A Spotlight on Famalaro's Secretive Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The death penalty trial of former Lake Forest house painter John Joseph Famalaro will be as much about his secretive life and unusual behavior as it is about his guilt or innocence in one of the most sensational murders in Orange County history.

From early childhood to his July 1994 arrest, Famalaro, 39, struck most of those who knew him as a recluse with perplexing personas: The Catholic schoolboy who failed his attempts to follow the footsteps of his successful chiropractor brother, the handyman who listened obsessively to self-help tapes, the entrepreneur who left behind a list of angry customers.

Casting a shadow over all, they 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 on stately Victoria Drive in Santa Ana for more than 1O years. "It was as if no one else in that family had a life, or a life that's outside of hers."

Jury selection begins today in Orange County Superior Court in the trial against Famalaro, who has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Denise Huber of Newport Beach and then preserving her body in a freezer for three years.

Famalaro, a pack rat who kept fast-food receipts, piles of yellowed newspapers and cans of dried-out house paint, grew up in a deeply religious family. His father, Angelo Famalaro, a quiet man who earned a living as a window salesman, left control of the family to his wife.

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

"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 was a strict mother who forbid 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."

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

Legal pundits following the trial 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 that he be executed.

The question is how each side will explain the past, and whether the past will explain the June 1991 abduction and murder, said William Thompson, a lawyer and a UCI criminology professor.

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

But after an exhaustive investigation, Famalaro--who has no criminal history--has not been linked to any other homicide.

Famalaro graduated from St. Michael's Preparatory High School, a Catholic boys' school in Trabuco Canyon. He tried to become a chiropractor like his brother, Warren Famalaro, but failed. Once, he applied to become an Orange County sheriff's deputy, but after passing a written exam and physical test, he did not return.

As a house painter, Famalaro's work was often inconsistent. Some clients, who by coincidence included an Orange County prosecutor and two Newport Beach police officers, said his work was meticulous and recommended him to friends. Others claimed that the paint began peeling soon after they paid Famalaro.

Arizona authorities revoked his contractor's license after numerous complaints. One of Famalaro's neighbors also suspected Famalaro of pelting his house with eggs after he hired another painter to do the job.

Famalaro's financial success was mixed too. In the early 1990s, when he scored several contracts in plush South County neighborhoods, many clients recalled him as a big spender who drove expensive cars, including a Mercedes. Others said he was mired in debt, owing thousands of dollars to his employees and to property owners.

A former Lake Forest roommate, Nick Faicchio, said that Famalaro was thrown out for failing to pay his share of the rent--and in revenge stole several items from the house, including kitchen drawers and even sod from the backyard.

"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."

Several women who dated him found Famalaro bewildering. Sometimes frightening.

Marla Tollett of Prescott, Ariz., who dated Famalaro in 1993, told Arizona police that he insisted she visit him only at night to keep their relationship hidden from his mother, who lived next door to her son when he moved to Dewey, Ariz., shortly before his arrest.

Famalaro's former fiance, Nancy Gowan of Laguna Hills, said the defendant was sometimes abusive--one of the factors that lead to their breakup. On one occasion, the 6-foot-1 man pushed her around, got a "glazed" look in his eyes and tried to handcuff her as she attempted to leave.

But Gowan insisted she never feared for her life around Famalaro.

"In hindsight, it's a scary thought," she said after his arrest.

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