full of young girls right now and he was basically having a heyday,” Smith said.

The tipster sent a photo of Luster to Chapman, who immediately got on a plane to Mexico, she said.

Once there, Chapman had the informant contact Luster and attempt to set up a meeting where he could capture the convicted rapist, Smith said. After four canceled meetings, she said, Chapman and his crew moved in when they spotted Luster early Wednesday at a hotel.

Smith said she later received a call from one of Luster’s victims, who has been in contact with the bounty hunter.

“She was sobbing,” Smith said. “She just said, ‘Thank you so much.’ ”

Law enforcement officials were less grateful, saying they didn’t approve of Chapman’s methods and would have caught Luster on their own. Bob Mack, an FBI agent in Ventura who had supervised the fugitive investigation, said the agency had already been following leads in Mexico. He insisted there was nothing embarrassing about being beaten by Chapman.

“Embarrassing?” Mack asked at a news conference in Ventura. “No. I mean, we were on the trail and it would have been inevitable that he would have been arrested.”


FBI spokesman Ralph Boelter said the agency had received the same tip as Chapman. He said the tip came from a U.S. couple who had recently been in Puerto Vallarta.

Luster had been staying at the Motel los Angeles, next to the offices of the attorney general, where he was held earlier Wednesday.

Luster checked into a $30-a-night room on Sunday, said Oscar Lopez, assistant manager of the motel. He had no visitors during his stay, Lopez added.

“He didn’t create any trouble here,” Lopez said. “He was a decent guy. He went out in the day with his surfboards and came back. He was always well-dressed and pleasant.”

Luster’s mother, Elizabeth Luster, reached by telephone in Northern California, said she hadn’t been in touch with her son since his disappearance. “I don’t know anything and that’s God’s honest truth,” she said.

Luster had fled his Mussel Shoals home during a recess in his trial in January. On Jan. 3, the company that provided electronic monitoring of Luster noticed that he had not returned home by the hour required under the terms of his house arrest and notified authorities.


Investigators with the Ventura County district attorney’s office and the Sheriff’s Department searched the house, noting that his dog, warm-weather clothes and a collection of Native American artifacts were gone, according to court records.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Ken Riley issued a warrant for Luster and ordered the trial to continue.

Investigators have since obtained at least 25 search warrants for Luster’s bank, cellular phone and online accounts. The documents have been sealed, but investigators say records returned so far indicate Luster’s flight was well planned, well financed and involved assistance from other people.

Luster’s bail was initially set at $10 million, but an appellate court lowered it to $1 million, stating the original bail was 20 times the standard amount set in sexual-assault cases. Luster put up $700,000 of his own money with the remainder coming from his mother.

When Luster ran, he forfeited the bail money to the county. Now that he has been captured, it is unclear whether the county will keep all or a portion of the money.

In an earlier interview, Duane Lee Chapman said that he intended to petition for 15% of the bail money, or $150,000, plus about $20,000 in costs. Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks said Wednesday he did not expect any of the bail money to go to Chapman, although he said the bounty hunter may be eligible for at least some of a $10,000 reward that had been put up by the FBI and the Sheriff’s Department. Some of the reward may also go to the informants, he said.


Brooks said Luster’s puzzling decision to live in a resort area frequented by American tourists fit his character. “He is not a very smart criminal. If he was smarter, he wouldn’t have committed the crimes he did.”


Times staff writers Greg Krikorian, Anna Gorman, Catherine Saillant and Allison Hoffman contributed to this report.



On the trail

The following are key dates in the case of convicted rapist Andrew Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics legend Max Factor who fled during his Ventura County trial earlier this year and was apprehended in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Wednesday:

* July 18, 2000: Luster is arrested on suspicion of repeatedly sexually assaulting a woman in his Mussel Shoals home after sedating her with GHB, the so-called date rape drug. While searching his home, authorities find photographs and homemade videos of sedated or unconscious women that they suspect are assault victims.

* Dec. 15, 2000: Despite warnings from prosecutors that Luster is a major flight risk, an appellate court reduces his bail from $10 million to $1 million. The justices argue that his original bail is 20 times the standard amount set in sexual-assault cases.

* Dec. 21, 2000: Luster posts bail and submits to house arrest. He is fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet that is activated when he leaves his house.


* Oct. 18, 2002: Ventura County Superior Court Judge Ken Riley agrees to modify the terms of Luster’s house arrest, allowing him time to roam freely during certain hours so he can meet with his attorneys in Los Angeles.

* Dec. 16, 2002: Luster’s trial begins. He is charged with 87 criminal counts -- including rape, sexual battery, sodomy and poisoning -- involving three women. If convicted on all charges, he faces life in prison.

* Jan. 3, 2003: Probation officials are alerted shortly after Luster’s 8 p.m. curfew that his electronic bracelet indicates he is not home.

* Jan. 4, 2003: Armed with a search warrant, authorities go to Luster’s beachfront home, but find no sign of him. His clothes and pet dog are missing.

* Jan. 6, 2003: Judge Riley declares Luster a fugitive. He orders that the trial resume without the defendant present.

* Jan. 21, 2003: Jury finds Luster guilty of 86 criminal counts, including raping three women after knocking them out with a potent anesthetic. He is later sentenced to 124 years in prison.


* June 18, 2003: Luster is apprehended in Mexico.

Source: Los Angeles Times research

Los Angeles Times