Long-awaited blood tests indicated that a Newport Beach woman whose battered body was found in a freezer here was bludgeoned to death three years ago in Laguna Hills, leading Arizona authorities on Thursday to send the murder case to Orange County for prosecution.
Orange County prosecutors quickly filed capital murder charges in Municipal Court in Newport Beach against John J. Famalaro, a 37-year-old house painter who lived most of his life in Orange County before moving in 1992 to Arizona, where he was arrested earlier this month on murder charges.
The victim, Denise Huber, a 23-year-old UC Irvine graduate, disappeared June 3, 1991, after her automobile had a tire blowout on the Corona del Mar Freeway.
Her whereabouts had been a mystery until Arizona detectives, thinking they were about to uncover a cache of illicit drugs, found her nude and handcuffed body in the freezer, which Famalaro brought here from California and kept running in a Ryder rental truck parked in his driveway.
Although criminal attorneys both here and in California have said that prosecutors would have a tougher time securing a death sentence if the murder case were sent to Orange County, they also said that Arizona would have little choice but to surrender jurisdiction if evidence surfaced that the actual slaying occurred in California.
That evidence was uncovered by Costa Mesa police detectives and confirmed by crime lab technicians of the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
The joint statement issued Thursday said that the decision to send the murder prosecution to Orange County was "based on the DNA analysis of bloodstains collected at the warehouse (Famalaro occupied) at 23192 Verdugo" in Laguna Hills. Two types of DNA testing were being done, the statement said, and "results to date show that the blood found at the warehouse matches that of Denise Huber."
The complaint charging Famalaro with murder included the "special circumstance" of kidnaping. "Due to the special-circumstance allegation, Famalaro is eligible for the death penalty," the statement said.
The murder victim's father, Dennis Huber, said from the family home in Newport Beach that he and his wife, Ione, were greatly relieved that the jurisdictional issue had finally been resolved, and that his daughter's body would be released in time for a twice-postponed funeral now scheduled for Tuesday in South Dakota.
"It closes the chapter, but not the book," Dennis Huber said. He added that he had "mixed feelings" about the case being transferred to Orange County.
"We felt it might have been an easier prosecution over there," he said. "I think it will be a fair trial and justice will be served. It just might be tougher."
Famalaro's defense attorney, Thomas K. Kelly, agreed with that assessment. "From Day One, I believed it to be in my client's best interest to have the case tried in California," he said, adding that the obstacles to imposing the death penalty are more easily overcome in Arizona.
Moreover, only two of California's more than 300 Death Row inmates have been executed since 1977, even though the death penalty was restored in California in that year.
If there is one good aspect to the case being transferred, Dennis Huber said, it is that "we know a lot of people here, and if we come out for the trial we've had a lot of offers from people to stay at their homes." The Hubers are planning to move from Newport Beach to North Dakota in mid-August.
Orange County Assistant Dist. Atty. John Conley said prosecutors were looking into the possibility of filing a murder charge with other special circumstances. California reserves the death penalty generally for those killers who commit a second crime, such as rape or robbery, in connection with the murder.
When her body was discovered, Huber's eyes and mouth had been covered with cotton and sealed shut with duct tape. Autopsy results have not been officially released, but officials say there are no obvious signs of sexual assault.
In order to prove kidnaping, the state must show that a person was "transported against his or her will by force or threat of force," and defense attorneys say a persuasive argument could be made that Denise Huber might have willingly accepted a lift from a passing motorist when she found herself stranded on a dark freeway at 2 a.m.
Conley said the murder complaint was filed late in the day, and that documents supporting a request for an arrest warrant have been sealed by the court.
Famalaro will continue to be held without bail in Arizona's Yavapai County Jail pending extradition to Orange County, said Yavapai County Sheriff Buck Buchanan.
"If he waves extradition, he'll go quick (to Orange County). If he doesn't, he goes slow. But he goes."
Additionally, the Yavapai County attorney's office has filed papers requesting that all evidence seized in three searches of Famalaro's home here be turned over to Orange County authorities.
The Yavapai County grand jury last week indicted Famalaro on first-degree murder and grand theft charges, but those charges are expected to be put on hold and ultimately dropped now that Orange County prosecutors are taking over the case.
Orange County Deputy Public Defender Leonard Gumlia was traveling to Prescott late Thursday night and was expected to meet with Kelly and Famalaro to discuss proceedings in the case.
Famalaro must be found to be indigent, lacking the financial resources to hire his own attorney, in order to qualify for the services of a public defender. But he has stated in court records that he is penniless and it is widely assumed that Gumlia will be appointed to represent him.
Kelly said he was considering fighting Famalaro's extradition to California, but said Thursday that will be a joint decision made by himself and Gumlia.
"My understanding is this is a very high-profile case in Orange County. I'm really concerned about Mr. Famalaro," Kelly said. "I don't know what is going to happen to him there."
If Famalaro's attorneys decided to fight Famalaro's extradition to Orange County, Yavapai Deputy County Counsel Thomas B. Lindberg said it could take at least four weeks and probably longer to resolve the matter. If not, Lindberg said Famalaro could be moved within two weeks.
The Yavapai prosecutor said he would have liked to have handled the case, but acknowledged that it had become a distraction for the office because of the intense media interest in it.
"It's been hard to get things done," Lindberg said.
But he said that Yavapai officials would continue to provide any help that Orange County authorities needed.
"Both sides are being cooperative as ever," Lindberg said. "That's not going to change. They (Orange County authorities) are not going to be out in the cold on this."
Costa Mesa Police Department Detective Lt. Ron Smith, who has been working 10-hour workdays in Prescott for almost two weeks as he struggles with fellow Costa Mesa detectives Lynda Giesler and Frank Rudisill to piece together the strongest case possible against Famalaro, said Thursday was really "one long day . . . just so much happening so fast."
Smith said the blood at the Laguna Hills storage facility narrowed down the time between Huber's disappearance and her murder, which will help authorities create a case for kidnaping. It's a critical allegation, he said, because that is what would make Famalaro eligible for the death penalty.
"The blood helps us to establish a shorter time period between the disappearance and the murder, which would show cause as to kidnap," Smith said. Smith said there are probably additional crimes involved with carting the body around for three years, but said police are instead focusing on the most serious charges.
Smith said that all evidence "points very strongly to Huber dying in that warehouse in Laguna Hills." He stopped short of ruling out the possibility that Famalaro might have had an accomplice, but said that is "less and less likely all the time."
Although Orange County authorities agree that the killing took place in Laguna Hills, which is policed by the Orange County Sheriff's Department, it was decided that the Costa Mesa Police Department should handle the investigation because that was where Denise Huber disappeared and its detectives have the most experience with the case.
"It's our case from here on out," said Smith, adding that Costa Mesa police really had no preference about where the case should be tried. "Wherever the prosecution would be best, that's where everybody's heart has been at. The case came first. There was never any question."
In other developments Thursday, Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Raymond W. Weaver Jr. signed an order allowing the medical examiner to release Huber's body. Lindberg said he had spoken Thursday with Maricopa County Medical Examiner Dr. Philip E. Keen to make arrangements for the release of Denise Huber's body, but it was not immediately clear who would take possession of the body and how quickly.
An Orange County coroner's pathologist wanted to review the body before the funeral, and Dr. Richard Fukumoto had flown from Orange County to Phoenix in hopes of conducting an examination last Friday. But he was denied access to her remains by Arizona medical examiners, who said the Orange County pathologist had no jurisdiction.
The dispute led Dennis and Ione Huber to complain that Arizona "egos" were to blame for repeated delays in holding their daughter's funeral, which was postponed twice. Lt. Dan Martini of the Orange County Sheriff's Department said Fukumoto has not requested another review of the body, and will simply review the work already performed by Maricopa County medical examiners.
The issue of jurisdiction also stalled forensic testing of other evidence, such as bloodstained clothing found at Famalaro's home, and several items that police speculate may have been the murder weapon. Arizona authorities were reluctant to conduct such forensic tests if the case was going to move to California, requiring a second round of identical tests in Orange County, or possibly the presence of Arizona crime technicians to testify at an Orange County trial.
Smith said Costa Mesa officers will need a large moving van to cart all the evidence back to Orange County, and that he expects those arrangements to be complete within a few days. Famalaro's parents, Anne and Angelo Famalaro, arrived at the Yavapai County Jail some two hours before normal visiting hours Thursday to see their son. They were accompanied by three female companions, whom Anne Famalaro referred to as her "Maude Squad."
As they waited to enter the chamber where they would speak to their son through a plate-glass window using a telephone, Anne Famalaro was animated and visibly agitated, talking with her husband and three female friends about the case being moved to California, the possibility of the death penalty, the lawyers she has consulted with, and the media frenzy that has surrounded her family since her son's arrest two weeks ago.
"They're going to bother you for the rest of your life," one of the women said as they waited. "Unless he gets the death penalty," added another. "But even that can take 10 years."
At the time of his arrest, Famalaro was making a living as a jack-of-all-trades.
He did house painting and repairing, carpet cleaning and most recently turned to real estate when his state contracting license was revoked because of customer complaints about shoddy workmanship.
Neighbors described him as a moody sort who one day would be chatting with residents about everything from the weather to his work, while another day he would refuse to make eye contact or acknowledge a neighbor's wave as he walked to pick up his mail or newspaper.
Nearly all his neighbors, however, had gripes about eyesores at Famalaro's home, where law enforcement authorities say he lived like a pack rat. Paint cans, tools and the now notorious rental truck took up much of the driveway, while lumber and tools littered his balcony.
Inside, law enforcement officers found a cluttered home, and noted that it was oddly organized. Scores of dated magazines were neatly grouped and stacked. Famalaro ordered his books by subject, and they included medical and law textbooks.
Several bizarre items were seized from inside, including women's clothing that appeared to carry bloodstains, as well as women's personal identification.
The finds set off fears that Famalaro was a serial killer--but those fears remain unfounded, officials said.
Authorities have tracked down 11 women whose names turned up in Famalaro's home to ensure their whereabouts--and all have been found safe. Authorities are still searching for another woman, Patricia Gage, whose Social Security card was found in Famalaro's home.
Authorities have linked Famalaro to Huber's death through additional items discovered in his house, including Huber's clothing and personal identification collected in a box in a garage, keys to the freezer and handcuffs, evidence that Famalaro purchased the freezer nine days after Huber disappeared, and Orange County newspaper clippings that chronicled the young woman's disappearance.
Staff writers Greg Hernandez, Matt Lait and Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this story.
FUNERAL COSTS COVERED: Someone who has never met the Hubers has arranged service, South Dakota trip. A13
Tracking Famalaro and Huber
* February: John J. Famalaro, a house painter, rents a storage unit in Laguna Hills at 23192 Verdugo Drive. Authorities now believe it was here that Denise Huber was murdered several months later.
* March: Famalaro is evicted from his Lake Forest residence and apparently moves into the Verdugo Drive storage unit.
* June 2: Denise Huber, 23, and her friend, Robert Calvert, have drinks with friends at El Paso Cantina in Long Beach after attending a Morrissey concert at the Forum in Inglewood.
* June 3, between 1:30 and 2 a.m.: Huber and Calvert leave El Paso Cantina and take Pacific Coast Highway to Calvert's Huntington Beach home. They stop in Seal Beach to buy cigarettes. Calvert tells officials he was dropped off at 2:05 a.m.
* June 3, about 5:30 a.m.: Residents near the Corona del Mar Freeway in Costa Mesa see Huber's abandoned 1988 Honda Accord parked just south of the Bear Street off-ramp, two miles from her home. Its lights are on and doors unlocked.
* June 10: Famalaro buys a freezer chest at a Montgomery Ward & Co. store in Orange County.
* July 2: Costa Mesa police and Huber's family unfurl a large banner about her disappearance on the roof of an apartment building overlooking the location where her car was abandoned.
* July 11: Famalaro rents seven units at Allsize Self Storage in San Clemente. He contracts for a 24-hour power supply to the locker, where he keeps personal belongings, including a freezer.
* Late summer: Famalaro begins a move to Arizona and moves to a house owned by family members in Dewey, Ariz., in late 1992. It is next-door to his parents' house at the Prescott Country Club.
* Feb. 5: Famalaro moves the last of his belongings from Allsize Self Storage into a rented truck that he never returned. He hauls away thousands of gallons of paint and a freezer, which he plugs into a generator on the truck.
* July 13: Yavapai County sheriff's deputies search a 24-foot truck at Famalaro's home and find Denise Huber's body. He is arrested.
* July 21: Arizona grand jury indicts Famalaro on first-degree murder charge. His attorney said he will plead not guilty.
* July 28: Arizona authorities announce that blood tests indicate Huber was murdered at the Laguna Hills warehouse and turn case over to California. Orange County prosecutors file first-degree murder charge with special circumstances.
Source: Times reports; Researched by ALICIA DI RADO / Los Angeles Times