February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

As a seasoned surfer, Andrew Luster knew when to pull out of a wave that was about to crash over him. So in the middle of a trial on charges that he drugged and raped three women, the heir to the Max Factor cosmetics fortune evidently decided that his ride was about to get even rougher. Sometime on the morning of Jan. 3, Los Angeles police believe, he grabbed warm-weather clothes and fled his Ventura County cottage in his Toyota SUV, forfeiting $1 million he and his family had put up for bail.

But that desperate act may spare him only temporarily. On Jan. 21 the jury of seven women and five men found him guilty of 86 counts, including rape, sodomy and poisoning. Authorities have cast a nationwide dragnet for the fugitive millionaire, whose main pursuits in life seem to have been leisure and dabbling in investments. (On Jan. 19 police found his vehicle abandoned in a Santa Monica neighborhood.) “Right now we’re just focused on trying to get him back,” says Ventura County sheriff’s dept. spokesman Eric Nishimoto, who adds, “We’re very confident that we will catch up with him.”

Police had arrested Luster in the summer of 2000 when a woman told them that he had drugged her at a Santa Barbara bar and then raped her at his house (see PEOPLE, Oct. 30, 2000). “When deputies raided his home they discovered 17 videotapes and photographs from hidden cameras in his bedroom of him engaging in sex with unconscious women. In his defense, Luster maintained that he was an aspiring director of porn movies and that all the sex was consensual. As he boasted to authorities, any woman who tried to accuse him would “look like a fool.”

Prosecutors argued that he had used an illegal drug called gamma hydroxy butyrate (GHB), which causes a feeling of intoxication, to subdue his victims and then assault them. On Dec. 19 jurors were shown a graphic videotape from Oct. 1996 of Luster performing sex on an apparently unconscious woman. The woman in the video, identified only as 29-year-old Tonja Doe, then took the stand. She told jurors she had no knowledge of the incident with Luster until a detective showed her the tape. Of Luster she said, “I detest him. I hate him…he’s sick and evil.”

Just how resourceful he is, however, is more of an open question. It is unclear whether Luster, whose worth may be as high as $40 million, had stashed away any money. But at least one of his friends believes the pampered heir isn’t well suited for a life on the run. “He didn’t display that kind of survival ability, from what I could see,” says the friend. But that doesn’t mean Luster has ridden his last wave. Says the friend: “People have been known to disappear for a long time before they get noticed.”

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