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Father's Hope Fades After Horrific Find

Crime: His ex-wife admits dismembering a body in Canoga Park. But the discovery has yielded no clues in their daughter's disappearance, police say.

November 20, 2000|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEAVERTON, Ore. — Michael and Karen Huster's 18-year marriage was as fractious as the custody battle for their two children.

But Michael Huster said he refused to believe his wife was capable of harming their daughter--even after they divorced in Oregon and 10-year-old Elisabeth Anne disappeared in 1996. Even after Oregon authorities issued a murder indictment against Karen Huster, and she fled.

Huster, who has acknowledged hitting his wife, said he thought Karen was just hiding the girl from him.

Not until 10 days ago, when police found dismembered human remains of her male roommate in two freezers in a Canoga Park apartment occupied by Karen Huster, 41, did Michael Huster say he had begun to lose hope for his daughter.

"It's becoming more plausible to me that she has harmed her," he said of his missing daughter last week from his home in Pleasanton, Calif.

Court records and interviews with family members, neighbors and investigators show the steady meltdown of the Huster household, culminating in the disappearance and possible murder of their daughter at the hands of Karen Huster.

But police in Los Angeles and Oregon say the gruesome discovery Nov. 10 in the De Soto Avenue apartment has led them no closer to finding Elisabeth's body.

Although she has been uncooperative in the search for her daughter, Karen Huster told investigators that she dismembered the man's body after he died of a heart attack. So far, police say, they are inclined to believe her.

"There does not seem to be an obvious cause of death," said coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier. The identity of the body has yet to be confirmed, but the listed tenant of the unit, 73-year-old James Cameron, is missing.

Cameron may have been supporting Karen Huster financially, but details of their relationship are "somewhat nebulous," said Los Angeles Police Det. Mike Oppelt.

She was arrested Nov. 10 after the body parts were found and is being held at Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles. Efforts to reach Huster or her attorney were unsuccessful.

The district attorney's office has yet to charge Huster and referred the case back to police for further investigation. Mutilation of a corpse is a felony in California.

Cameron's stepson, Craig Faulkner, 44, of Reseda said they have been estranged and have not talked since last year. He said he did not know Karen Huster and described his stepfather as a temperamental widower of three years. "He was a loner, an intellectual," Faulkner said. Cameron was a retired engineer for ITT, an avid golfer, bowler and square-dancer, Faulkner said.

"But since mom died in 1998, he was a loner," Faulkner said, adding that his father's health had declined after a stroke last year.

Sierra Nord, who managed the De Soto Avenue property until she moved in January, said Cameron was a "soft-spoken, quiet man." She said she never saw Karen Huster or anyone else living with Cameron.

Meanwhile, Oregon authorities say they intend to extradite Huster to stand trial in this Portland suburb for the death of Elisabeth.

Michael and Karen Huster met in 1978 when he was a Caltech student. They married the following year and moved to Santa Barbara. In 1980 they had a son, Jonathan. Michael Huster says the marriage "was tumultuous from the beginning."

"She showed herself, very quickly, to be short-tempered and moody," he said. In court papers filed in Oregon, Karen Huster claimed Michael Huster had a long-term drug problem.

They separated for two years in the mid-1980s and Michael Huster went back to school at UC Davis. Karen Huster, a San Fernando Valley native and Chatsworth High graduate, moved from Oregon to Northridge to live near her father and brother.

The Husters reconciled by 1986, when Elisabeth was born, and moved to Northern California before relocating to Beaverton in 1994.

"It wasn't until the 1990s that I got the hint that her mental state was unstable," Michael Huster said. He recalled a time in Northern California when Karen Huster abandoned their then-13-year-old son at a downtown store miles from their home. He also described a scene in an Anaheim diner when his wife, frustrated by an inattentive waitress, screamed loud enough to stop every conversation in the establishment.

Michael Huster was not the only one to mention Karen Huster's bizarre behavior. In their Oregon neighborhood, a tidy, close-knit community of middle-class families, nearby residents talked about the volatile mother who yelled at her daughter's playmates and never seemed to leave the house.

"Elisabeth was sweet," said Karen Thatcher, 42, who lives across the street from the Paisley Drive home the Husters used to own. "But Karen was a little different--not someone you wanted to be neighborly friends with." Two of Thatcher's youngest daughters, Haley and Lacey, used to play with Elisabeth, but she said they were often afraid of Karen Huster.

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