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What I heard was but the melody of children at play . . . and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

—Vladimir Nabokov

Los Angeles’ Fashion Week begins in a few days, but Anand Jon Alexander, the Indian-born clothing designer professionally known as “Anand Jon,” is otherwise engaged — and may well be for the rest of his life. Every weekday he can be found in Department 102 of downtown’s grungy criminal-courts building listening to prosecution witnesses accuse him of being a serial rapist. Before entering the courtroom, Jon, 34, changes out of his county-jail jumpsuit and into an elegant suit and tie. For a month, the ponytailed designer has sat with his high-powered defense team, hearing his accusers, occasionally taking notes — but with each witness, he seems to sink deeper into his expensive threads, aware, perhaps, that even if he beats the 25 counts leveled at him, he faces later trials in New York and Dallas.

Apart from sexual battery, Jon’s charges include forcible oral copulation, lewd acts upon a child, sexual penetration by a foreign object and possession of child pornography. The original complaint involved 59 counts that concerned 20 women, but by the time of the trial’s September 12 opening statements, the District Attorney’s Office had streamlined its case to nine alleged victims who were between the ages of 14 and 21 during their encounters with Jon in Los Angeles.

Even in its quietest moments, the Jon case is a volatile fable of rape, ambitious but naïve girls, the rag trade and feral male vanity. It is a trial junkie’s dream. Inexplicably, the proceedings have so far garnered little media attention. Still, the curious occasionally drop by Judge David Wesley’s courtroom, including veteran deputy D.A. Pat Dixon, the D.A.’s special-prosecutions director, Richard Doyle, and even Phil Spector Juror No. 6, who’d been identified during that trial as a movie-industry executive. Visitors find an extremely collegial atmosphere at the bar in the moments before jurors arrive, an informal time in which prosecutors and defense attorneys laugh at each other’s jokes or review the meals they enjoyed at restaurants the previous night.

Jon made his initial splash on New York runways in the late 1990s and was soon dressing such celebrities as Laurence Fishburne and Paula Abdul. He was named a 2002 People’s Choice Award winner for his novel work with fabrics and bead patterns, inspired by his native India. Jon appeared on America’s Next Top Model and in publications from Newsweek to London’s Daily Telegraph. His world came crashing down in March 2007, when the Beverly Hills Police Department, responding to a minor’s accusation of sexual assault, raided his apartment at 320 North Palm Drive. At the heart of the D.A.’s case is the notion that Jon believed he was above all earthly law.

“I am my own god,” one witness, a college religion major, says he told her. “I get whatever I want.”

To buttress their allegation that Jon’s motivation was not erotic gratification but the humiliation of his victims through painful sex, prosecutors Frances Young and Mara McIlvain, who both come from the D.A.’s Sex Crimes Division, began their case by presenting half a dozen background witnesses, who were then followed by the nine young women whom Jon is accused of raping or sodomizing. The women’s stories unfolded with chilling similarity. Between 2001 and 2007, the nine allege, Jon contacted them through the Internet (often through the women’s MySpace accounts or modeling Web sites), inviting them to visit his Manhattan or Beverly Hills studios, where, they say, he promised work or introductions to the fashion world.

His alleged victims say they were assured reimbursed airfare, drivers, secure models-only living quarters and, if they were modeling, fees for their time displaying Jon’s creations. With a single exception, however, no one ever met them at JFK or LAX; a call to Jon would elicit instructions for the women to take cabs to his studio — which was actually Jon’s home. Jon’s digs have invariably been described as “filthy,” “disgusting” and “gross” — a disheveled crash pad that was really a clothes closet turned inside out.

“There were cockroaches on the floor,” remembers Jessie B, the first of Jon’s alleged L.A. victims to testify. “The garbage was filled with tampons, and there were bras and bottles in the shower.”

Sometimes, according to testimony, Jon would surprise a newly arrived guest by inviting her to change into pajamas, and then, on his air mattress of a bed, show his press book, which featured glowing reviews and photos of himself partying with the likes of Paris Hilton. For other girls, he’d apparently set a different mood entirely by producing a video camera and inviting them to pose nude. Or he might offer a glass of wine, vodka or orange juice — drinks, these women say, that left them lethargic and nearly paralyzed.

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Whatever the variations in narrative, however, the women claim that almost immediately, Jon began kissing and fondling them — prior to grabbing their heads and forcing their mouths onto his exposed penis. Soon after the forced oral copulation, some women were raped, while others were sodomized. Britny O, a minor from Arroyo Grande, California, testified that she passed out after imbibing some of her host’s vodka, only to be revived by a sharp odor — that of Jon’s anus as he sat on her face.

“You have a tight pussy,” Jon suavely complimented her.

To television viewers raised on Law and Order, it may seem strange that both prosecutors in a rape trial are women.

“Women gravitate to the sexual-crimes unit,” says attorney Roger Diamond, who has represented many sexual-assault defendants, including Max Factor heir Andrew Luster. “Two women deputy D.A.s can create the impression that the prosecution is overzealous. It can backfire.”

On the other hand, Jon has chosen an all-male cast of lawyers: Leonard Levine, Eric Chase, Donald Marks and Anthony Brooklier. There is no female attorney in the group who could vigorously attack witnesses without seeming to revictimize them. After all, we’re long past the Jerry Geisler era of Hollywood rape lawyering, a time when, to win acquittal for celebrity clients, it was sufficient to portray rape victims as gold-digging nymphs. Still, Levine’s successful past defense cases have included USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and actor Jeffrey Jones, while Marks has represented Heidi Fleiss and Disney Internet executive Patrick J. Naughton.

None of Jon’s four attorneys has resorted to overt bullying or blame-the-victim tactics, and all have instead approached witnesses rather gently at first. Nevertheless, they show no reluctance, as a cross-examination progresses, to turn up the heat — sharply questioning the young women’s motives for responding to Jon’s invitations, as well as trying to recast Jon’s kissy-gropy tics as normal, everyday behavior in the highly physical world of fashion.

In his opening remarks, Levine, an avuncular man given to unpredictable facial grimaces, cast the women as ambitious Lolitas who, frustrated by stalled careers, “jumped on the bandwagon” to “tear down a celebrity.”

Jon’s lawyers have a lot of material they can use as ammunition. The three words “I don’t remember” have echoed throughout the testimony of prosecution witnesses like haiku fragments. One witness, Courtney S, explained she couldn’t recall simple details from 2005 because, “It’s hard for me to remember — it was three years ago.”

More pointedly, some of the women professed to have been shocked by Jon’s candor about discussing their bodies, only to have his lawyers show the women’s sexy photos from their MySpace pages. Several background witnesses in their 20s seemed so prim as to be incapable of even uttering the names of parts of the human anatomy. Kristin S of North Carolina could not bring herself to pronounce the word “penis,” while New Jersey’s Tara S floundered when describing her alleged assault to Young.

“He put his penis in my . . .” Tara trailed off, helplessly.

“Where pee or poop comes out?” Young asked.

“The latter,” Tara answered. “I had no idea people did that. I was in so much pain.”

Then, according to Tara, Jon stuck his penis in her mouth and ejaculated.

As though this case contains too much poison to be contained by a mere trial, suspicion and innuendo have worsened the tense relationship between prosecution witnesses and Jon’s half-dozen supporters, who make no secret of their belief that Judge Wesley is unfair to the defense. There was a brief witness-intimidation scare after a defense investigator’s assistant telephoned background witness Kristin S’s sister, setting off a panic among the sisters’ parents — and an angry order from Judge Wesley barring defense attorneys from sharing prosecution-witness phone numbers with Jon or members of his family.

Said Judge Wesley, “I’ve never had to conduct a hearing like this in 37 years.”

This uproar had been preceded by an incident involving Kristin S and the drivers of a mysterious white car.

“We have been followed by two females with dark skin and big silver earrings,” Kristin declared in her North Carolina drawl at a previous hearing. She told the courtroom’s rapt listeners how she lured the car into following her down a narrow street, then pulled a U-turn and came face to face with her pursuers.

“They seemed Indian,” she pronounced, though she didn’t stay long enough to engage the women. “I realized they could have had a gun, so I took off.”

In yet another twist, revealed during the same hearing, Kristin reported that she and background witness Holly G felt threatened one day after trial when they spotted some of Anand Jon’s supporters in the courthouse parking lot. The latter group included Jon’s sister, Sanjana, whom Kristin described as grimacing, gesturing and uttering inaudible unpleasantries. Under questioning by Jon’s attorneys, it emerged that the casus belliprobably stemmed from a misunderstanding: When the smiling Kristin and Holly G emerged from the courthouse, they appeared to be laughing at Jon’s group — right after a slip-and-fall accident suffered by one of his supporters.

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It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before Sanjana — a recurring figure in prosecution testimony — commanded the court’s spotlight. As a defense witness, she is barred from sitting in court during testimony but spends hours waiting in the hallway, dressed one day in a neo–Carnaby Street fashion with high white boots, and the next, exotically draped in a silky wrap. During breaks, she enters the courtroom, trailing a scent of rose oil, smiling at her brother, only to leave with the jury’s return.

“It’s hard for me to hear about these charges,” she says of Jon’s predicament, “because I know the truth of what really happened.”

“Some of those girls are actually hookers,” another family member said of the witnesses.

In the middle of one afternoon, Frances Young is questioning Holly G, asking her to identify pictures of Anand Jon’s filthy Palm Drive apartment. A photograph of Jon’s refrigerator, its freezer packed helter-skelter with Grey Goose bottles and Häagen-Dazs cartons, takes on its own appearance of a crime scene, made all the more sinister with the jarring juxtaposition of vodka and ice cream.

Prosecutors claim that one orderly area in Jon’s world was the “conquest list” they say he maintained on a computer. This inventory, written in text-messaging shorthand, curtly describes his encounters with the fair sex:

 
Fkd ass finally. blo no swallow

Cindy: live model of Parsons gave it to her good/violent. Fst fkd.

Rosie: 15. fkd lincon car bkst … big brsts/blond white trash classic.

Jenna, great sex 17, blowjob good — swallow very well.

 
It’s in the detailing of these encounters that prosecutors Young and McIlvain hope to convince the six-man, six-woman jury that Jon is guilty. It’s also where Jon’s high-priced lawyers plan to find enough loose ends and inconsistencies to prove Jon’s accusers to be liars. Jon’s attorneys have done most of their damage by asking the alleged victims why they didn’t immediately flee Jon’s filthy apartments — with all their cockroaches, vodka bottles and tossed tampons — at the first opportunity, and why so many of them kept in touch with him later, instead of reporting his alleged crimes.

By far the shakiest prosecution witness has been Holly G, who’d been modeling since she was 12, and had responded to a 2006 casting call to model Jon’s jeans at his New York studio when she was 18. You knew Holly G was going to have a rough time on the witness stand when she blew her anonymity by blurting out her last name while being sworn in. (The “G” does not stand for Golightly.)

Holly had not been at Jon’s Manhattan pad for long before, she says, he invited her to sit on his bed and look at his press clippings.

“Are you a bad girl like Paris Hilton?” Holly testified he asked her. “Only bad girls make it in this industry.”

There followed a massage, a kiss — and then, “He pushed my head down on his crotch.”

Moments later, Jon dropped the charm, Holly told jurors.

“He said, ‘Never tell anyone or you’ll never work in this industry. I have all the power.’ I was so scared — I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”

The fear of not being believed, or even of Jon somehow being able to crush her career, could be understandable in a situation in which nothing made sense to Holly. But how to explain what followed?

Holly said she wanted to leave the apartment but stayed. She “watched TV, relaxed.” She would’ve called her parents or friends, but her cell phone battery was dead. Later, she accompanied Jon on a walk to a church, on whose steps he appeared to pray. Then he took her to his apartment building’s gym, where they worked out and he offered tips on doing sit-ups.

By then, Holly says, “He acted like a friend.”

In fact, they went back to his apartment, where he suggested she cut up a pineapple. This, however, was followed by two familiar suggestions: that Holly might want to change into pajamas and that she have some orange juice.

Fatefully, she agreed.

“After I drank it,” she said, “I felt really, really tired, and, like, dizzy.”

The next thing she knew, Jon “stuck his penis in my anus. [It felt] horrible.”

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Holly said she awoke the following afternoon to find Jon in the living room making business calls, “as though nothing had happened.”

Holly’s contact with Jon did not end there. Several months later, he allegedly called Holly and invited her to accompany Sanjana and some models to India as, ironically, part of an AIDS-awareness tour in his homeland. Incredibly, Holly leaped at the idea. After the tour, Jon magnanimously announced to Holly, then living in New Jersey, that she had “proved herself in India” and he offered to set her up in a Beverly Hills apartment so she could study acting.

Again, Holly jumped at the chance: “I thought, Beverly Hills — that’s a great way to get away, living with other girls.”

And she was off to California. In fact, the place Jon had set up for her was his apartment on North Palm Drive, for which Holly says he insisted she pay him a deposit plus first month’s rent. She remained there for three months, taking a stab at an acting class that met once a week, although most of her time was spent cleaning Jon’s apartment and working as his unpaid assistant. She guessed she had processed about 200 young women who came to be “interviewed” by Jon. Holly often diverted them from the chaotic apartment by taking them to the relative serenity of the building’s roof, all the while assuring the prospective models of Jon’s legitimacy. Her stay at Chez Jon ended with the designer’s arrest.

Holly G’s testimony was riveting yet problematic. Like most of the other women who have testified against Jon, Holly exhibited signs of Stockholm syndrome, but in far more conspicuous ways. Her credibility wasn’t helped when she admitted to a shoplifting arrest, explaining that a former girlfriend had placed stolen items in Holly’s shopping bag when she wasn’t looking. Holly also denied stealing from Jon’s apartment after his arrest, only to be confronted with an e-mail she sent a friend announcing she had done just that.

Needless to say, defense attorney Anthony Brooklier found none of this believable and even questioned how Jon could have committed forced oral copulation with Holly.

“Oh, I see,” mocked Brooklier. “He sorta snuck his penis in your mouth? Why didn’t you run out of the apartment?”

“That’s not the initial reaction of a victim,” Holly answered, leaving the distinct impression she was repeating something she’d been taught, although she denied to Brooklier she had been prepped for the cross-examination.

Even worse for her were phone records indicating calls and text messages sent during her first hours at Jon’s New York home — suggesting her cell phone’s battery was far from dead at the time.

In fact, the prosecution witnesses have been hit hard by their own phone and e-mail records. It seems like a recurring routine: As soon as one of the women tells Young or McIlvain that she cut off contact with Jon the moment she left his apartment, a defense lawyer will confront her with a printout of a flirtatious e-mail she’d sent after the alleged rape.

There are credible reasons for the women’s seemingly odd behavior and, anticipating the questionable perceptions their witnesses might present, the prosecution called trauma and abuse expert Dr. Ann Burgess early on to offer testimony on the effects of sexual assault on victims. Burgess has written several books on rape and sexual offenders and, with an associate, coined the phrase “rape-trauma syndrome” in the 1970s. She began her career as a Boston nurse in 1958 and, today, with her cropped hair and steely bearing, brought with her the fear-no-evil air of a Kinsey researcher. She told both prosecutors and defense lawyer Eric Chase how rape victims will not always flee imminent danger, or the scene of their own rape. Some will be paralyzed with fear, others will later try to deny it happened by seeking out the perpetrator for proof of his good character. This last phenomenon — the seeming need of a woman to stay in touch with her rapist — is something Young and McIlvain will have to remind jurors of later if they are to keep their witnesses from appearing untruthful.

The defense will soon present its case and, at the moment, it’s easy to imagine Jon beating one of the raps, maybe even two. But getting a jury to disbelieve the similar testimonies of the nine alleged L.A. victims seems impossible.

“It makes it difficult,” attorney Diamond says of such cumulative testimony, “unless the defense can establish that [the witnesses] know each other. [That] should be avoided — it’s careless for [a D.A.’s Office] not to keep them separate.”

However, it’s become apparent that there has been contact between the witnesses. Holly G, for example, told jurors she and Kristin S were staying at the same hotel during their testimony, although she denied they discussed the case.

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“Housing witnesses in the same facility,” notes L.A. defense attorney Sara Caplan, “could pose substantial constitutional issues and could be cause for a mistrial.”

Looking at those photographs of Jon’s topsy-turvy apartment, one fixes on the sad sleeping bags and mattresses that his assistants used as beds. How can modern women be so thoroughly trusting of a stranger to fly, on their own dime, to a strange city with virtually no money in their pockets?

Even more mysterious is Anand Jon, who has devolved from celebrity designer to instant has-been, a wunderkind seemingly more driven by the need to party and recycle his reputation than to create. Courtney S claimed Jon had his assistants spend hours removing the labels from Kenneth Cole shirts and replacing them with his own tags — a statement his lawyers persuaded Judge Wesley to strike from the record. Courtney, who became an unpaid intern for Jon, described a repetitious grind in which his female assistants “showed the same clothes over and over — ones from 1999 or 2000.”

At his most innocent, Jon appears to be a man obsessed by a need for celebrity, a hedonist to whom life seems to follow the dream logic of pornography — a drowsy, pajama-ready narrative in which opaque young women, with the help of a little limelight or alcohol, submit to male bedroom fantasies.

“I don’t allow trials by surprise,” Judge Wesley told prosecutors and defense attorneys at the trial’s outset, but in this courtroom, nothing has been more surprising than everyday human behavior.