The frozen body of a woman found inside a stolen truck in Arizona was identified over the weekend as that of Denise Huber, a young Newport Beach woman whose mysterious 1991 disappearance sparked a nationwide search that frustrated investigators at every turn.
Costa Mesa detectives traveled to Arizona on Saturday to question a former Lake Forest man who has been held on suspicion of murder since Wednesday, when the frozen body was discovered inside a Ryder truck parked outside a home at the Prescott Country Club.
An autopsy showed that Huber, who was 23 when she disappeared, died of blunt-force trauma to the head, according to the medical examiner’s office in Maricopa County (where Phoenix is located). She was identified through fingerprints.
Sheriff’s investigators in Yavapai County (where Prescott is located) found evidence that linked John Joseph Famalaro, 37, to Huber when they searched his father’s country club home Thursday. Authorities declined to disclose the nature of the evidence.
The arrest may help close the book on one of the most sensational missing-person cases in recent Orange County history.
“This may be the end to one of this department’s biggest frustrations ever,” said Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Jerry Holloway.
Huber was last seen alive about 2 a.m. on June 3, 1991, when she dropped off a friend in Huntington Beach after attending a rock concert at the Forum in Inglewood. Her 1988 Honda Accord was later found on a shoulder along the Corona del Mar Freeway, with a flat tire.
Holloway said Famalaro had not been a suspect in the case. There was no indication that Huber knew Famalaro, a house painter who left Orange County to care for his aging father in Prescott, a mountain community north of Phoenix.
“We could not link him to the investigation before today,” Holloway said.
There was no sign of a struggle at Huber’s car, and police were never able to determine exactly what happened at the scene. Since the disappearance, police cars in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa have had bumper stickers soliciting tips from the public on the case.
Huber’s disappearance was publicized on the television shows “America’s Most Wanted” and “Inside Edition.”
Nevertheless, Dennis and Ione Huber--the young woman’s parents, who moved earlier this year to North Dakota--had all but given up hope of finding her alive.
“As time goes on, I realize Denise is probably not alive,” Ione Huber said last month on the third anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance. “Just to know and not have to constantly wonder what happened would be easier to handle than this mystery.”
Sheriff’s deputies went to the Famalaro home Wednesday after receiving a tip from Phoenix police that the Ryder truck he had rented in Lake Forest in January was stolen.
The body was found after deputies saw an extension cord running from a freezer in the truck to Famalaro’s father’s house, authorities said. The cord powered the freezer, which had been left on for days, authorities said.
Famalaro was arrested shortly after the body was found, but authorities said they had to wait several days for the body to thaw before performing an autopsy. The house painter kept a post office box in Lake Forest while living at the country club home and made several trips back to California, Arizona officials said.
Famalaro is being held in lieu of $250,000 bail. His lawyer could not be reached for comment.
According to the Prescott Courier, Famalaro, who was described by his customers as well-spoken, moved to Prescott to take care of his father, who has Parkinson’s disease and is hospitalized. Famalaro’s mother lives in another home at Prescott Country Club.
Times correspondent Laura Laughlin in Arizona contributed to this report.