Hubers Lay Loved One to Rest : Funeral: Three years after her slaying, the O.C. woman is buried in South Dakota with tears and happy memories.
When Dennis Huber saw his daughter’s steel, white casket for the first time, the pain and anguish of the past three years came crashing down on him.
“The reality of it all was like having a double-barrel shotgun pointed right at my face,” an emotional Huber said Tuesday as final preparations were being made for his daughter’s funeral and burial Tuesday in this rural, Midwest farming community. “It was really rough.”
In this town, where the Huber family has deep roots, more than 225 friends and relatives crowded into the tiny First Reformed Church to take part in a somber, 90-minute ceremony commemorating the life of murder victim Denise Huber.
“Everyone around here was touched by what happened to her,” said Clarence O. Fjeldheim, a local farmer and mayor of Herreid, a community of 485 residents. “This is a small town and people are very close.”
Tears flowed throughout the church while friends and relatives gave moving tributes to the 23-year-old Newport Beach woman, who was remembered for her gregarious personality, zest for life, passion for water skiing and traveling, fondness for dogs and frogs, and her religious faith.
Some mourners had to sit in the church basement, watching the service on a video monitor; others gathered outside under cloudy skies around another monitor set up near a large cottonwood tree.
Later, in the dense humidity and 80-degree heat, Denise Huber was buried next to her grandfather, Edward Huber, who farmed the flat, green prairies in this region and opened the city’s first motel. She was especially close to him in life, family members said, as she will be in death.
“She thought so much of him and he thought so much of her, and now we believe they are in heaven together,” Dennis Huber said.
He explained the burial spot simply: Denise “always enjoyed” visiting Herreid. “We really feel like we’re home and among friends and family and that is very, very important to me,” he said.
He and his wife, Ione, are moving late in August from Newport Beach to Bismarck, N.D., about 100 miles north of Herreid. They had planned the move before their daughter’s body was found bludgeoned, handcuffed and stuffed in a freezer in Arizona three weeks ago. She was reported missing June 3, 1991, her abandoned car found with a flat tire on the Corona del Mar Freeway.
“I look at it as a new start and hopefully we can get away from some of the bad memories,” Dennis Huber said of the move out of Orange County.
“We have a lot of support here and that will be good in the healing process,” Ione Huber added. “We can leave with some resolve now.”
The folks here have followed the case ever since Denise Huber disappeared. At the time, Herreid residents were shocked. But when they learned of how her body was found, they were horrified. Some talk about seeing the case reported on national television news shows. Others still collect newspaper articles about the case.
No one here was surprised at the turnout for the funeral. More would have come, they said, but they wanted to save seats for the Huber’s large family, many of whom live here and others who journeyed from around the nation. It was a closed-casket service because of the condition of the body, which the family never viewed.
In many ways, the service was similar to a memorial held in Newport Beach July 23: with the family’s pastor, the Rev. Walt Shepard, again leading the service, relatives giving eulogies and the congregation singing hymns.
A large collage of photographs of Denise from toddler to adult, which was displayed in Newport Beach, was propped on an easel outside the brown wood-framed church. People stopped and gazed at the pictures showing her with family and school friends.
Another large photograph of Denise as a smiling, young adult was at the front of the church, leaning against the casket.
“There were so many things that made Denise special. Her laughs, her smiles and sense of humor.” said cousin Carrie Vandenburg, 24, of Seattle. “But I think the thing I loved most about Denise was she knew what was important to her.”
Standing behind the casket adorned with several arrangements of red and white carnations, she spoke of her admiration for Denise’s ability “to have fun” and her love of travel.
” . . . You couldn’t help but love her. That’s why this doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “I miss her terribly.”
Another cousin, Rod Vandenburg, of Palm Springs described Denise as living “every day to the fullest. She always made me feel right at home with her.” He talked about his daughter, who was born on the day Denise disappeared, and declared: “God gave us a true remembrance (of Denise). I’m sad that Denise is not with us anymore, but we have peace in knowing that she is in the hands of the Lord.”
Costa Mesa Police Chief David L. Snowden delivered a moving tribute, bringing himself and many others to tears as he described how his officers treated Denise’s disappearance as if it had happened to their own daughter.
“When I took the oath of police officer I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Snowden. “I expected the action, I expected to be beaten up and shot at, I expected people to throw things and call me names for writing tickets. But nobody ever prepared me for the hurt.”
He spoke of having visited the grave of Sitting Bull in nearby Mobridge the previous evening, and how it caused him to reflect on life in California and South Dakota, as well as his profession.
“Sometimes I wonder why police officers die so young and retire so young, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that a piece of their heart breaks every time a young person dies,” Snowden said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“I didn’t know three years ago that of all the travels that Denise has done, the longest travel she would have would be from the arms of her parents to here,” he concluded. “I pray for Denise and I pray for her family and I pray to God this never happens to anybody again.”
At a brief graveside ceremony, family members released multicolored balloons, watching them soar into the cloudy South Dakota sky.
After the burial, the Hubers invited friends and family for a potluck luncheon at the Herreid Community Center, which also doubles as the Skateland roller rink.
There, the parents spoke briefly to reporters.
They said they cherished the community support and are relying heavily on their religious faith.
“This is a process that is probably just beginning and we are going to have a lot more to deal with in the future,” Ione Huber said.
The Hubers said they plan to attend the trial in Orange County of John J. Famalaro, who is accused of Denise’s kidnaping and murder, and hope he gets the death penalty.
“I don’t think I could ever begin to figure out why” Denise was killed, Dennis Huber said. “She was a beautiful, wonderful person who deserved to be on this world, but I guess God wanted her up in heaven more then He wanted her here.”
Ione Huber agreed.
“I can’t find words to describe her,” she said. “She was just a beautiful person and she should not have had to leave us the way she did.”
Denise’s brother Jeff Huber expressed his anger.
“I’d love to confront (Famalaro) with my bare hands. And you can put that in quotes,” said the 24-year-old Costa Mesa country-Western singer.
He said his sister’s death “makes you appreciate your loved ones when you’ve got them. It makes you realize just how temporary life is.”