25 Years After Famalaro Murder Case in Costa Mesa

Famalaro was convicted to death for murder in 1997.

Famalaro is awaiting the fulfillment of his conviction in San Quentin State Prison, but like any other death row prisoners in California, it is an open inquiry whether the day of his execution will even arrive.

However, the capital penalty has essentially been on hold since 2006 because of a judge’s ruling that the three drugs lethal injection used at the time could cause inhumane distress.

Dennis and Ione, Denise’s parents, say they have made peace with the truth that their daughter’s killer may never face the ultimate penalty designated for him.

“He will die of old age in prison, I believe, before he gets the death penalty,” Dennis said.

“And we will probably die before he does,” Ione added.

Speaking from their home on the bank of the Missouri River in South Dakota, the couple sounds almost casual relaying details of the crime, except for the occasional twinge of pain revealed in their voices.

After all, they have spent 25 years speaking about the tragedy, but the feelings can come back in an instant. Dennis said he still hurts badly every time he sees a father-daughter relation portrayed on TV.

The couple agrees that any pain they feel now pales in comparison to the arduous years in the early 1990s when they could not answer the heart-wrenching question: Was their daughter still breathing?

From the starting, police had little to nothing to work with, according to Jack Archer, a now retired Costa Mesa police detective who, along with his partner, was assigned to command the search for Denise.

Archer recalls the bare-bones crime scene on the side of the freeway — mostly an empty car. So the first action was to speak with Ione and Dennis, who’d reported Denise missing.

“She was a young girl that wasn’t in trouble, wasn’t into drugs, didn’t appear to be rebellious,” Archer said. “She was not someone that would just take off for days at a time.”

Police staked out the freeway where Denise disappeared, identifying drivers by taking pictures of license plates and then sending them letters asking if they had seen anything suspicious the night of June 2.

About a year into the investigation, Archer took a new duty at the department, turning back to patrol, dropping Denise’s case behind.

The Hubers believe that July 13th, 1994 — more than three years after Denise dissappearance— is a day of divine interference.

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On that day, sheriff’s delegates in Yavapai County, Ariz., searched a 24-foot rental truck stationed in the driveway of Famalaro’s home. A woman who purchased paint from Famalaro had seen the truck and thought it was suspicious enough to alert the police.

“She saw the vehicle, and she told us that she felt a spirit pulling her in that direction,” Dennis said. “She felt so coerced she wrote down the license plate number.”

When Yavapai County deputies ran the plate number, they discovered that the vehicle had a stolen report in Orange County six months earlier. They discovered a freezer sealed with masking tape in the back of the truck. Deputies met with a foul smell. Inside, covered in layers of trash packs, was Denise’s naked body.

The next day, deputies served a search warrant on Famalaro’s home, where they found paperwork for a warehouse Famalaro had leased in Laguna Hills. Officials believe he lived in and ran a painting business at the store until he moved to Arizona in the summer of 1992.

Police soon speculated that Famalaro took Denise to the warehouse after kidnapping her. There, he raped her and slammed her skull with the nail puller.

The body, however, he could not leave behind, Archer said.

In Famalaro’s Arizona house, investigators found boxes of trash, Archer said. The suspect had kept everything from hundreds of almost-empty paint cans to soda slips from Jack-in-the-Box, the former detective said.

Dennis said he rarely remembers Famalaro these days, but Ione said she occasionally does. She still has a question for the man condemned for killing her daughter:

Why?

Why did Famalaro choose Huber? Why did he keep Denise’s body a secret, leaving her parents with false hopes that she might still be living?

The Hubers know Famalaro knew about their pleas for answers. In his Arizona home, police found newspaper reports about his offense and a taped recording of one of their TV appearances asking for help locating Denise.

“To be so cruel and so cold that he let us suffering like that,” Ione said, trailing off without finishing her sentence.

Even 25 years later, she does not expect she will get an answer.

Watch a video about Famalaro’s shocking case

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