Rob Lowe Sex Scandal the Nanny Strikes Back

updated 04/28/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/28/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The first punch landed on April 7, when Rob Lowe wrote on The Huffington Post Web site that a "former employee" had demanded $1.5 million from Lowe and his wife, Sheryl, 46—or else, he wrote, "she will accuse us both of a vicious laundry list of false terribles." Going on the offense, the Lowes filed lawsuits that same day. Exactly one week later, on April 14, came the equally explosive counterpunch: The employee, former nanny Jessica Gibson, 24, filed her own suit in a Santa Barbara court, accusing both Lowes of sexual harassment and behavior that was "offensive, insulting, unwelcome, mean, perverted, crude and lascivious." Among her charges, she says that Lowe, 44, repeatedly exposed himself to her and inappropriately touched her—claims the Lowes vehemently deny. Said Gibson, who worked on and off for the family for the past seven years, in a statement April 15: "The Lowes know me, they know my character and that I am an honest person."

Just who is telling the truth is now the center of a heated legal battle. At this point, neither Gibson nor the Lowes—who have been married since 1991 and live in Santa Barbara, Calif., with sons Matthew, 14, and John Owen, 12—appear to be backing away from the fight. "An investigation of dozens of present and former employees has failed to find one single person to verify her allegations," said the Lowes' attorney Larry Stein, in a statement. On May 19, Gibson's lawyer Gloria Allred is scheduled to depose Lowe in Santa Barbara; the Lowes' legal team is expected to issue their own deposition orders. "I'm looking forward to looking into Mr. Lowe's eyes and him answering some very tough questions," says Allred. "Jessica has nothing to hide, and we wonder if Mr. Lowe will take that position as well."

Absolutely, says Lowes' camp. "If Rob's really at fault, he has enough money; he could've paid to make this go away," says a source close to the Brothers and Sisters star. "And he wouldn't have been just covering his own tracks—this woman is going after his wife too. So you have to question why the Lowes made it public. The logical reason is because it's all false." Lowe "thinks this whole thing is sad," says another source close to the former Brat Packer, whose well-chronicled Hollywood bad-boy days peaked in a 1988 sex tape scandal before he became sober 18 years ago. "They're ready [for a legal fight]." (The Lowes also have filed separate suits against another ex-nanny and their former private chef, accusing them of breaking confidentiality agreements; neither defendant could be reached for comment.)

His accuser is just as determined to hold her ground. "That's just absurd to say she tried to extort from the family," says her mother, Eileen Gibson, a teacher who lives in Lake Elmo, Minn. "She is very compassionate, very caring and honest." After moving from the small town in her junior year of high school to be near her sister Kelly, 28, in Santa Barbara, Gibson found her niche as a nanny. Working for the Lowes, says Kelly, "she went from being lighthearted to consumed and distracted.... I'm glad she stood up for herself. I encouraged her when she was afraid to. This is devastating for her."

Her father, Jim, 63, a technology executive who is divorced from her mother, says he urged Jessica to leave the Lowes after he noticed she looked run-down. "They were working her ridiculous hours. She did leave, but Jessica is so forgiving. They would call and she would go back. She'd say, 'It's going to be better now.'" Jessica, her father adds, "is exhausted. I'm encouraging her to eat. She's thin."

Some employees in the Lowes' camp say she never complained. The family's estate manager Carol Andrade is one of a group of current and former staffers who provided declarations to Lowes' legal team. Andrade states, "Jessica never told me ... that Rob ever said or did anything that she found inappropriate or offensive or that made her feel uncomfortable ... [or] made sexual advances toward her." Andrade also states that Gibson voluntarily quit her nanny position twice over the last few years but returned to the Lowes "on good terms": "She told me both times that she left because she was getting burned out with the job."

Her comings and goings may hurt her case: "A jury's going to be wary of someone who kept returning to a job in which they claim they were seriously abused," says Jon Miller, an L.A. attorney specializing in sexual harassment cases. Also at issue: e-mails allegedly sent by Gibson to Sheryl the day after quitting her job in which she apologizes for leaving so suddenly. "I have nothing bad 2 say about your family," states one e-mail included in the Lowes' suit. "I did not leave out of spite or anger, it was just time for my heart to let go ... You have been a huge part of my life for so many years it will be hard to let go of those boys." Responds Allred: "She was afraid and was trying to appease them, [because she was worried about] what might happen if they became angry. And her worst nightmare has come true."

The Lowes say they are the ones trapped in a nightmare. "We never saw this coming," Lowe wrote in his April 7 blog posting. "We took [Gibson] into our hearts." Friends of the actor and his family are baffled as well. "From what I've gathered [about the allegations], it doesn't seem like the Rob I know," says actor Dulé Hill, who has been friends with Lowe in the eight years since they first worked together on The West Wing. Adds West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin: "Rob's had public scrapes in the past and he's always landed on his feet. I'm sure his energy right now—and Sheryl's—is in protecting his kids."

A difficult challenge under such extraordinarily public—and messy—circumstances. In a case where the accusations are flying fast and furious, "this is a classic he said/she said dispute," says Patrick Fraioli, an L.A. employment attorney. "In a trial, both sides will likely be dragged through the mud."

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