Portrait Emerges of Insular, Eccentric Famalaro Family
When Anna Famalaro campaigned for the Santa Ana City Council in 1981, the outspoken 56-year-old left little doubt about her top priority: how to stem a growing tide of crime in that central Orange County city.
But unspoken in her losing political effort was the crime that already had devastated Anna Famalaro, her neighbors say, driving a wedge into the heart of her devoutly Roman Catholic family. In 1980, her eldest son, Warren, a successful chiropractor, was arrested and convicted of sexually assaulting two children who had come to him for treatment. His mother’s reaction was harsh: “She just stopped speaking to him,” one business associate said.
Now, 13 years later, her youngest child, John, stands accused in the killing of Denise Huber, a dark-haired young waitress whose body was discovered in a freezer outside John J. Famalaro’s Arizona home. The 1991 disappearance of Huber, 23, from the shoulder of an Orange County freeway had sparked a nationwide search and a storm of publicity.
This time, however, police also have sniffed suspiciously around the edges of a family characterized by former neighbors, colleagues and other associates as eccentric, insular and often, oddly confrontational.
In the days since John Famalaro’s arrest, police have searched his mother’s neighboring Dewey, Ariz., home and raised questions about her decision several weeks ago to allow her son to run an extension cord from her house to the deep freezer later found to contain Huber’s body. After his arrest, she told police that John explained to her that he needed the freezer kept running to prevent food from spoiling during a power outage, a law enforcement source said.
In Orange County, investigators have questioned his brother Warren several times.
“We’ve really reached no conclusion as to what his status is,” Assistant Dist. Atty. John Conley said Friday. “It’s the kind of thing where we want to keep an open mind. . . . This is an unusual case.” On Saturday, Costa Mesa Police Chief Dave Snowden said the brother was not a suspect “at this time.” The Famalaro family has retreated for the most part behind closed doors and telephone answering machines, in some cases denying their identities in an effort to avoid the relentless media attention.
On Friday, a man wearing pink polka-dotted shorts and assisted by several friends quickly moved storage shelves, a television and other items out of the Lake Forest house owned by Warren Famalaro. Neighbors identified the shorts-clad man as Warren but he insisted he was not, and even agreed to take a message for the former chiropractor.
“Warren obviously doesn’t want to make a statement,” a companion said. “And if he doesn’t, we don’t either.”
In interviews with neighbors of the Famalaros in Arizona, and former neighbors, colleagues and political acquaintances in Orange County, and from a variety of court documents, a picture emerges of a religious, conservative, hard-working family, but one characterized again and again by people who knew them as reclusive or simply, “different.”
The family includes:
* Anna Mae Famalaro, now 69. Born in Atlantic City, N.Y., Anna is described by neighbors and acquaintances as a forceful, strong-willed woman, fiercely protective of her children and often strident in her dealings with others. She also is known by some as Anne.
In an interview last week, she expressed bewilderment and outrage at those who have been quoted as calling her son John “secretive” and describing her as a domineering mother. “It is unbelievable what they are saying,” she said. “This is killing us.”
* Angelo A. Famalaro, 78. The visibly frail man suffers from Parkinson’s disease but has joined his wife in visits to their son at the Yavapai County Jail. Born in Norwich, N.Y., Angelo worked in sales and later kept the books for his son’s chiropractic office. Quiet and pleasant, he is “a constant, loving man,” said David Stark, a Lake Forest chiropractor who knew the family in the mid-’80s. “He was always there for his kids.”
* Warren John Famalaro, 41, Anna and Angelo’s eldest child, is a former chiropractor who owns a Lake Forest business called Raintree Practice Management. Now divorced, he lost his chiropractor’s license after he was convicted in 1980 of sexually assaulting two patients, a 10-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl.
He also admitted to a court-appointed psychiatrist that he had had sex with two to three patients a year for nearly six years, according to court documents. In both those records and in interviews, former colleagues described him as a skilled chiropractor but ambitious and often manipulative in business matters. A number of former patients, however, extol him as a warm, charming man who cared about them.
Several of those interviewed also expressed sympathy for Warren. His brother’s sudden notoriety, they said, had forced his conviction back into the public eye. “What Warren did was wrong, but it’s a long time ago and he’s being dragged through the mud all over again because of this,” said Steven A. Annis, an Aliso Viejo chiropractor who once worked with him.
* Marion Thobe, 40, the sister of Warren and John. A nurse at a retirement hospital in Prescott, Ariz., she has declined comment in recent days, other than to say that her family is distraught over the allegations against her brother. “I think anyone can imagine what type of crisis we are in right now,” she said last week.
* Duane Thobe, 53, Marion’s ex-husband. He owns a carpet cleaning business in Prescott, and is also listed as the owner of the house where John Famalaro has lived since January, next to his parents’ home at the Prescott Country Club. Curiously, on July 11, Duane Thobe, a former Davenport, Iowa, police officer, asked the Arizona Public Service Co. to turn off electric power to the house, according to affidavits filed by Arizona investigators.
The next day, Anna Famalaro apparently told the utility that ownership of the house was in dispute and asked that power be restored. Thobe has declined to comment and, through his attorney, has complained that reporters are harassing him.
* John J. Famalaro, 37, the house painter and handyman accused of killing Huber and preserving her nude, handcuffed body in a freezer for three years. Several neighbors near his Prescott Country Club home said he was a secretive man who took pains to avoid them. In contrast, former neighbors in Lake Forest said he was amiable, even charming.
“He was really very personable,” said Pat Darvas, who lived a few doors from Famalaro on Perth Way in Lake Forest in 1990 and 1991. “He always waved. . . . He was very nice, the type of person you’d never spend a minute worrying about. I can’t believe what’s happened. It seems so out of character.”
As investigators and reporters sifted the details of John Famalaro’s life last week, they found little in his childhood or later background that seemed to offer an explanation for his link to the bizarre murder.
The Famalaro family arrived in California from Long Island, N.Y., in 1956, living first in a new, brown, single-story home on South Ramona Drive in Santa Ana before moving about three years later to a larger home on north Victoria Street, a neighborhood of custom homes and sweeping lawns. The elder Famalaros also lived in Laguna Hills and Lake Forest before moving to Arizona in 1988.
A former neighbor on Ramona described Angelo as a “sweet man” who often seemed overshadowed by his wife. Anna Famalaro also was extremely protective of her two younger children, Marion, who had a learning disability, and John, then a toddler, the neighbor said. The Famalaro children, in fact, were not usually allowed to play with other kids, although her daughter was among the few who did, she said.
“I always got the sense that (Anna) was unnecessarily worried about things that wouldn’t happen,” said the former neighbor, a Newport Beach artist who spoke on the condition that her name not be used.
She “was not the kind of person that you could talk to without her overpowering you,” the woman said. “She was not the kind of woman you would invite over for coffee. . . . She was worried and frantic all the time, always in a panic about her children.”
Marge Hellweg, who lived near the Famalaros on Victoria Street, said the children “didn’t ride their bicycles in the street with the other children. . . . The children never played with any of my children. They weren’t out and about. They were into themselves.”
Alice Stauffer, whose oldest son was John’s age, said Anna had a reputation among the neighbors for becoming unreasonably upset about minor problems, prompting some to avoid her.
The kids on Victoria Street also knew it was best to keep their distance. They were “careful not to step on her lawn or she would chew them out,” Stauffer said.
Once, Stauffer’s 4-year-old son happened to touch a newly painted chain in the Famalaro yard. After Anna called to complain, Stauffer walked over to examine the chain--which appeared undamaged, she said--and was standing in the yard apologizing to Angelo Famalaro when his wife came out.
“She told him, ‘Go inside and I will take care of this,’ ” Stauffer recalled. “Then she raked me up and down and called my 4-year-old a juvenile delinquent. I got angry and told her she must be a very miserable human being. She just stood there with her hands on her hips.”
During that time, the Famalaros were regulars at Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Santa Ana and the children attended St. Joseph’s Elementary School before transferring to the city’s public schools. All three attended Willard Intermediate; Warren and Marion later graduated from Santa Ana High School, while John apparently went on to Amherst Collegiate School in Anaheim, a private high school that has since closed.
Patty Calder, whose mother shared car-pool duties with Anna Famalaro, said she and her sisters got in trouble more than once for mimicking the devoutly religious Mrs. Famalaro’s behavior at Sunday Mass. “She’d pray louder than anybody else, and I remember thinking it was pretty funny,” Calder said. “She just really stood out.”
But Anna Famalaro also is remembered in Santa Ana as a community activist who worked tirelessly for her conservative causes, including the “fundamental schools” movement in the city. She also belonged to the now-defunct Republican Women’s Club of Santa Ana and a city beautification committee.
“She was a bright woman and dedicated to the causes she was interested in,” said Mary Pryer, a former member of the Santa Ana Unified school board. “I thought she was a nice person and I liked her.”
Anna Famalaro served for three years on the city’s Personnel Board, but not without controversy.
Santa Ana City Atty. Edward J. Cooper said that during Anna Famalaro’s tenure, he was concerned that her frequently “bizarre” statements might prompt a judge to set aside decisions of the board, which held administrative hearings concerning the employment status of city police, firefighters and civilian workers.
“She was very opinionated, very argumentative and frequently her statements were off the wall,” Cooper said. “We’d be trying to get at the facts of a case with witnesses and she’d pop up with statements that were not relevant to the discussion in any way.”
In 1981, she ran for the City Council but lost to former Councilman John Acosta. She campaigned as an Independent and, in her clipped candidate’s statement, highlighted her political independence and her desire to control crime.
“My experience as Vice Chairman of Personnel Board shows that both people and police are apprehensive about crime rate in Santa Ana. . . . Council must involve community to control growth of crime. I intend to create effective solution to problem,” she stated.
Pryer said the subject of Warren’s arrest and conviction was never mentioned in the campaign.
“It was left lying on the table. People knew about it; they didn’t say anything about it. It was a non-issue,” Pryer said. “She never talked about it, really, and I didn’t ask because I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask.”
Pryer said she was shocked to hear of the news of Anna Famalaro’s younger son’s arrest in the Huber case and expressed sympathy for her old friend. “She must be going through hell,” she said.
By several accounts, the family, particularly its strongly Catholic matriarch, was shattered by Warren’s arrest and conviction.
David Stark, a Lake Forest chiropractor, came to know the Famalaros when he bought Warren’s practice in the early 1980s and, as a condition of the purchase, employed him as the office manager upon his release from Patton State Hospital.
Warren’s mother, who frequently came into the office for treatment of a stiff neck, all but ignored her son, Stark said. “They never spoke,” he said.
The Famalaros did, however, attempt to help their son by establishing a family trust and later tried to file for bankruptcy protection from creditors in 1981. But a judge found the family trust an ineligible debtor under the bankruptcy code, according to court records.
The trust, which operated from Warren Famalaro’s current business address in Lake Forest and included his then-wife, Holly, and his father as trustees, listed its assets as three houses--all encumbered by several mortgages. The properties included a $1.5 million Laguna Beach home in the same elegant neighborhood where Bette Midler and other celebrities lived. All but one of the dwellings, Warren Famalaro’s current residence, were later sold.
While Famalaro was a highly successful chiropractor--he was seeing more than 100 patients a day at the time of his arrest--court-appointed therapists who saw him after his conviction said he was a troubled, compulsive man, court records show.
In 1981, psychologist Albert J. Rosenstein described him as an “emotionally unstable” pedophile with an explosive personality and a mental disease that “predisposed him to commission of sexual acts, which represented a danger to the community,” court records show.
And even after he was treated for more than two years and discharged from Patton State Hospital, the medical staff warned that he should not be allowed any unsupervised contact with minors.
But he showed enough progress that in 1985 one of his counselors recommended the end of his outpatient therapy.
“Mr. Famalaro has established a solid sense of self-worth as a person. This is in sharp contrast to the time preceding his offenses--when he was driven to obtain power, status and sexual conquests to prove his worth. An enjoyment of people, relationships and new activities has replaced his former drive and manipulation,” wrote Keith Tannler, of the Orange County Mental Health Assn.
Former patients praised his care and vowed that they would return to Famalaro’s office if his license were reinstated. “My children and myself have always had the deepest respect for his regard of his profession and our needs,” wrote former patient Sherree Wallet.
But the Board of Chiropractic Examiners still had doubts and in 1985 it rejected Famalaro’s pleas to reissue his license. To demonstrate his fitness, Famalaro offered some 50 letters from family members, doctors, chiropractors, lawyers and his pastor.
“I feel Warren is an honest, dependable and moral person,” wrote his then-father-in-law, Charles W. Heath. “His experience during the past few years has taught him valuable, albeit traumatic lessons that will stay with him forever. Other than his family, his life seems to be directed by devotion and love of the chiropractic profession.”
The mother of a patient of Warren’s in the late ‘70s, a girl who was then about 12, last week described him as a caring chiropractor. She said she allowed him to take her two daughters to join Warren and his girlfriend on an outing to Disneyland.
She was shocked a year later to hear of his arrest.
In fact, several of those interviewed expressed similar shock at the charges against John and described the two as alike--ambitious, hard-working men who could be charming, to both men and women.
“John’s like his brother; they’ve got very similar personalities,” said Leonard Malin, an Anaheim chiropractor. “John’s a little more introverted but either one would size you up and then turn on the charm. To meet (John), you’d think he was a good guy.
But where Warren was successful in business, John was not. He seemed to dabble in careers, trying one after another in succession, each time appearing to lose interest in favor of yet another path.
He studied to become a chiropractor but apparently never finished. He sought to become a police officer and actually applied at several Southern California departments but was not accepted. He spent four months as a reserve sheriff’s deputy for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department but failed to complete the six-month training.
He earned his living as a house painter and handyman, but both in Orange County and the Prescott area left a litany of complaints from angry customers who had hired him to paint their homes or make repairs.
About 18 months ago, John moved to Dewey, Ariz., apparently to help care for his parents, particularly his ailing father.
In May, after more complaints from clients that he had performed shoddy work or left jobs unfinished, his Arizona contractor’s license was revoked and he began work as a part-time real estate salesman.
Several neighbors in Arizona said he was strange and secretive and complained of his late night hours. But others said he was a pleasant, endearing man who made friends easily.
One testimonial came last week during a Prescott radio talk show, when a woman who identified herself as “Patricia” said she was bewildered that a man who she had come to know as a “very sweet” person could be arrested in such a bizarre crime.
When Famalaro came to work on her house last summer, she felt “he was one of the most kind, outgoing people I have ever met,” she said.
She trusted him so much, in fact, that she gave him the key to her house, had him over for dinner, invited him to a Christmas celebration at her home, and even offered to set up a blind date with a friend of hers from California because “he seemed lonely.” But the date was never arranged.
She said her family also felt “a little sorry for him,” because he said he was supporting his parents and his father was ill.
Famalaro, the woman said, “was the last person on earth” she would have thought could commit such a crime.
Times staff writers Kevin Johnson, Rene Lynch and H.G. Reza contributed to this report from Dewey, Ariz., while staff writers Doreen Carvajal, Matt Lait, Julie Marquis, Jodi Wilgoren and correspondent Susan Howlett contributed from Orange County.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.