“I'd only been assigned to Major Crimes for maybe about a year, year and a half, when I received this case,” said Melissa Smith.
Smith, then a captain with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, is now retired.
She was working on child abuse and sexual assault cases when she was notified about a potential crime from the neighboring county in July of 2000.
“I first received a call from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office as they had initially received a call from our victim,” said Smith. “She was a student at the college, the university at UCSB. They had spoken to her and got an initial statement and they determined that the crime had occurred in Ventura County.”
Smith wanted to meet with the college student.
When she did, the student described a recent night out with her male friend. They went to a bar on State Street in Santa Barbara.
“And while they were dancing, a male had approached who we now know was Andrew Luster,” said Smith. “At some point, he offered her a drink. And actually they both took a drink, both her male companion and herself. And she just said she felt different, more intoxicated than she would have anticipated she would have, because prior to that, she only had like one or two drinks and she's had one or two drinks before and has never felt that way.”
Melissa Smith believed this was consistent with the affects of a date rape drug like GHB.
The rest of the night was a blur for the student with only snippets of memories.
There are recollections of leaving with her friend, Andrew Luster and another friend of Luster’s who joined the party. They made stops at another club, the Mussel Shoals pier and then ultimately ending up at Luster’s home.
“She recalls going into the residence and him placing her into the shower,” said Smith. “And the next thing she knew, you know, he had also entered the shower and was forcing himself on her. And that's where he initially started the sexual assault that continued throughout the night.”
The police also interviewed the student’s male friend to corroborate what happened that night, and set up a call between the college student and Luster with the police listening in, just to establish the connection between the student and Luster.
With all of this…
“We believed we had enough for, you know, beyond enough for a search warrant to search his residence,” said Smith.
Searching Andrew Luster’s residence
They were hoping to find things at Luster’s residence that would corroborate the student’s story. They found much more.
Drugs … weapons….
But it was the photos and videos that were most damning.
“A ton of photos. We found photo albums consistent with, you know, some were of his vacation and, you know, family photos,” said Smith. “And then he also had photos of women who appeared to be unconscious in various states.”
“The team found hundreds of videos, some of them more commercial type videos – I think they're called ‘Waves and Babes’, they were surf videos and women clad in bikini videos. He had personal videos that he had taken,” said Smith. “And then he had one video in particular that piqued our interest.”
That video had a label on it that read ‘Shawna GHBing’.
“At the time we didn't know who it was. It was a female who was obviously passed out on a bed. She looked unconscious. You could actually hear her snoring,” said Smith. “You see him manipulating the camera like he wants to get it just right. He wants to get the lighting just right. At one point, he gets on to the foot of the bed and and he's talking to the camera and he makes a comment, something to the effect of, ‘Nothing better than Christmas time, unwrapping a present.’ And he makes reference. He kind of points over a shoulder to a beautiful girl, passed out and makes reference about unboxing his present, and just before he turns, he says, ‘I'm ready, are you?’ And he points his finger to the camera. And then he proceeds to do a multitude of sexual acts on the victim.”
Smith says at some stage during the video it looked like the woman was waking up and Luster would quickly jump up off the bed. When she didn’t regain consciousness he would resume the assault.
There were dozens of these videos and photos of different women, some, police believe, of women assaulted outside the country…
With this overwhelming evidence, Andrew Luster was arrested.
At first, detectives didn’t know they had taken a very high-profile individual into custody. It wasn’t until they started receiving calls from the press, that they looked into who exactly Andrew Luster was.
“We started doing our homework a little bit more to figure out who he was and realized that he had a lot of access to a lot more money,” said Smith.
That’s because Andrew Luster is the great-grandson of Max Factor – the founder of the cosmetics empire.
When Luster was initially arrested, Melissa Smith interviewed him for many hours.
“My approach to him was just, you know, I just kind of wanted to know what transpired. And I kind of came across with, ‘I don't know, there's this girl making all these allegations’. And that's the approach that I kind of went with him and let him kind of lead,” said Smith.
Luster had a bit of attitude, Smith said.
“I’d describe Mr. Luster as being very cocky, very arrogant. I think that his upbringing… he believes that he is above everyone else and smarter,” said Smith. “But I think he comes from an affluent family and hasn't really had to work or do anything. And I think everybody else is, you know, is below him.”
Luster initially denied giving the student any drugs and said everything that had occurred that night was consensual.
“But, you know, one of the things that is important about this case is that, you know, these women were intoxicated and were not able to give consent. It's clearly obvious by looking at the videotapes, when someone is passed out, they don't have the ability to give you consent to do the things that he did,” said Smith.
Luster posted bail and was put under a form of house arrest while the investigation continued.
Finding the women in the videotapes
Meanwhile…. Detectives had their work cut out for them. To form a really strong case they needed to find the women in these tapes.
“I wanted to find Shawna,” said Luster.
They went through his address books calling all the Shawnas. And they had to proceed with caution. They were looking to find someone who had been raped and perhaps didn’t know it.
“So we really had to delicately ask questions of these women that we spoke to,” said Smith. “It was months later that my partner actually spoke to, and it was just these phone calls that we were doing that someone said, ‘Hey, it could be this person.’ And so he happened to call this number and it happened to be a relative of Shawna's, and that's how we were connected to her.”
“That was probably our biggest milestone,” said Smith.
Shawna agreed to testify.
They needed to find other victims – so the police appealed to the public for additional information.
One more woman came forward.
“I didn't know about what Andrew did to me for four years”
“I grew up in San Diego County and I had moved to Hawaii for a while after I graduated from high school and then moved to Arizona for a little bit. That was right before I met Andrew,” said Tonya Balden.
I met Tonya at her home in Ventura County. It feels like a very welcoming place. We sit on comfy chairs with a fluffy carpet under our feet.
Tonya is a slender woman, about 50-years-old, with long blonde hair.
She’s an artist who creates these wonderful portraits of people with charcoal and graphite pencil. Some of her art adorns the walls of her home. She’s very popular and has a waiting list a year long.
“I've been drawing since I was two years old and fortunately I'm able to do that for a living now,” she said. “But anything creative is what I'm interested in. So gardening too, and cooking and all of that.”
She tells me she always wanted to be a Mom.
“I've got two kids and been married 25 years and couldn't be happier,” said Tonya.
But Tonya takes me back to October 1996, when she was 23-years-old. She had come to Santa Barbara to visit her younger sister who was studying at UCSB. They decided to go for a night out on State Street.
Andrew Luster approached her at a nightclub.
“He was friendly. And as I talk to him a bit, he's very charming, very intelligent, easy to talk to, just a great sense of humor and clever and just really an all around pretty interesting person to talk to,” said Tonya. “I felt totally comfortable with him. There was no inkling of danger or anything like that.”
A group of Tonya, her sister, Luster and a friend of his, all hung out together that night, ending up at Luster’s home.
Because they got along so well, Luster and Tonya spent the next five days together. Eventually, she decided to leave Arizona and move in with him – at least temporarily.
The plan was Tonya would stay with Luster until she got a job and her own place.
While they were living together red flags started to pop up.
“One of the biggest ones for me was there was a hallway in his house that went out to where the garage was – a laundry room area – and it was a part of the house you'd normally didn't go through unless you were going out to do laundry,” said Tonya. “And there was a wall where he had a whole collage of pictures of all kinds of different women in bikinis. And he told me that they were friends of his and some he didn't really know, but just took pictures of them. And it just didn't sit right with me. And then there was a time when I passed that wall and there was my picture added to it. And it just really, really gave me the creeps.”
For a lot of different reasons, the relationship ultimately wasn’t working for Tonya. She broke up with Luster after about four months.
She says she never knew about Andrew Luster’s family connections – his wealth. It never came up.
But she moved on with her life. She found love, got engaged and married. But things weren’t over for Andrew Luster.
“So Andrew actually continued to pursue me for years,” said Tonya. “He would come to my job. He would leave notes. He made threats to my husband and well, not really to me, he didn't make threats, but he just wanted me back.”
Four years after the breakup, Tonya was newly pregnant – she heard that Luster was in the news.
“I got a phone call from a friend who had read in the newspaper that day that Andrew Luster had been arrested for raping somebody,” said Tonya. “And and I read the article and I read that he had raped someone. And then it said at the very end of the article, if you have any information about this person to contact the Investigations bureau.”
She called the Sheriff’s Department and they had her come down to the station. When she got there, detectives recognized her.
“I didn't know about what Andrew did to me for four years,” said Tonya.
They asked Tonya to return another time with her husband, for support. She did. She was led into a room – her husband waited outside. A videotape has been paused to a specific frame.
“It was me lying there on his bed wearing the exact outfit that I wore that first night that I met him,” said Tonya. “And I mean, being a woman, you know what outfits you wear, on what occasions, and especially I had just bought this outfit. And it was a black blouse and a black long skirt. And in the video, my skirt was pulled up and they just had it on pause and just asked me if I could identify myself.”
Tonya says she was confused. She remembered the night but had no idea she had been unconscious.
“We were, of course, drinking that night, but not in excess at all,” she said.
In absolute disbelief Tonya watched the whole video. She said it was like watching a horror movie.
“I was making some sounds with my throat, like I couldn't breathe very well,” she said. “He videotaped it and narrated the entire rape. He raped me. He put a lit joint in my private area and zoomed in on that, talking about it. He sodomized me. He had a sword…”
Tonya trails off as she cries.
“He was so cold. He didn't seem to have any feelings about what he was doing to me. And I just looked like I was dead,” she said.
Recalling the night Tonya says the last thing she remembered was talking to Luster about the cat she had as a child. She remembers waking up the next day in his bed but that he insisted she had passed out and that he had brought her to sleep in his bed.
“I woke up and I was in his bed and I had all my clothes on, even I was wearing pantyhose. I even had those on. I mean, everything was intact,” she said. “Other than my bra was twisted, which seemed kind of weird.”
But she was convinced by Luster’s story.
“It was just so confusing but he acted so natural, like. It's, you know, your mind wants to wonder, did something happen? But then at the same time, you're fully clothed and the person is acting like everything is fine,” she said.
Learning in that police station what had happened to her, Tonya said she was terrified, and more….
“I was so angry that he had done this and then I was angry that I had a relationship with him. I moved in with him and trusted him and just everything,” Tonya said emotionally between tears. “I was newly pregnant with our daughter, and then I ended up having a miscarriage. Fortunately, our daughter was fine. It turned out I was carrying twins. And so her twin did pass away. I know I can't say that it's because of this, but I just feel like maybe it was and that also really hurts me.”
Detectives now had three victims that they had managed to identify. They were now prepared to go to trial. The victims were identified by pseudonyms:
Carrie Doe, – the college student, Shawna Doe and Tonya Doe.
Going to trial
Maeve Fox was the lead prosecutor in Andrew Luster’s trial which began in early December 2002 – about two years after his home was searched and he was arrested. Fox is now retired.
She came to this case, as she describes it, a little later in the pretrial stage.
“By the time I finally got involved, the charges were firmly settled. The case had gone through a preliminary hearing. The case had gone through many hands in the Ventura County District Attorney's office. And then the D.A. at the time, who was Michael Bradbury, asked me to step in,” said Fox.
What that meant is a lot of work had already been done.
Fox said the Luster case had been floating around her office for a few years. She was brought in because of a few concerns.
“There were a lot of differing opinions about the strength of the case, which was one of the reasons why I was asked to come in because some of the attorneys in the office had an idea, that is very antiquated and wrong in my mind at this time, which was because these girls had agreed to party with Luster that their credibility might be called into question,” said Fox. “You know, it happens in every single sexual assault case. At some point, I hope we get over this idea. But anyway. So I'd heard about the tapes. I wanted to watch them. I did watch them.”
Fox said it was the first thing she did on the case. She went into her office, locked the door, closed the blinds and watched.
“And as soon as I watched them. I knew no defense attorney could ever beat this case because the evidence was absolutely sickeningly overwhelming,” said Fox.
Fox felt she had a clear path ahead.
“So altogether, what we had were the victims, their testimony. We had these unassailable videotapes of the crimes and we had evidence that the defendant had done this to other women,” she said.
Remember there were dozens of videos and photographs and many of the women in them were never found.
“I cut the witness list down to about ten or 12 people. Because all we needed to do was lay the proper foundation to get the videotapes into evidence, and it was going to be over,” said Fox.
So they go to trial.
A few people have described the trial to me as a bit of a circus-like atmosphere and as you’ll hear – there was a lot of theatrics.
“Mr. Luster was pretty contained, pretty self-contained. That cannot be said about his defense counsel,” said Fox.
Fox is referring to Roger Diamond here – Andrew Luster’s attorney, who is still practicing law in Santa Monica today, according to the State Bar of California.
“There was just constant hysteria coming from the defense side, improper comments, outbursts, speaking objections,” she said.
Fox says the main defense was that everything was consensual. The GHB and drugging was consensual… scenes for a porn film in the making…
“But moreover, that they had consented to engage in what Mr. Diamond tried to portray as Mr. Luster's budding movie producer career. And, you know, the argument was that these were staged movies, again, just so ridiculous,” said Fox.
These kinds of antics, as Fox describes them, continued throughout the trial.
Tonya Balden, one of the victims – who spoke to me extensively for this series, shared what it was like to testify during the trail.
“So now I was pregnant with our second child, our son,” said Tonya. “And so it was really hard being on the stand, having to testify. Cross-examination by Roger Diamond – which was a nightmare. He and Andrew, their argument was that I was an actress in a porn film and that the whole thing was just a big put on.”
And then, they played Tonya’s rape videotape in front of a packed courtroom.
“And for me to be up there with my rape being shown in front of everybody, I actually threw up because it was so emotional for me. I feel like that was the hardest part of it. They did have my husband leave the courtroom. He's never seen any of the tapes. I would never want him to see that,” she said.
Luster on the run
The trial was taking place in December. As Christmas approached, there was going to be a break.
Fox and her team wanted Luster kept in custody — rather than being out on house arrest.
“Because we had received some chatter that he was potentially going to flee,” said Fox.
Prosecutors knew he had access to money – he was out on a million dollars bail
I even heard from one of the case investigators – retired Captain Melissa Smith that many from her team had the same concerns. They offered to give up their vacation time and watch Andrew Luster’s house. That wasn’t approved, she said.
So we were concerned, highly concerned,” said Fox. “That there was this period of freedom. He had an ankle bracelet on, but there was going to be this extended period of freedom, and we were worried that he was going to flee. And that's exactly what he did.”
At some point during the trial’s break Andrew Luster got rid of his ankle bracelet and fled the country.
And then, with Luster still gone, two and a half months after the trial began, Luster was found guilty and sentenced.
He was found guilty of 86 criminal counts that included rape, sodomy, drug and weapons possession and poisoning. The counts were calculated for each distinct act on each victim.
An international man-hunt commenced for Luster
Eventually he was found… by a reality TV show bounty hunter.
After months on the run, Dog the Bounty tracked Andrew Luster down in the Mexican beach resort city of Puerto Vallarta.
That capture really launched Dog the Bounty Hunter’s career.
Andrew Luster was brought back to California and put in prison sentenced to 124 years. For a decade, there wasn’t much news about him – that is, until 2013.
That’s when Andrew Luster’s new legal team brought a petition before a judge to have the case thrown out.
“There were dozens of different claims made about why the case should be thrown out and Mr. Luster should be freed,” said Fox. “And the judge denied every single claim finding their evidence was lacking to back up any of them. And then she got to the very end…”
At the end, the judge ruled that the earlier trial judge had not justified the sentence of 124 years – that the crimes justified a shorter sentence – this time of 50 years. One of the victims, Tonya Balden, even supported the reduced sentence at that time.
“So to me when I found out that he was getting 50 years instead, I thought that that was 50 years,” Tonya said. “So I calculated that, and I think I calculated that he'd be something like 86 years old when he got out. And so to me, that seemed okay. And so I did actually write a letter in support of that.”
But here’s the thing – Andrew Luster won’t actually be serving a full 50 years – even though that’s what you might assume and what one of the victims – Tonya Balden – thought.
California law around sentencing can be complicated.
Andrew Luster will be serving 50% of his 50-year sentence and that is because of how his crimes are characterized under the law.
I went to the current Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko to help me understand it.
Nasarenko was not at the DA’s office at the time of this trial but he was very much aware of it – he remembers it as he was a law student at the time.
He has worked as a prosecutor for many years. Before becoming DA in 2021, he worked in the sex crimes unit.
“The truth of the matter is the vast majority of crimes in California under our penal code are characterized in the law as nonviolent,” said Nasarenko. “So right now, nonviolent offenses under our penal code include human trafficking, selling fentanyl, as well as, as here, rape of an unconscious person. They are considered under the legal definition of California law as nonviolent.”
And with an offense characterized as non-violent, the offender only serves 50 percent of their sentence.
“Now, I don't think people recognize these crimes, particularly the ones that Andrew Luster was convicted of as nonviolent,” said Nasarenko. “They are horrific. They were videotaped. These women were drooling. They were in positions of respiratory collapse, labored breathing. This was a surgical anesthetic that was administered to multiple women on multiple occasions. But under the legal definition and California law, only forcible rape, forcible sodomy, forcible digital penetration are considered violent offenses”.
So, that is how Andrew Luster’s sentence went from 124 years to 50 years to 25 years.
Opportunity for early parole
Additionally, Andrew Luster has also been given the opportunity to go up for early parole. And that is because of the passage of Proposition 57 which California voters approved in 2016 for nonviolent offenders.
“Proposition 57 does not give an automatic get out of jail free card,” said Nasarenko. “What it does is accelerates his opportunities to get out of jail by giving him earlier chances before the Board of Parole hearings.”
In December of last year Luster appeared before the parole board. Nasarenko’s office was at that hearing.
“They denied parole as they should have,” said Nasarenko. “The parole board found that he constitutes an unreasonable risk of re-offence, that he continues to minimize the circumstances of the offenses. His testimony before the panel was not forthright nor honest. And also he continues to minimize and not take full responsibility for his conduct”.
Luster will get another opportunity for early parole in December 2025.
“If the Board of Parole hearings in December of 2025 decides not to parole him, his maximum incarceration date is October of 2026,” said Nasarenko. “So that is the very outer limits in which he will remain in prison. I hope those outer limits are indeed reached”.
Andrew Luster’s 25 years are calculated from his time in prison, under house arrest and in pre-trial custody.
Many are nervous as Luster’s release date approaches
None of the people I spoke to for this episode think Andrew Luster should be released in 2026.
“I believe he continues to represent an unwarranted and unreasonable risk to public safety in the communities of Ventura county,” said Erik Nasarenko.
“I am concerned about public safety,” said Maeve Fox. “When Mr. Luster is released because of the kind of person I think he is, he's a predator. I don't think because he's approaching his sixth decade of life that he necessarily is going to change his behavior. And certainly I think he's probably as much of a threat as he was before because of the resources that he has. Unlike most criminals who don't have access to millions of dollars”.
Something else that makes many involved nervous is when Luster was captured in Mexico there were reports that a ‘payback list’ was found where he was staying. It reportedly had the names of many of the people involved in the trial.
Melissa Smith, the retired captain with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, who investigated the Andrew Luster case told me her name was on it. I asked her if his release made her afraid for her safety.
“Absolutely. I don't know what… I don't know what he's capable of, said Smith.
The victims were also reportedly on this list.
Now, the system does provide some security – When he is released Andrew Luster will be monitored by a parole agent. He’ll be subject to involuntary and sporadic searches. He’ll be registered as a sex offender. He is also supposed to stay away and make no contact with the victims.
How do the victims feel
Back at Tonya Balden's home, she opens up a large plastic tub. It’s filled with newspaper clippings and letters from Andrew Luster (from when he was trying to get her back). There’s also a transcription of the victim statement she gave all those years back and some checks from the defense fund she set up to help Dog the Bounty Hunter when he was in legal trouble in Mexico.
Tonya says she holds onto these things in case she needs to recall dates. She is also thinking of writing a book.
“But also just for… this might sound morbid, but to pass down to my family members,” Tonya said. “It was a really big event that happened not only in my life, but it was just so high profile. And I feel like it's an important part of my family history now.”
Tonya is fearful about Andrew Luster’s release. When she agreed to write a letter in support of him serving 50 years in prison she didn’t think she would be facing him coming out of prison in half that time.
She told me she only found this out at Luster’s parole hearing in December.
“So this parole hearing I did attend virtually, and I was able to speak and I thought that this hearing was just a matter of, would he be getting paroled or not? Which to me, I thought will obviously not. It's only been 19 years,” she said. “But it wasn't until the very end of the parole hearing when the parole board said ‘parole has been denied’. It was on a Zoom so I could see the other victim’s faces as well. We were all sharing our screens. We were all smiling and relieved. Not knowing that the very next thing that they were going to say is that his release date is October 31st, 2026.”
Tonya has written to California’s Attorney General and other representatives to see if something can be done about deeming an unconscious rape as non violent.
“There is no way that they can look at all of the rapes that Andrew Luster committed and say that that is not a violent,” Tonya said. “If it doesn't mean that it's going to stop Andrew from getting out in 2026, then so be it. But it's got to change.”
Tonya says she doesn’t believe Andrew Luster feels remorse for what he did.
“But during his parole hearing when he spoke, he is not sorry for anything,” she said. “He acted like he was the victim. Talked about how much this affected his life”.
This has left her feeling very nervous about his release.
“I don't want to admit that I'm afraid, but I am afraid,” she said. “My husband and I have talked about moving out of California before he gets out. Just for our own safety.”
For now she remains brave. She has been so public about what happened to her because she doesn’t want Andrew Luster’s crimes to remain a secret.
“So this is just something that happened to me. Like what could happen to anybody. And I want the world to know what he did,” Tonya said. “And for me, to speak out about it is the best way to handle it and to teach others too, to just, you know, even if you're afraid, you just got to do the right thing if it's going to be for the betterment of others”.
If you're looking for The One Oh One® Design Collective visit: https://www.theoneohone.com/