Lakewood-Torrey Pines State Beach Cold Case: Barbara Nantais

Every morning for the past 37 years, Jim Alt wakes up terrified thinking that it is 1978 and that he is brutally attacked on Torrey Pines State Beach.

“When I become aware that I am awake, I do not open my eyes. First I put my hands on the bed, and I feel for the sheet, or I feel for the sand of a beach,” said Alt to 48 hours.

It was 35 years ago on Aug. 12, 1978, when four adolescents from Lakewood drove to Torrey Pines State Beach to surf and party. Jim Alt only had eyes for 15-year-old Barbara Nantais. They were the dream couple. Jim, the surfer, dating Barbara, the cheerleader, for nine months.

The four friends finally ended up at Torrey Pines Beach.

At around 9:30 p.m., they called it a night. Selga and his sweetheart went to sleep in the station wagon, while Alt and Barbara slept down at the beach.

“We zip the sleeping bags together, and crawled in them and went to sleep. Barbara was in my arms. That is the last thing I remember,” said Alt.

The next morning, Alt woke up cold, alone and wet, covered in blood.

“I am freezing. I am, I am feeling for Barbara, don’t know where she is. I am not sure of anything. I cannot see, don’t hear anything,” he said.

Blinded and confused, Alt had to feel his way along a fence up the sandy slope to the parking lot where his mates were sleeping in the car.

“His face was swelling. There was blood all over his hair,” said Selga.

Jim Alt had been brutally beaten with a rock and a log from a fire pit on the beach.

“He said, ‘Go find Barb,’ So I ran down to the beach looking for her. … And she was there.”

Barbara’s naked, dead body laying on the beach.

When the sun rose that morning, Alt was seriously beaten and left for dead. Barbara was bludgeoned and asphyxiated to death; her young body left disfigured and posed on the sand. James, who suffered severe head injuries, had no memory of the attack.

The San Diego Police Department was never able to solve the case, even after a second, similar killing on the beach years later of a girl who looked much like Barbara. It also ended up in the department’s cold case files. However, now, new DNA technology might point detectives to a suspect.

James Alt, now 52, said he has grown frustrated with what he sees as inaction by the San Diego Police Department. The brutal crime has left deep scars for Alt, both physical and psychological.

Barbara’s family grieved and moved on, but Alt said his whole life determined by the assault. He said he feels blameworthy for failing to defend his girlfriend, and he constantly feels anxious and angry that whoever murdered her, and nearly killed him, could still be out there somewhere.

“It is the same thing every year,” Alt said. “The clock keeps ticking. ‘We are working on it.’ Working on what exactly?”

Nantais family and Alt last year joined to push the San Diego Police Department to revive the cold case, or at least publish more information about it to them. Their efforts have apparently paid off since detectives recently started conducting new DNA tests and re-interviewing spectators.

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San Diego police Lt. Ernie Herbert stated there had been significant advances in DNA technology since the case last reviewed.

Barbara’s younger sibling is Tom Nantais, an attorney in Long Beach. He said his family has moved on from the intensely painful event of losing Barbara, but Alt’s daily misery still weighs on them.

“For us as a family, it will not be until (Alt) gets resolution, it will be that one nagging door left open that we would like to be able to shut,” Nantais said. “If he gets resolution, I will have a resolution,” Nantais said he still thinks about Barbara, especially as he watches his daughter grow.

“I see my sister’s photo, and I see my daughter growing up, and I just recognize how she barely had any time on this earth to accomplish her potential,” Nantais said. “She was budding as a person, as a human being, and she had huge potential. … That is probably the biggest disappointment, is not to see what she would have been.”

Police believe another killing on the same beach on Aug. 24, 1984, almost exactly six years later, may be related to Barbara’s death, according to the San Diego Police Department. In that case, Claire Hough, 14, was killed and mutilated similarly as Barbara.

“I think somewhere down the line someone dropped the case and they are not willing to admit it,” Alt said.

Watch a video about Barbara Nantais by 48 Hours.

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