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Laguna Hills Findings Move Huber Case to O.C. : Crime: Tests indicate she was killed in warehouse, not in Arizona. Family is relieved jurisdiction is settled.

July 29, 1994|RENE LYNCH and KEVIN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Long-awaited blood tests indicated that a Newport Beach woman whose battered body was found in a freezer here was bludgeoned to death three years ago in Laguna Hills, leading Arizona authorities on Thursday to send the murder case to Orange County for prosecution.

Orange County prosecutors quickly filed capital murder charges in Municipal Court in Newport Beach against John J. Famalaro, a 37-year-old house painter who lived most of his life in Orange County before moving in 1992 to Arizona, where he was arrested earlier this month on murder charges.

The victim, Denise Huber, a 23-year-old UC Irvine graduate, disappeared June 3, 1991, after her automobile had a tire blowout on the Corona del Mar Freeway.

Her whereabouts had been a mystery until Arizona detectives, thinking they were about to uncover a cache of illicit drugs, found her nude and handcuffed body in the freezer, which Famalaro brought here from California and kept running in a Ryder rental truck parked in his driveway.

Although criminal attorneys both here and in California have said that prosecutors would have a tougher time securing a death sentence if the murder case were sent to Orange County, they also said that Arizona would have little choice but to surrender jurisdiction if evidence surfaced that the actual slaying occurred in California.

That evidence was uncovered by Costa Mesa police detectives and confirmed by crime lab technicians of the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

The joint statement issued Thursday said that the decision to send the murder prosecution to Orange County was "based on the DNA analysis of bloodstains collected at the warehouse (Famalaro occupied) at 23192 Verdugo" in Laguna Hills. Two types of DNA testing were being done, the statement said, and "results to date show that the blood found at the warehouse matches that of Denise Huber."

The complaint charging Famalaro with murder included the "special circumstance" of kidnaping. "Due to the special-circumstance allegation, Famalaro is eligible for the death penalty," the statement said.

The murder victim's father, Dennis Huber, said from the family home in Newport Beach that he and his wife, Ione, were greatly relieved that the jurisdictional issue had finally been resolved, and that his daughter's body would be released in time for a twice-postponed funeral now scheduled for Tuesday in South Dakota.

"It closes the chapter, but not the book," Dennis Huber said. He added that he had "mixed feelings" about the case being transferred to Orange County.

"We felt it might have been an easier prosecution over there," he said. "I think it will be a fair trial and justice will be served. It just might be tougher."

Famalaro's defense attorney, Thomas K. Kelly, agreed with that assessment. "From Day One, I believed it to be in my client's best interest to have the case tried in California," he said, adding that the obstacles to imposing the death penalty are more easily overcome in Arizona.

Moreover, only two of California's more than 300 Death Row inmates have been executed since 1977, even though the death penalty was restored in California in that year.

If there is one good aspect to the case being transferred, Dennis Huber said, it is that "we know a lot of people here, and if we come out for the trial we've had a lot of offers from people to stay at their homes." The Hubers are planning to move from Newport Beach to North Dakota in mid-August.

Orange County Assistant Dist. Atty. John Conley said prosecutors were looking into the possibility of filing a murder charge with other special circumstances. California reserves the death penalty generally for those killers who commit a second crime, such as rape or robbery, in connection with the murder.

When her body was discovered, Huber's eyes and mouth had been covered with cotton and sealed shut with duct tape. Autopsy results have not been officially released, but officials say there are no obvious signs of sexual assault.

In order to prove kidnaping, the state must show that a person was "transported against his or her will by force or threat of force," and defense attorneys say a persuasive argument could be made that Denise Huber might have willingly accepted a lift from a passing motorist when she found herself stranded on a dark freeway at 2 a.m.

Conley said the murder complaint was filed late in the day, and that documents supporting a request for an arrest warrant have been sealed by the court.

*

Famalaro will continue to be held without bail in Arizona's Yavapai County Jail pending extradition to Orange County, said Yavapai County Sheriff Buck Buchanan.

"If he waves extradition, he'll go quick (to Orange County). If he doesn't, he goes slow. But he goes."

Additionally, the Yavapai County attorney's office has filed papers requesting that all evidence seized in three searches of Famalaro's home here be turned over to Orange County authorities.

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