Unraveling Mysteries of Huber Case

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 bizarre case might 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, Denise Huber's disappearance never faded from the public's consciousness and her slaying stunned even strangers who had hoped for a happier ending. The notoriety has caused one of Famalaro's attorneys to dub the case "the O.J. of Orange County."

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

Huber was driving home from a concert in the early morning hours 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 when she was 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 just south of Bear Street. Its headlights were still turned on, windows rolled down and doors unlocked.

Huber's disappearance quickly became the most baffling missing person 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 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 Costa Mesa Police 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. Orange County residents would come to think of her as the girl-next-door who disappeared without a trace.

For months, 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," Dennis Huber said. "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 Huber's black Labrador to where her car was found, 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 some painting supplies and found it odd that a Ryder rental truck seemed to be permanently parked in Famalaro's cluttered driveway.

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

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

Investigators arrived at Famalaro's home on July 13, 1994, and discovered the running freezer as they entered the truck. As they cut away the padlock, fully 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 the fetal position and her head was covered by 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 Famalaro, 39, abducted Huber from the side of the freeway after her car broke down. A sheriff's deputy's uniform found in Famalaro's home led to speculation by police that he may have been wearing it when he encountered Huber, giving her a false sense of security.

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 death penalty trial should be held.

Prosecutors believe the evidence will show 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--raises unsettling questions about how long Huber lived, and suffered, before she was fatally bludgeoned.

Famalaro took steps to keep the freezer operating at all times, authorities 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 out the back of the truck and into his home, 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 were in the suspect's desk drawer. Stacks of yellowed Orange County newspapers and a videotaped television show chronicled Huber's disappearance and the family's desperate desire to know what happened to their only daughter, police said.

Famalaro has pleaded not guilty.

His attorneys, deputy public defenders Leonard Gumlia and Denise Gragg, have steadfastly refused to say whether Famalaro will testify 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 would 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 their client can receive a fair trial in Orange County, where the case has received extensive media 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 at the Cannery restaurant in Newport Beach and as a cashier at the Broadway in Fashion Island, while considering career choices.

Popular, with a good sense of humor, Huber closely followed the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. She enjoyed the nearby ocean--and had become a pretty 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 the past to rest.

"It will be nice to get some finalization," said Harrocks, her former boyfriend, who acknowledges 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 Hubers' 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 maddening mystery and also yielded evidence that can now be used to prosecute Famalaro.

"It did preserve the evidence," she 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 how anyone could take her daughter's life--or hold 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."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Long Road to Trial

After a delay of nearly three years, former Lake Forest handyman John Joseph Famalaro's trail starts today in Orange County Superior Court on charges he kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed Newport Beach resident Denise Huber. Her is a look at key events in the case.

1991

June 2: Huber and a friend, Robert Calvert, attend a Morrissey concert and then have drinks with friends in Long Beach.

June 3: Huber drops Calvert at his Huntington Beach home about 2 a.m. Hours later, her abandoned Honda Accord is found just off the Corona del Mar Freeway in Costa Mesa, less than three miles from her home.

June 10: Famalaro buys a freezer and has it delivered two days later to a Laguna Hills storage unit where he has been living since evicted from his Lake Forest home.

June 13: Famalaro rents seven storage units in San Clemente. He contracts for 24-hour power supply to a locker where he keeps his belongings, including the freezer.

July 2: Costa Mesa police and Huber's family unfurl a banner off an apartment building overlooking spot where Denise's car was abandoned.

****

1994

Jan-Feb.: Famalaro rents 24-foot truck from Ryder Truck Rental in San Clemente; it is reported missing when he fails to return it. Prosecutors say he loads last of his belongings into truck--including freezer and a generator to keep it running--and moves to Dewey, Ariz., next door to his parents.

July 13: Neighbor questions rental truck parked in Famalaro's driveway and alerts police, who find the vehicle is stolen. Authorities enter truck and find Huber's nude handcuffed body in freezer. Famalaro arrested.

July 28: Tests find Huber's dried blood in Laguna Hills storage facility, indicating murder took place there and solving jurisdictional question between Arizona and Orange County officials.

Aug. 2: Huber buried in Herreid, S.D., a small farming community near where her parents now live.

September: Three Costa Mesa detectives return Famalaro to Orange County, where he pleads not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, sexual assault and kidnapping. Prosecutors decide to seek death penalty.

****

1995

April 10: Deputy public defender Leonard Gumlia succeeds in having Famalaro's trial delayed at least a year to give him time to go through 65 boxes of evidence and interview about 500 potential trial witnesses.

****

1996

Dec. 17: Famalaro's attorneys lobby to suppress evidence, arguing police acted improperly while executing search warrants. Request largely denied.

****

1997

Jan. 28: Trial date is set for Feb. 24 then postponed because of pre-trial hearings.

Feb. 21: Famalaro's attorney's argue to have case moved out of Orange County; they claim publicity surrounding case makes it impossible to get a fair trial. Request is denied.

March 19: 4th District Court of appeals refuses request by defense attorneys to over turn the lower court's ruling on where the trial should be held.

Source: Times reports

Researched by GREG HERNANDEZ / Los Angeles Times

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