Murder Suspect's Past Is Filled With Contradictions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Today, as a former Orange County handyman and house painter goes on trial in a murder case his own lawyer has called "the O.J. of Orange County," the death penalty matter will be as much about John Famalaro's mystifying life and paradoxical behavior as it is about guilt or innocence.

From the day in 1994 that authorities arrested Famalaro, 39, after finding the body of Denise Huber folded in a freezer in a stolen rental truck parked outside his house in Arizona, the contradictions and conflicts of Famalaro's personal and professional life have emerged.

As a house painter, he had among his clients several police officers and a prosecutor, some of whom found his work so meticulous they recommended him to friends. Yet others said the paint began peeling off the walls not long after they paid him.

In the early 1990s, when he scored several big contracts in plush south Orange County neighborhoods, clients remembered him as a big spender driving luxury cars. Yet a former roommate said Famalaro was thrown out for not paying his share of the rent--and, in retaliation, stole drawers from the kitchen and sod from the backyard.

He failed when he tried to become a chiropractor like his brother, yet after he passed the written and physical exams to become a county sheriff's deputy, he never went back.

Most of those who knew him were struck by his perplexing nature: the former Catholic schoolboy who, at age 35, insisted that a girlfriend visit him only at night so his mother wouldn't find out, a handyman who listened obsessively to self-help tapes, a pack rat who kept everything from fast-food receipts to piles of aging newspapers, an entrepreneur who left behind a list of angry customers.

Casting a shadow over all, acquaintances said, was his 71-year-old mother, Anna Famalaro.

"She ruled with an iron fist," said Bob Plumleigh, who lived two doors down from the Famalaros in Santa Ana for more than 10 years. "It was as if no one else in that family had a life, or a life that's outside of hers."

Famalaro grew up in a deeply religious family. His father, Angelo, a window salesman, left control of the family to his wife.

Marion Thobe, the suspect's sister, would later describe their upbringing as perversely repressive, with verbal abuse and beatings with belts from a mother who took religion to an extreme that bordered on fanaticism.

"She would go out to other people and say, 'Look at my three wonderful children.' But in the house we were [expletive],' " Thobe said in a taped interview with Arizona police. "She's an odd duck. . . . She had a short fuse."

Anna Famalaro allegedly forbade talk about sex and discouraged her son from dating. Thobe told investigators that her mother would cover John Famalaro's eyes during kissing scenes in movies and once followed him on an outing with a girl to make sure he did nothing "wrong."

Anna Famalaro has denied the accusations, describing John Famalaro's childhood as idyllic.

Legal pundits said Famalaro's past will play a key role in the arguments of both defense and prosecution, especially if the handyman is convicted of murder and jurors are asked to recommend the death penalty.

How each side explains Famalaro's past, and whether that past explains the June 1991 abduction and slaying, is the big question, said William Thompson, a lawyer and a UC Irvine criminology professor.

The gruesome nature of the killing initially led investigators to describe it as the work of a "serial killer," a theory fueled by the discovery of identification belonging to other women in Famalaro's cluttered home.

But an exhaustive investigation did not link Famalaro--who has no criminal history--to any other homicide.

As a house painter, Famalaro's work was often inconsistent. Some clients praised his work, others found it substandard. In Arizona, authorities revoked his contractor's license after numerous complaints. A neighbor suspected that Famalaro pelted his house with eggs after he hired another painter.

Former roommate Nick Faicchio remembers how Famalaro walked off with kitchen drawers and sod after he was booted out for not paying rent. "I followed him in my car, blowing my horn, and he almost smashed my car," Faicchio recalled. "The next day, he returned the drawers, but not anything else."

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