Details May Emerge on Slain Driver's Fate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Denise Annette Huber's nude and handcuffed body was discovered tucked inside a freezer on a summer day in 1994, it solved the baffling mystery of what happened to the stranded Newport Beach motorist who disappeared three years earlier.

Now, as John Joseph Famalaro's long-awaited murder trial is set to begin today with jury selection in Orange County Superior Court, many of the painful and troubling questions that still surround the case may finally be answered.

Chief among them: How did Huber--by all accounts a cautious young woman--meet her killer? Was she violently abducted after her car broke down or did she go willingly after her assailant gained her trust? Was she held captive and sexually assaulted for several days before her skull was crushed? And why was her body kept in a freezer instead of being discarded to cover up the crime?

"Everyone I know still wants to know what's happening in the case," said Stephen Harrocks of Newport Beach, who was dating Huber at the time of her disappearance and, like many others, plans to watch the trial closely.

Despite the passage of time, the murder case that stunned Orange County has never really faded from public consciousness. Its notoriety caused one of Famalaro's attorneys to dub the case "the O.J. of Orange County."

Much of the evidence presented will dwell on what the public already knows. The prosecution's theory about what led to Huber's kidnapping--and the strategy for defending the former Lake Forest house painter--won't be revealed until opening statements begin in several weeks.

Huber was driving home from a concert in the early morning of June 3, 1991, when a rear tire on her car blew out, forcing her to pull over to the side of the Corona del Mar Freeway less than three miles from home.

She was never seen alive again.

"At first, we weren't alarmed when she didn't come home because we thought she'd be calling soon to say she'd stayed here or there," her mother, Ione Huber, recalled. "But when I got home late from work that night and she wasn't there, I really panicked."

Relatives and friends began a frantic search for the 23-year-old. That night, her best friend discovered her blue 1988 Honda Accord on the freeway shoulder. Its headlights were still on, windows rolled down and doors unlocked.

Huber's disappearance quickly became the most baffling missing persons case in Orange County history, in part because so many could identify with the young motorist, alone and frightened by the side of the road, and with the grief-stricken Huber family.

"It could've been anybody's daughter," said her father, Dennis Huber. "We are pretty average people, and it proved to people that it could happen to them."

From the outset, the case was a difficult one. The Costa Mesa Police Department never had a substantial lead.

"We really didn't even have a crime scene," said Lt. Ron Smith, one of the first law enforcement officers assigned to the case, and one of many haunted by it. "There were no witnesses, no physical evidence. Famalaro was completely unrelated to any of the leads we had."

A massive publicity campaign pleading for the public's help turned Denise Huber into a household name in Orange County. Residents came to think of her as the girl next door who disappeared without a trace.

For several years, a 30-foot banner with her likeness hung on the side of a building overlooking the spot on the freeway where she vanished, asking: "Have you seen Denise Huber?" There were fliers, messages on freeway billboards, bumper stickers, even a rental plane towing a banner--all urging the public's help. The family raised a $10,000 reward.

Countless newspaper articles, television newscasts and programs including "America's Most Wanted" and "Inside Edition" profiled the case.

"We pushed for a lot of publicity because that's all I knew how to do," said Dennis Huber. "As long as she was missing, I thought there was a chance."

Desperate, the family even turned to psychics and a private detective. When all else failed, they led Denise's black Labrador to the crime scene, hoping the dog might help.

Nothing worked.

There were no developments until July 1994, not long after Famalaro moved from his Lake Forest home and took up residence next door to his mother in Arizona. An acquaintance, Elaine Canalia, stopped at Famalaro's new home to buy painting supplies and found it odd that a Ryder rental truck seemed to be permanently parked in Famalaro's cluttered driveway.

The Phoenix resident scribbled the truck's license number on a scrap of paper when Famalaro's back was turned and later passed the information along to a detective friend. A computer search revealed the vehicle was reported stolen in Orange County.

Although Canalia's curiosity provided the critical break in the case, she refused to accept the $10,000 reward.

Investigators arrived at Famalaro's home July 13, 1994, and discovered the running freezer as they entered the truck. As they cut away the padlock, expecting to find a cache of illegal drugs, they were stunned to discover Huber's frozen remains.

Her hands were shackled behind her back. Duct tape and wads of cotton covered her eyes, and she was gagged with a strip of cloth. Huber was curled in a fetal position, and her head was covered with a white plastic garbage bag.

During a recent court hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Evans summed it up this way: "What they found was every community's nightmare."

Prosecutors contend that Famalaro, 39, abducted Huber from the side of the freeway. A sheriff's deputy's uniform found in Famalaro's home led to speculation by police that he may have worn it to lure Huber into his car.

In retracing Famalaro's steps, law enforcement officials armed with cutting-edge technology found traces of Huber's blood in a Laguna Hills storage facility rented by Famalaro at the time of the abduction, where the defendant was also living illegally.

The discovery of the blood was significant because it provided police with an additional link between Famalaro and Huber. It also established Orange County as the scene of the slaying and, as a result, the jurisdiction where the trial should be held.

Prosecutors believe the evidence will show that Famalaro sexually assaulted his victim and used a roofer's nail puller to crush her skull.

Several days after Huber's disappearance, records show Famalaro purchased a deep freezer, the same appliance that held the young woman's body, prosecutors are expected to argue at trial.

That purchase and the body's lack of decomposition--police used Huber's fingerprints to identify her--raise unsettling questions about how long Huber lived, and suffered, before she was killed.

Famalaro took steps to keep the freezer operating at all times, officials said. He used a power generator when he hauled it in the stolen rental truck while moving to Arizona. Once there, he ran an extension cord from his home to the truck, police said.

A search of Famalaro's residence turned up what prosecutors believe will be damning evidence.

A bloodied crowbar and metal nail puller were recovered. Huber's belongings, including her clothing, a purse and jewelry, were found in a box marked "Christmas." The keys to the handcuffs used to pin Huber's wrists behind her back reportedly were in the suspect's desk drawer. Police also found stacks of yellowed Orange County newspapers and a videotaped television show that chronicled Huber's disappearance and the family's desperate desire to know what had happened to their only daughter.

Famalaro has pleaded not guilty.

His attorneys, Deputy Public Defenders Leonard Gumlia and Denise Gragg, have steadfastly refused to say whether Famalaro will testify at his own trial or whether the defense will even fight the murder charge.

The core of their case, the defense said, will be disproving the kidnapping and sexual assault allegations that could put Famalaro on death row if convicted.

"That will not be the only priority but it will be a heavy priority," Gumlia said. "I don't believe John Famalaro kidnapped or sodomized Denise Huber nor do I believe that he deserves to die."

The defense has expressed doubts that its client can receive a fair trial in Orange County, where the case has received extensive news coverage. Their attempts to move the case elsewhere have failed.

Often lost in the focus on the crime and the defendant has been the vivacious young woman who was still planning her future when her life ended violently.

The year before her death, Huber had graduated from UC Irvine with a major in social sciences and was holding two jobs, as a waitress in one Newport Beach restaurant and a cashier in another, as she considered career choices.

Popular, with a good sense of humor, Huber closely followed the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. She enjoyed the ocean--she had become a good water skier--and loved animals, especially dogs, relatives said.

Friends and relatives still struggle with her death and hope the trial will help them put ghosts to rest.

"It will be nice to get some finalization," said Harrocks, her former boyfriend, who acknowledges that the ordeal remains an open wound.

The last friend to see Huber alive was Robert Calvert, who accompanied her to a rock concert at the Forum in Inglewood the night she disappeared. Afterward, the pair went out for a beer before Huber drove Calvert to his Huntington Beach home.

"I've always thought about that night and wondered about how things could turn out so badly," Calvert said recently. He said his last moments with Huber now seem "eerie."

"Before she dropped me off, there was a weird pause," he recalled. "It was like she wasn't in a hurry to leave, and we just sat in the car and talked. And then my seat belt jammed and I had to struggle to get out of the car."

On the eve of Famalaro's trial, it is a symbol of Dennis and Ione Huber's anguish that they find themselves grateful their daughter's battered body was preserved in a freezer.

While it was "a sick, bizarre thing" for the alleged killer to do, Ione Huber said, it provided a small measure of relief because it cracked the mystery and yielded evidence that can now be used to prosecute Famalaro.

"It did preserve the evidence," Huber said. "We are very, very thankful for that. They could even take fingerprints. It's much more than we had hoped for."

The Hubers will attend the close of Famalaro's trial to bear witness on behalf of their daughter. They hope to spare themselves much of the gruesome details because the trial may for the first time reveal what happened to the young woman stranded on the freeway, but it will never answer Ione Huber's aching questions.

"I just can't comprehend it," she said, adding that she will never be able to understand the mind of the killer who took her daughter's life--and then held on to her body. "It's so hard to figure out. You just can't. And to go on for three years and live with yourself. I don't know how a person could do that."

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