In Mexico, Luster Hid in Plain Sight
Andrew Luster was a familiar face in this tiny fishing village in the months after he fled the United States, surfing the pristine beaches by day, partying at restaurants at night.
He went by the alias David Carrera but lived in the open. He spoke fluent Spanish, made friends among the locals and was known here and at neighboring beach towns as a generous tipper with a taste for the good life.
But this socializing would prove his undoing.
He spent part of April partying with two U.S. visitors at a resort about an hour north of Punta de Mitas. Two months later, back in the United States, the couple was looking at videotapes and still photos of their Mexico trip and realized their new acquaintance was Luster.
Their discovery gave rise to an unlikely posse of bounty hunters and American expatriates who attempted to lure Luster into the open. For days last week, they searched for Luster at his favorite haunts and spent a wild night tailing him around the streets of Puerto Vallarta.
They got their man Wednesday when Luster, the 39-year-old great-grandson of cosmetics legend Max Factor, was dragged away from a taco stand in the Mexican resort town by the bounty hunters.
The capture came five months after Luster bolted during his trial in Ventura County on charges of drugging and raping three women. He was convicted in absentia, and on Friday began serving his 124-year sentence at Wasco State Prison in Kern County after being deported from Mexico.
Luster’s exact whereabouts during his five months on the run aren’t known, and U.S. investigators said they are trying to determine whether others knowingly aided and abetted him. But it’s clear that the fugitive spent some of that time crisscrossing the coastal villages and resorts around Puerto Vallarta.
Besides using a false name, Luster appears to have made little effort to hide.
Punta de Mitas is about 35 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, down a two-lane mountain road lined with fields of bananas, tomatoes and chiles. Locals said Luster arrived this spring. They said they had no idea he was a wanted man until after his arrest.
Manuel Reyes, a waiter at Restaurante Mojarra, remembered one day in March when Luster came in with several Mexican friends from Sayulita, a surf spot 20 miles away. They started the day with pineapple juice and shrimp quesadillas for breakfast. After a day of surfing, they sat down for drinks and a dinner of mahi mahi stuffed with seafood, wrapped in bacon and covered with shrimp.
Luster was so giddy, Reyes said, that he invited the waiter to have two beers at the table.
“They were living it up and enjoying themselves,” Reyes said. “It seemed like it wouldn’t stop.”
Antonio Solis, a lanchero who takes people by boat to choice surfing spots inaccessible by land, said Luster visited several times in late March and early April. He said Luster arrived in a rental car and had two surfboards on the roof.
On one occasion, Solis said, he asked for 600 pesos, about $60, for his work. Luster gave him 850 pesos, or about $85, the best tip Solis said he has ever received. “He was very nice, very polite and spoke very good Spanish,” Solis said.
On another day, Luster came with a friend, a well-known local surfer known as El Lobo. Luster said the two had just returned from Oaxaca state, where they had been surfing in Puerto Escondido, Solis said.
Luster’s surfing skills were not remarkable, Solis said, and it appeared El Lobo was giving him lessons. “It was like him paying for an instructor,” Solis said. “He really didn’t surf very well himself.”
In early April, Luster showed up at Costa Custodio, a small, isolated resort owned by Min Labanauskas and his wife, Mona Rains. He again used the name David Carrera. He said he was a surfer from Hawaii, with an interest in Mexican real estate. They let him stay in a nearby friend’s house in the isolated community of no more than 30 permanent residents at any time.
Two hours north of Puerto Vallarta, their beach was known for its good surf break.
Luster made himself at home, Labanauskas said. Asking permission to use the resort’s pool, he parked his car in their driveway. When they didn’t see him for more than three hours, Rains went looking for him and found him partying with some visitors from the United States. It was this couple that in early June realized that “Carrera” was actually Luster.
The couple first contacted the FBI, Labanauskas said, but were frustrated by the response. They then contacted Duane Lee “Dog” Chapman, the bounty hunter who had publicly vowed to find the fugitive. But with only vague information, Chapman was not that interested, Labanauskas said.
On June 8, the couple called their hosts in Mexico, asking Labanauskas and Rains to take a look at the “most wanted” list on the FBI’s Web site.
Under Andrew Luster’s name, Carrera’s face stared back.
“I was 100% sure it was him,” Labanauskas said.
Luster had stayed in contact with the resort owners, saying he might be interested in some local real estate. He had left them three or four notes since his April visit, leaving a business address in Guadalajara and a phone number.
Labanauskas asked his attorney to contact the FBI in Mexico, but several attempts failed and a call to the U.S. Consulate went unreturned for two days, he said.
“It had only been a day, but we hadn’t gotten anything back from the FBI and we knew this guy was out there,” Labanauskas said. “We knew exactly where he was. There wasn’t time to waste.”
Labanauskas and his wife decided to call Chapman, telling him they believed they could make contact.
He arrived more than a week ago, with his son, brother, a cameraman, an actor/producer and another producer who was planning to sell a television series on bounty hunters. Labanauskas called Luster and asked him to meet them at Costa Custodio to talk real estate. For four or five days, Luster kept putting them off, Labanauskas said.
Finally, Rains called Luster and asked him where he was staying. He told her he was at the Motel los Angeles in Puerto Vallarta, where he had a $30-a-night room. She drove to Puerto Vallarta that day to see for herself, finding the town full of teenage girls on vacation.
Knowing of Luster’s rape convictions, “she calls me back and says, ‘Listen, there’s this invasion of high school girls here. We have to do something now,’ ” her husband said.
Last Wednesday in Puerta Vallarta, Labanauskas and a group of drafted friends staked out local hot spots for hours, on the lookout for Luster. At 2 a.m., they were ready to give up. Then a stroke of luck: On their way to retrieve one member of the posse, they spotted the same make and model car they knew Luster was driving.
Chapman, the bounty hunter, was two hours away, waiting for Luster to show up at another location.
Labanauskas, a retired biophysicist, and the others followed the car, running red lights, trying to stay out of sight, making sure Luster didn’t get away.
In the early morning hours, Chapman arrived, and he apprehended Luster. It didn’t happen the way Labanauskas expected.
“We were thinking we were trying to apprehend Andrew Luster with the consent of the FBI,” said Labanauskas. In fact, Chapman did not have such consent.
Witnesses to the capture thought they were seeing a kidnapping and called police. Luster, along with Chapman and his four associates, were arrested. Labanauskas and his wife soon left Mexico, concerned that they, too, would be charged.
Chapman and his four companions were charged Friday with criminal association and illegal deprivation of liberty. They were released Saturday on bail. But the five must remain in Mexico for at least 72 hours, until a judge either orders the case to trial or dismisses the charges.
For locals who knew Luster, the events of the last few days left them shaking their heads. Barbara Facsik, who co-owns the 180 Restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, said she ran into Luster at a pool party and walking the streets two weeks ago.
“Mexican beaches are the perfect place to hide,” Facsik said.