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Unraveling Mysteries of Huber Case

Courts: Jury selection begins today for man accused in O.C. woman's slaying. Many troubling questions remain.

April 21, 1997|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — 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.

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