On 2 June 1991, 23-year-old Denise Huber was driving back to her parents’ home in Newport Beach in Orange County, California late at night when the rear tire of her car blew out. She pulled over to the side of the road and threw on her hazard lights to warn other drivers of a breakdown. What happened next is still somewhat of a mystery but Denise Huber was never seen alive again.
When she fails to return home, her worried parents report her missing to police and friends and family begin searching for her. Soon her car is spotted at the side of the southbound Highway 73 close to the exit for Newport Beach. The car is unlocked but there is no sign of the car keys. It is clear from the skid marks on the road what had happened but with emergency call boxes nearby and gas stations, a hotel and restaurants a short walk away, where did Denise Huber go?
Talking with Denise’s parents and friends police discover there is no reason for this young girl to simply disappear in the middle of the night. There are no signs of a struggle around her car, no marks in the dirt, no blood inside or outside the car but police soon suspect Denise Huber has been abducted against her will. With no leads to go on, however, her family search in vain to find her. They put up billboards at the location her broken down car was found, asking motorists if they have seen her or know anything about what happened that night. The case goes cold and for three long years her parents have no idea if their daughter is alive or dead.
“Both parents had difficulty with their work, eating and sleeping. But they always had hope. They went through years of not knowing. These were years of not knowing and hope.”
Nearly 400 miles away in Yavapai County, Arizona on 13 July 1994, a deputy sheriff receives a routine call about a possible stolen rental vehicle spotted on the driveway at a house in the town of Dewey. A local business owner had gone to the residence to purchase paint from house painter John Famalaro and had noticed the truck in the driveway. Rusting and surrounded with paint tins, she found it suspicious and noted the licence number to pass on to a friend in law enforcement. When the sheriff’s deputy attended the residence he confirmed it was a Ryder rental truck that had been stolen in Orange County six months earlier.
Preparing to have the truck towed away, he noticed a long power cable running from the backyard of the house and up through the back doors of the truck. Thinking he had stumbled across a drugs lab, he contacted a locksmith to break into the truck and the police narcotics team, but what they found inside was anything but drugs.
The power cable was plugged into a large chest freezer inside the truck. The freezer itself looked old and it was padlocked and sealed with tape. Gaining access to the freezer, police found a human body wrapped inside black bin liners curled up in the fetal position and entirely frozen. The hands of the body had been securely fixed with a pair of metal handcuffs behind their back and when opening the garbage bags it could be seen the head had been wrapped in white bags with the nose and mouth area wrapped in grey tape.
The freezer and its gruesome contents were sent to forensic pathologists in Phoenix and a warrant had been issued to authorize a full search of the house and property of John Famalaro.
34-year-old John Famalaro had moved to Prescott in Arizona with his parents after his brother Warren Famalaro was convicted of sex offences against two children in 1980 in Orange County. In a family that has been described as ‘eccentric’ and ‘insular’, Famalaro has a checkered history of mood swings, hyperactivity, and bouts of depression throughout his childhood. His mother, Anna Famalaro, was a strict parent, deeply religious and verbally and physically abusive to her children according to court documents.
In 1994, John Famalaro was working as a painter and living at his residence on his own with his parents’ house being next door. When police searched his house they were confronted with piles of newspapers and paperwork all over the home and box after box stacked up on top of each other. They found a similar scene in the garage and when going through two boxes labelled ‘Christmas’ they discovered the personal items of Denise Huber including her purse, makeup, car keys, credit cards and drivers licence. They also found clothing which matched the description of what Denise was wearing the night she disappeared.
In further boxes officers found bloodstained rags and men’s clothing, a bloodstained hammer and nail puller, garbage bags and rolls of tape which matched those used to wrap the body found in the freezer. John Famalaro was found to have had a warehouse unit in Orange County at the time of Denise’s disappearance. Forensic testing revealed bloodstains in the unit could be linked to Denise, as could the blood on the hammer, nail puller and other bloodied items found in his home.
Medical examiner Dr. Bucholtz had the task of examining the frozen body found in the freezer. She found the body itself and the black plastic bags it was wrapped in were frozen to the bottom of the freezer after bodily fluids had leaked out and then frozen solid. The face of the victim was still covered with grey tape and they had been gagged with a cloth stuffed into their mouth. Fingerprints were taken which were matched to Denise’s driving licence confirming the body was Denise Huber who had disappeared three years earlier. Dr Bucholtz then had to wait two days for the body to thaw completely before she could perform a full autopsy.
At autopsy, serious head injuries and fractures to the skull were found with pieces of plastic bag found inside some of the wounds, suggesting injuries to the head were made after plastic bags had been placed over Denise’s head. At least 31 separate blows to the head were counted with no further signs of external trauma to her body and no defence wounds. There was no conclusive physical evidence of sexual assault but it couldn’t be ruled out completely. The final ruling on cause of death for Denise Huber was blunt force trauma to the head.
John Famalaro was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. It appeared that Famalaro had come across Denise Huber at the side of the road that night and instead of offering assistance he had abducted her and taken her to his warehouse unit. There it was suggested he had sexually assaulted Denise before placing plastic bags over her head and raining blow after blow down on her skull with a nail puller and hammer in a frenzied and violent attack.
In amongst the paperwork found at his house was a receipt for the freezer Denise’s body was found in, confirming Famalaro had purchased the item one week after Denise had disappeared. Clearly a hoarder from the state of his home, police theorized that Famalaro had kept Denise’s body as a souvenir to remind him of his crime. It was this hoarding, this desire and need to keep hold of everything from the murder weapon to Denise Huber’s personal items and clothing and her body, which eventually got him caught for this crime.
At his murder trial in May 1996, his defence team highlighted there was no evidence of a struggle or abduction where Denise’s car was found and no blood found in the pickup truck Famalaro used at the time she disappeared, suggesting that Denise had not been abducted at all. They called a witness who saw her car with her hazard lights on at the side of the freeway at around 2.30am the night Denise disappeared but did not report seeing any one around the car or in the vicinity of where the car was parked.
The jury, however, found the evidence against Famalaro overwhelming and found him guilty of kidnapping, sodomy, and murder. They recommended the death sentence for John Famalaro, who by now had been dubbed the ‘Cold Storage Killer’ by the media and he is now awaiting execution at San Quentin State Prison.