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THE HUBER MURDER CASE : Arrest Came After Tip Based on Intuition : Investigation: A woman felt something about the truck in Famalaro’s driveway seemed strange. A call to a detective proved her right.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It wasn’t anything she could quite put her finger on, but Elaine Canalia just felt there was something about the truck parked in John Joseph Famalaro’s driveway.

Famalaro, whom she had known for two months, already had a van and a pickup truck, she said in an interview Tuesday, so why would he need another large vehicle? He obviously wasn’t driving the yellow Ryder rental truck, not with all the boxes of paint cans stacked around it.

Canalia, who had visited Famalaro’s home July 9 to buy some painting supplies, on a whim scribbled down the license number on a scrap of paper and, several days later, passed it on to a detective friend in Phoenix.

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That moment of intuition would end a 3-year-old mystery and lead to the discovery of Denise A. Huber’s preserved body hidden in a deep freezer inside the rental truck. The Newport Beach woman had been missing since June 3, 1991, when she failed to return from a rock concert in Los Angeles County.

The riddle of Huber’s disappearance was almost solved a month before, however. Ryder officials missed their own opportunity to unravel the case in June when they failed to follow up on a lead supplied by a San Clemente woman, who had traced Famalaro to his Dewey address.

Carolyn Copeland, who makes her living finding missing heirs, had gone to the San Clemente Ryder franchise with her daughter, who was returning a rental. She struck up a conversation with the clerk about her occupation. The clerk told her he had someone he wanted to find, then asked her if she could track Famalaro, who had failed to return a truck rented in January.

Using computer databases common to her trade, she located Famalaro.

“His name was very unusual, so it wasn’t hard to find,” Copeland said.

She gave the information to the San Clemente franchise, who passed it on to Ryder officials at the moving company headquarters in Miami. For whatever reason, they didn’t follow up, she said.

Ryder officials in neither San Clemente nor Miami would comment on the case.

It would be several more weeks before Canalia would see the truck and become curious.

“I assumed when I wrote the license number down that the truck was stolen,” said Canalia, 44, a Phoenix paint manufacturer and distributor. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that poor girl would be found in there.”

Canalia and her business partner, Jack Court, had done business with Famalaro since May, always meeting him at the Prescott Valley Swap Meet.

On July 9, Canalia said, Famalaro asked her and Court to come to his house to look at some colorant he wanted to sell. Once there, the trio loaded several boxes of it into Canalia’s car.

Canalia had the impression that Famalaro was in a hurry that night--stacking and loading the boxes so quickly, she said. He wouldn’t even allow Court’s 10-year-old grandson to use the bathroom, saying there was no running water in the house. But they all had a long day at the swap meet, and Canalia assumed Famalaro was tired.

But the sight of the moving truck kept nagging at her. “It just seemed so out of place,” she said.

On July 12, when a detective friend came to her warehouse to buy some paint, Canalia gave him the license number, suggesting it was worth checking. Making a call from her office, he learned the truck had been stolen in California.

The next day, the detective returned to Canalia’s warehouse and while there received a phone call from his colleagues, who had found the house.

“From where I was, I heard him say, ‘homicide . . . body . . . freezer,’ ” recalled Canalia. “I was horrified. It makes me sick to think I was standing right next to this truck that (held) this body.”

Canalia called Huber’s parents early this week to express her sympathy.

They told Canalia it was God’s will that she helped find their lost child, said Ione Huber, Denise’s mother.

According to Ione Huber, Canalia told the grieving couple that she had this “really weird” feeling while she was at the house and, while there was “nothing (overtly) suspicious about the truck,” there was “this real strong pull” coming from it.

She told us she “didn’t know the reason,” Huber said.

But Huber knew where the pull came from. “We’ve been praying really hard,” she said.

Times staff writers Matt Lait and Jeff Brazil contributed to this story


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