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Huber Investigators Focus on 9-Day Stretch

July 23, 1994|DOREEN CARVAJAL and JULIE MARQUIS and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When Denise Huber vanished on the Corona Del Mar freeway, she left behind a smudged whiskey shot glass, an abandoned blue Honda and a baffling riddle:

What happened to the vivacious 23-year-old waitress in the frantic hours and days after her disappearance on June 3, 1991?

Investigators are focusing on the nine-day period between the time the former Northridge woman was abducted and the time a bespectacled painter named John J. Famalaro took delivery of the Montgomery Ward freezer in which her body was found.

If, as authorities allege in an indictment, Famalaro killed Huber, then where was she slain? Famalaro bought the freezer seven days after her disappearance, and it was delivered on July 12. One question is whether she was kept prisoner before being bludgeoned to death and frozen. If so, for how long?

Some of the mystery may be resolved when a medical examiner in Arizona issues a report next week. Other riddles may be clarified by a high-tech search for clues in a Laguna Hills storage unit that Famalaro rented several months before Huber vanished and where he apparently lived for much of 1991.

Since Huber disappeared, police detectives, private investigators and even psychics have tried to solve the mystery.

When Huber, a part-time cashier and waitress whose family moved from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County several years ago, disappeared, she was on her way home to Newport Beach from a Morrissey rock concert in Inglewood. She and a friend, Robert Calvert, later had drinks in a Long Beach bar and she dropped him off at his Huntington Beach home about 2 a.m.

On June 3, another friend, Tammy Brown, spotted Huber's blue 1984 Honda Accord on the shoulder of the Corona del Mar Freeway with a flat tire.

There were no signs of a struggle. The car doors were unlocked, the trunk undisturbed. There was a shot glass under the seat. The car keys were missing and so was Huber's purse.

"I have always truly believed that it was someone she knew or someone pretending to be a police officer, someone with access to a uniform. If you're pretending to be a cop then you've got time to handcuff someone and take them off their guard," said Logan Clarke, of Clarke International Investigations, whose Lake Arrowhead agency was hired by Huber's parents to help in the search.

Clarke speculates that Huber was abducted but survived for a period. Other investigators have refused to publicly discuss the question of whether she was kept prisoner for some time or was killed immediately.

"That's what we're trying to determine for the jurisdictional question," said Thomas Lindberg, deputy Yavapai County, Ariz., attorney. "Circumstantially, there are a number of things that seem to put the events" of her death in Orange County, he said, which would mean that Famalaro would face trial in California, not Arizona.

Last week, Huber's body was found jammed in a freezer stored in a stolen rental truck next to Famalaro's home in Prescott, Ariz. A search of the home uncovered a bloodied crowbar and Huber's purse, including clothing and the silver dolphin ring and gold heart she was wearing when she disappeared.

Also found was a homemade Los Angeles County deputy sheriff's uniform.

The contents of Huber's stomach may provide a clue, said Cullen Ellingburgh, supervising deputy coroner in Orange County. Huber's companion, Calvert, said Huber ate pretzels in the Mexican restaurant where they drank the night she disappeared, and if the pretzels were not digested that would indicate she died shortly after they parted.

Meanwhile, Costa Mesa investigators have been examining receipts and work orders and interviewing people who had contact with Famalaro, a painting contractor, to determine what he was doing that week in June three years ago.

Several months earlier in March, 1991, he had been evicted from a Lake Forest house for failure to pay the rent. By that June, Famalaro was camping out in a small office in a huge warehouse in Laguna Hills, according to one of his former workers, Ygnacio Santos Cruz.

Cruz remembers working for Famalaro that month, but noticed nothing out of the ordinary, except Famalaro's stark quarters. Cruz never noticed the freezer chest that Famalaro purchased on July 10 and delivered the 12th. There were parts of the warehouse workers were not allowed to enter, Cruz said.

Then, almost a year to the day after Huber vanished, Cruz said Famalaro himself disappeared, leaving Cruz and other employees unpaid.

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