For the Hubers, Agony of Waiting Goes On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Dennis and Ione Huber, the waiting has been the worst part of all.

For three years, they waited to find out what happened to their daughter, Denise Huber. The last time they saw her was on a bright Sunday afternoon in June 1991 as she dressed for a concert.

The grisly discovery in July 1994 of her body inside a freezer in Arizona and the arrest of former Lake Forest house painter John Joseph Famalaro finally ended that mystery. But the Hubers have since endured nearly three years of legal delays as defense attorneys prepare for Famalaro's trial, set to begin with jury selection today in Orange County Superior Court.

The Hubers said their emotional wounds have been slow to heal. And compounding their pain is the unfinished business of Famalaro's trial, which looms large.

"It's been from one delay to the next and it's very frustrating," Ione Huber said recently. "You gear up emotionally and mentally then you have a letdown. It's hard."

Even though nearly six years have passed since the death of their only daughter, "there is still no closure," Dennis Huber said.

Since the discovery of their daughter's body, the former Newport Beach residents have started a new life in their native North Dakota. Once a schoolteacher, Ione Huber, 53, now sells real estate. Dennis Huber, 57, works out of their home selling mortgage software. Their 26-year-old son, Jeff, still lives in Orange County with his wife and son.

Although the transition has been made easier by the presence of many relatives and newfound friends, the Hubers said the memory of their daughter and what happened to her is always close.

"It's been kind of hard, trying to start a new life," Ione Huber said. "Denise will always be with us, no matter where we go."

The Hubers dealt with their daughter's disappearance in different ways.

Dennis Huber held out hope his only daughter was still alive. Long after she disappeared, the answering machine message announced: "We will accept a collect call from Denise Huber."

But as the days turned into weeks, then months and finally years, Ione Huber accepted that her daughter was probably dead.

"Sometimes, a mother knows," she said. "I knew Denise so well and I knew she wouldn't leave and I couldn't imagine her being held and not being able to find a way to a phone."

In the wake of the discovery, and in the face of a trial certain to dredge up painful testimony, the Hubers--who have been married 33 years--have displayed uncommon strength and dignity, friends said.

"I've known them through the good times and the hard times," said longtime friend Nancy Streza of San Clemente. "The way their marriage has stayed together has been incredible."

The couple said the year after Denise Huber disappeared was particularly difficult. Ione Huber was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. But instead of being driven apart by grief, the Hubers have grown closer.

"It does put a lot of stress on you and it creates a lot of problems," Ione Huber said. "I think we have really needed each other for support in order to get through it."

The Hubers have tried to keep a low profile in their new hometown, but have gone public with their grief when it gives them the chance to encourage people to carry cellular telephones. In January, for example, the Hubers appeared on a television talk show to discuss the death of comedian Bill Cosby's son, Ennis. Like their daughter, Ennis Cosby experienced car trouble on the freeway before he was killed.

On the show, Dennis Huber advised motorists to stay inside their vehicles when a breakdown occurs.

"Don't get out of the car, don't use a call box," said Dennis Huber, who believes his daughter would still be alive if she owned a cellular phone. "When you get outside and they know you are in trouble, you're vulnerable."

The Hubers plan to attend Famalaro's death penalty trial on charges of kidnapping, sexual assault and murder. It will be the first time the Hubers face Famalaro in person.

"I don't know what I'm going to do when I see him," Dennis Huber said.

There is trepidation about the trial itself. Dennis Huber said he was unnerved by O.J. Simpson's trials on charges he was responsible for killing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and defense efforts to scrutinize the slain woman's lifestyle.

"I have a fear of what the defense is going to try and do," Dennis Huber said. "I just hope the defense doesn't try and trash her to try and make their client look any better."

That type of a defense tactic has no place in the trial, the Hubers said.

"I can't think of anything worse," Dennis Huber said. "I want them to remember she was one of the most wonderful people in the absolute world."

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