Appearing in court for the first time since Denise Huber's body was found last week in a freezer at his country club home, murder suspect John J. Famalaro listened impassively Wednesday as an investigator testified that the house painter had a history of threatening and assaulting women.
Yavapai County Sheriff's Lt. Scott Mascher told a packed courtroom that several of Famalaro's former girlfriends had described being threatened or feeling threatened by him, Mascher said.
One woman, Mascher testified, told investigators she once was "forced down and handcuffed from behind" by Famalaro, 37. When investigators last week found the body of the Newport Beach woman--missing for three years--she, too, had been handcuffed.
Immediately following the hearing, Justice of the Peace Robert W. Kuebler Jr. denied Famalaro's request for bail. A grand jury was expected to indict Famalaro by today. If not, a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Friday.
In a day punctuated by multiple developments in the case:
* Famalaro fired his attorney because of his religious beliefs.
* Investigators said they have quizzed Famalaro's brother, Warren, a convicted child molester who lives in Lake Forest, several times, and described him as "being anywhere from a witness to a suspect" in the Huber case.
* Arizona authorities revealed deputies had visited Famalaro's house in March when the handyman reported a burglary, but the freezer containing Huber's body went undetected.
* Detectives in Orange County said they have identified a vehicle they think was used in Huber's abduction but declined to elaborate.
* Investigators still had not located at least one woman whose name was found in Famalaro's home.
Adding to the grisly details of last week's discovery, Mascher told the judge Wednesday that Huber's body had been crammed into the freezer chest, her eyes and mouth covered by cotton wads and then sealed with duct tape.
Mascher also testified that two witnesses had come forward with additional information: a man who said he once helped Famalaro measure the 23-foot-long freezer to see if it would fit in the Prescott Country Club home where the suspect lived; and a woman who said she once found an 18-inch bone while digging at Famalaro's house but thought nothing of it. Since the arrest, investigators have unearthed portions of Famalaro's house and yard in a search for more bodies but turned up nothing.
In Orange County, authorities said Wednesday that they have homed in on Famalaro's whereabouts during the week of Huber's disappearance three years ago and believe they can show he was in the area at the time.
Relying on Famalaro's business records, receipts and interviews with people who saw him, investigators have confirmed that Famalaro was in the Orange County area on June 3, 1991, the night that 23-year-old Huber vanished after her car blew a tire on the Corona del Mar Freeway. Investigators also have collected receipts, job work orders and sworn declarations from people who encountered Famalaro around the time of Huber's abduction.
"We're getting a very good timeline put together," said Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Jerry Holloway, who is coordinating the Orange County portion of the murder probe.
Additional court records filed Wednesday indicated authorities also seized from Famalaro's house a wood-handled claw hammer and metal nail puller apparently stained with blood. A weeklong search of Famalaro's house has already turned up a crowbar that appears to be bloodied and some of Huber's belongings, including clothing, a purse and jewelry.
Investigators said they believe Huber was bludgeoned to death shortly after her kidnaping and then carted around in a freezer for more than three years. Costa Mesa Police Lt. Ron Smith said a crowbar would be consistent with Huber's wounds, which police have described as inflicted with a blunt but not rounded object.
Following up on a list of women's names garnered from items found during a search of Famalaro's home--including identification, credit cards and clothing, some with crimson stains--investigators have successfully located all but two.
Lt. Mascher testified that the two women were considered missing, but a relative of one of the women disputed that claim late Wednesday night, saying she is fine.
Jack Wattier III, the stepbrother of Melody Mendick, told The Times that investigators found Mendick's food stamps inside Famalaro's home. "I don't know how they got there. I don't know what the relationship is. But I understand she's OK," Wattier said.
Reached by telephone, Mendick's mother, Doris Wattier, told a reporter "everything's fine" before hanging up.
Investigators said they still want to speak with Mendick.
"Because of the nature of this crime, we still have the possibility of other victims," Costa Mesa's Lt. Smith said. "If somebody can do this once, what would stop you from doing that again, once you cross that threshold?"
Just this month, court records revealed, authorities received a Silent Witness call--an anonymous tip--reporting that a bone had been found in Famalaro's house in spring, 1993, while workers were removing dirt. A woman identified as Marla Tollett was interviewed July 16--three days after Huber's body was found--and told authorities she was helping Famalaro remove dirt from his basement in March or April, 1993, when an 18-inch bone was found--and later thrown away.
"She recalls a bone approximately 18 inches long being dug up in the process of removing the dirt from the area," court documents said. "This bone and other dirt was removed in a bucket and dumped out at an unknown location."
Efforts to reach Tollett Wednesday night were unsuccessful. But Costa Mesa's Lt. Smith said after the hearing that police suspect the bone might have belonged to a large animal, perhaps a deer.
Before he was dismissed, defense attorney Lawrence William Katz repeatedly criticized the prosecution's case as largely circumstantial and lacking in evidence to prove his client is guilty--or even that he knew about the body.
'He is no danger to the community," Katz said in a request for the bail hearing, adding that any theories that more victims would be discovered were "hogwash."
During Wednesday's hearing, Famalaro, wearing a short-sleeved orange jail uniform and slip-on sandals, appeared subdued as he sat with his defense attorney.
Famalaro was leashed to a deputy--a routine security measure in Yavapai County, officials said.
"They don't leave this building unless they're on a leash," Yavapai County Sheriff's spokeswoman Laurie Berra said. "It's sort of like a standard dog leash."
As the proceeding dragged on throughout the afternoon, courthouse employees padded into the courtroom, which held about three dozen seats, and strained for a peek. With seats at a premium, some onlookers kneeled.
Though members of Famalaro's family live in the area, none apparently attended the hearing.
In his testimony, Lt. Mascher said Famalaro was driving with his mother in a red Jeep when he was arrested July 13. A key to the padlocked Ryder rental truck that contained the freezer was found on the key ring Famalaro was using to operate the Jeep. A key to the freezer was found at Famalaro's home.
Mascher said the keys to the handcuffs used to bind Huber's hands behind her back were also found in Famalaro's desk, while a second pair of similar handcuffs was found under a bed in the home.
In yet another twist, Mascher said Famalaro once sought out a local Arizona man to help him move the freezer while he measured its dimensions to see if it would fit inside his home. The man told authorities the freezer was unplugged during the moving and measuring and later plugged back in when it was determined it would not fit indoors, Mascher said.
Famalaro's efforts to keep the freezer plugged in and his efforts to find a better spot for it point to "consciousness of guilt," the prosecution said.
Famalaro had originally been held on $250,000 bail, but Justice of the Peace John Kennedy revoked his bail without a hearing after prosecutors argued that the crime was especially "depraved," that there might be other victims and that the crime may justify the death penalty.
Deputy Yavapai County Attorney Thomas Lindberg also said investigators found a bullet hole and possibly blood on a white panel van to which Famalaro held the keys when he was arrested.
Before Wednesday's hearing, Kennedy recused himself from the case, so the proceeding could be transferred to Kuebler's more commodious courtroom--testament to the attention the case has garnered in an area of the country unaccustomed to making such headlines.
In court documents filed in support of his request to reinstate bail, Katz said that Famalaro is a "good Catholic" who attends church and deserves a chance at freedom while charges are pending. The attorney also cited his client's links to the community, lack of a criminal record and past attempts to become a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy in support of Famalaro's character.
But Justice Kuebler said the evidence presented by the prosecution was enough to justify holding Famalaro without bail. "I believe the state has proved its case, and the defendant is held without bond," he said.
The hearing also served as the stage for an unusual confrontation between defense attorney Katz, and another attorney, Thomas K. Kelly.
Kelly said he had been contacted by the Famalaro family two days ago and had been asked to take over the case--in part because of the family's religious beliefs, he said.
Reluctant to say much until he officially assumes the reins of the defense, Kelly said the family "did contact me and part of the rationale in hiring me is that I am Catholic." Katz is Jewish.
"As you can tell," Kelly said, "Famalaro is an Italian Catholic name. I am an Irish Catholic. When a person is involved in a matter of this magnitude (religion) is a spinoff aspect."
According to Kelly, who lives in nearby Prescott, he met with Famalaro Wednesday morning before the hearing and the defendant signed a motion approving the counsel swap.
"Mama wants a Catholic. No Jews allowed," Katz said later in the day.
Another figure who has emerged in the case is Famalaro's brother-in-law, Duane A. Thobe, whose name has surfaced in court documents as the owner of the Prescott Country Club home where Famalaro lived. Two days before Huber's body was discovered, Thobe went to the Arizona Public Service and asked that the power to Famalaro's house be turned off. The next day, Famalaro's mother asked the utility company to restore the power.
Thobe was a Davenport, Iowa, police officer between 1973 and 1977. Investigators have talked with Thobe's attorney, Eric Chester.
"I have nothing to say, and Mr. Thobe has nothing to say," Chester said. "If I have anything to clear up, I will clear it up with the authorities."
Investigators have questioned Famalaro's brother, Warren, several times.
"We are looking at the possibility of him being anywhere from a witness to a suspect," Sgt. Holloway said.
While authorities continued to examine Famalaro in connection with two slayings in Phoenix and another in Sedona, investigators also revealed Wednesday that Famalaro had another recent encounter with police at his house in which Huber's body went undetected.
Famalaro himself, investigators said, summoned sheriff's deputies to his home in March to report a burglary. According to the March 20 report filed by deputies, Famalaro told officers three men were attempting to break into a stolen rental truck in his yard, which at that time, it is believed, housed the freezer containing Huber's corpse.
The trio, it turned out, were former employees of Famalaro's who had not been paid. Famalaro paid the employees while the police were there, and the incident was considered a closed case.
Authorities said Famalaro identified himself as "Jay Samalero," and although "scared," did not exhibit suspicious behavior.
In a lighter moment during Wednesday's deliberations, defense attorney Katz got Lt. Mascher to agree that most murderers would not summon police to their home.
While awaiting the results of forensic tests on the items found at Famalaro's home--including the crowbar--detectives also have begun to focus on what happened to Huber between the time she disappeared and the time a freezer was delivered to Famalaro on June 12, 1991.
Investigators and experts say the timing of her death will prove tricky because she has remained frozen for as long as three years.
Holloway said investigators have completed searches of Famalaro's former Lake Forest residence and a Trabuco Road mailbox location. No search warrants have been necessary because authorities have received permission from owners at each location, Costa Mesa police said.
As Famalaro exited the courtroom during the afternoon recess, reporters shouted questions to him, but Katz refused to let him speak.
"He's innocent until proven guilty," Katz said, "and that's why we're here right now."
Times staff writers Matt Lait, Gebe Martinez, David Reyes and Rebecca Trounson contributed to this report.
* IRONIC LINK: A Phoenix car dealer is tied to both victim and suspect. A23