Orange County and Arizona authorities were digging for more possible victims Sunday at the country club home of a 37-year-old house painter charged with murder in the death of an Orange County woman, whose frozen body was found in a stolen rental truck three years after she vanished from alongside a freeway.
Authorities said the search of John Joseph Famalaro’s hilltop property in this affluent town was continuing partly because of evidence suggesting the work of a serial killer.
Costa Mesa Police Lt. Ron Smith said the discovery of Denise A. Huber’s checkbook, purse, identification cards and near-flawlessly preserved corpse is consistent with cases in which people keep personal mementos or bodies as “trophies of their killings.”
Huber’s body was found Wednesday in the truck, inside a freezer, naked and wrapped in layers of plastic trash bags. The freezer was plugged into an extension cord that ran from the Ryder rental truck to Famalaro’s house.
A special canine unit from Utah discovered “two points of interest” inside the house late Sunday, said Yavapai County Sheriff’s Lt. Kathleen McLaughlin. The two cadaver-sniffing dogs began pawing at two places downstairs, prompting authorities to consider an excavation, she said.
“We could probably start digging (there today),” McLaughlin said Sunday. “You never know what might be there.”
Law enforcement officials are also concerned about a partial excavation they found in a lower cellar area in the Famalaros’ split-level home, where authorities, some in surgical masks, were digging Sunday.
Meanwhile, an autopsy found that Huber, who was 23 when she disappeared in June, 1991, died from blunt force trauma to the head, according to the Maricopa County medical examiner’s office.
Huber appeared to have suffered at least a half-dozen blows to the head from an object with “sharpened” edges, police said. No murder weapon had been recovered Sunday night. Smith said it could not be immediately determined whether Huber had been sexually assaulted. But the body was so well preserved, Smith said, that authorities had little trouble lifting fingerprints to make a positive identification.
Because the corpse was frozen, Yavapai County sheriff’s spokeswoman Laurie Berra said, experts are having a difficult time determining exactly when Huber died. It is possible they will never know, she said.
Famalaro was being held on $250,000 bond on suspicion of murder and felony theft related to the stolen truck. The case has been referred to the Yavapai County grand jury for investigation, and a preliminary hearing has tentatively been set for Friday.
The grim discovery last week marked the end of Orange County’s most baffling missing persons case, which began three years ago when Huber disappeared after attending a rock concert at the Forum in Inglewood. Her blue 1988 Honda Accord was found the next morning on a shoulder of the Corona del Mar Freeway in Costa Mesa.
Huber’s parents, who spearheaded a far-reaching, lengthy search, appeared shaken Sunday. The family recently announced their intention to leave the state where they had raised their daughter and move to North Dakota.
“We’re glad we finally have an answer,” Ione Huber said at the family’s Newport Beach home. “We were praying for an answer for a very long time. But this is not the kind of answer we were praying for.”
The Hubers said they had never heard of Famalaro until this week, and have no plans to travel to Arizona. Rather, the family has found some comfort in reports from authorities, who believe that Denise Huber died quickly after her disappearance June 3, 1991.
“There’s no sign of torture and she did not appear to be malnourished,” Smith said. “That would mean to me that she died very soon after she was picked up.”
As the Hubers were finally free to grieve for their long-lost daughter, another family--the Famalaros--was in the Yavapai County jail waiting room wrapped in a different kind of grief.
“Our hearts are breaking over this,” said Anne Famalaro, the suspect’s mother. “We are the kind of people who keep to ourselves. We’re conservative Christian people. I believe in Jesus, and he will pull us through this.”
The woman, who lives next door to her son in a fashionable golf course community and reportedly owns the split-level house now surrounded by crime scene tape, described her son simply as “wonderful.”
Denise Huber grew up in Northridge, where her family moved in 1973.
When Huber’s parents moved to Texas before her senior year in high school, she decided to stay behind for her final year of high school. After graduation, she joined her parents in Texas, and, after a brief stint at a Bible college, returned to California to attend UC Irvine when her parents moved to Newport Beach in 1987.