On June 3, 1991, Denise Huber hopped into her silver-blue Honda to pick up her friend, Rob Calvert, for a Morrissey concert later that evening. For Calvert, it was a "date" he hoped might end in romance. For Denise, it was a platonic night out that would, within just a few hours, end in tragedy: While Calvert would return to his home sometime after 1:30 A.M., Denise would never complete the same trip.
Denise Huber lived with her parents in Orange County, working two part-time jobs until she could afford her own place. But at some point during her drive home, one of Denise’s back tires blew out, and she pulled over to get help. Three days later, her Honda was found—still parked on the shoulder, still flashing its emergency lights—with no sign of Denise herself.
It took three years and one intuitive Arizonian to finally solve the mystery of Denise’s disappearance: After a bizarre business transaction with John Famalaro—a 34-year-old paint contractor new to Phoenix—Elaine Canalia reported him to the local police. Something about his rental truck, she later told the Los Angeles Times, “seemed so out of place.” Her suspicion proved to be more than simple paranoia when, shortly thereafter, police discovered Denise Huber’s dead body. Handcuffed and beaten, it had been crammed inside a freezer, which was placed in the back of that very same truck.
Police determined that John Famalaro drove past Denise’s car on that fateful night in June of 1991. Reeling from a series of failed relationships but yearning for romance, Famalaro seized upon the opportunity to “help” her. Instead, he took Denise to a warehouse, raped her, bludgeoned her to death, and then stored her body inside a padlocked freezer. Famalaro had a penchant for hoarding things—police believed that other “trophies” sat among the hundreds of old paint cans in his home—and he couldn’t bring himself to part with his latest victim. When he moved from California to Arizona, Famalaro brought Denise’s frozen body with him.
John Famalaro was tried in California for his crimes—some of the most notorious in Orange County history—and given the death penalty in 1997. Despite multiple appeals, he remains on death row to this day, with no execution date in sight.
Don Lasseter’s book Cold Storage tells the chilling story of Denise Huber’s murder, the loved ones who fought for her justice, and the monster who killed her. The excerpt below takes readers to the pivotal day in which Elaine Canalia pointed police toward John Famalaro—and the freezer sitting in his truck.
Read on for an excerpt of Cold Storage, and then download the book.
Elaine Canalia and Jack Court first met the bearded painting contractor in May, 1994, then ran into him several times again at a swap meet in Prescott Valley, Arizona. They often made the ninety-mile trip north from their Phoenix paint manufacturing warehouse to buy and sell products at the open air market near Prescott.
A slim, attractive, forty-something woman, with shoulder-length blond hair and pleasing features, Canalia had been in business with Jack Court for four years. They had met while employed at the same firm in 1988, and soon discovered a host of interests in common. In 1990, they decided to give up their jobs and take the big risk of launching a business partnership. It worked, and with financial success, their entrepreneurial teamwork developed into a more serious relationship. Elaine had fallen in love with the amiable, late-fifties, soft-spoken Jack, who returned the devotion. Their friends thought they made a perfect couple. Together, Court and Canalia, made business and pleasure a perfect mix. They mutually developed a deep interest in the Pacific Islands, and wondered what it would be like to live there one day.
From their allotted space at the swap meet, between Prescott and the small town of Elaine and Jack marketed their paint and established contacts for future sales. One spring afternoon, while strolling between rows occupied by other vendors, Elaine spotted stacked cans of paint for sale. She commented to the bearded man behind the stacks, “Oh, I see we have a competitor.”
The “competitor” laughed and explained that he had been a painting contractor in California and had moved to Arizona to start anew. Business hadn’t been as good as he’d hoped, so he wanted to sell his surplus supplies. They exchanged pleasantries, after which she left. During the next few weekends, Canalia and Court met the gaunt, bearded man several times. She would recall, “He was personable, seemed quite intelligent, and his speech was articulate.” Regarding his personal appearance, she thought he wasn’t ugly, just average. “I really wasn’t very interested in his physical looks. Just his paint.”
On a hot Saturday, July 9, at the swap meet, the couple encountered the bearded contractor again and chatted for several minutes with him. He stood behind a van he used to transport his wares, and told them that he also owned a pickup truck. During the conversation, he mentioned that he had an abundant supply of colorant stored at his home near Dewey. Court and Canalia expressed interest in buying the colorant, so the contractor asked them to follow him to his house.
Driving behind the white van, Court steered his pickup through the sweeping curve on State Highway 69 and turned into the exclusive tract of top-dollar homes just outside Dewey. En route, Court’s ten-year-old grandson who had made the trip with them that day announced that he had to go to the bathroom.
After winding through the new development of luxury custom residences, along the greens of an expansive golf course, they slowed at a corner lot. Smooth river stones artfully decorated the yard in front of a split level L-shaped house with a curved driveway leading to a two-car garage. The contractor led them around the corner to a side concrete driveway, or parking pad, perhaps twenty feet deep, ending at a wooden fence. They parked in front of a truck which had been backed into the pad, and was partially covered by a canvas tarpaulin. A variety of unlabeled cans, presumably paint, surrounded the yellow truck, which bore the Ryder rental company logo. It had obviously been sitting there for some time, next to a white pickup.
Canalia felt hairs on the back of her neck rise. Why would this guy keep a rental truck parked close to his house, maybe for several months? Jack, too, wondered why the man would have the Ryder truck, when he also had a van and a pickup truck.
Canalia, Court, and the grandson followed the gaunt painter into his backyard, enclosed by a six-foot wooden fence, and saw hundreds of paint cans of various sizes covering the entire grounds, stacked everywhere among ladders and dismantled scaffolding. With the help of the contractor, they began loading cases of paint colorant into the back of their pickup. Court’s grandson reminded him that he needed a restroom. They asked the contractor if the boy could use the facilities in the house, but the bearded man instantly shook his head, saying that would be impossible because the water had been turned off. No water, no toilet. To Canalia, the contractor’s attitude seemed abrupt and unconvincing. She became even more concerned at his brusqueness when the child began playing with a cap gun that made popping noises. The bearded painter snapped, “Don’t do that. This is a quiet neighborhood and we want to keep it that way.”
Later, Canalia couldn’t remember how the lad had solved the problem of needing a restroom. “He either waited, or he found a place behind all that stuff piled in the yard,” she said.
Upon completion of the loading and the business transaction, Canalia, Court, and boy said goodbye, climbed into their pickup, and started to back out of the parking pad. Still experiencing a strange feeling about the Ryder truck, they glanced at each other. They’d both noticed the license plate from Massachusetts. Jack whispered, “I’ll bet the doggone thing is stolen.” Having been recent victims of theft, Canalia and Court felt they should take counsel of their intuitions. They realized that the contractor still stood outside, watching them leave. With the truck still in her sight, Elaine grabbed a scrap of paper, bent over so the painter couldn’t see her actions, and jotted down the license number, along with the rental company’s serial number printed above the cab of the dusty Ryder truck.
Back at their own warehouse in Phoenix, Canalia tossed the slip of paper onto a desk, and pushed it to the back of her mind. She paid no heed to it until three days later, July 12, when a law enforcement friend visited their warehouse to purchase some paint. They had known Det. Steve Gregory of the Phoenix P.D. for several years and exchanged the usual banter with him. Canalia mentioned the strange Ryder truck she’d seen in the Prescott Country Club tract, and gave him the license number along with the Ryder serial number.
Curious about the odd circumstances, Gregory figured he’d better find out if the guy had perhaps bought the truck, or if it might show up on a hot list of missing vehicles. He telephoned the Ryder Company. They responded that they had no report of that particular vehicle being stolen. With the natural suspicion of an experienced cop, Gregory asked the representative to double check and said he would wait for a return call.
Within the hour, Gregory heard from the security department of the Ryder company. The truck had been missing six months, since January, from Orange County, California. But through some oversight, no one had ever contacted the police. The next morning, the rental company corrected the problem by making a report to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and relaying that information to Detective Gregory. He also asked for the vehicle identification number (VIN) and made note of it.
Gregory called the Yavapai County Sheriffs Office to pass on the tip about the stolen twenty-four-foot GMC Ryder rental truck bearing Massachusetts license plate number 486595. On Wednesday morning, July 13, a little past 8:30, Deputy Joe DiGiacomo received a dispatch to check on the vehicle Canalia and Court had seen parked in the upscale residential tract. The Phoenix detective had courteously provided directions to find the home. As an aid to locating the right house, the information even included an estimate of its sales value, approximately $300,000.
DiGiacomo cruised the neighborhood for a short time, and close to a house on Cochise Drive, spotted the partially obscured truck with RYDER printed in bold letters on the panel over the cab. He observed that the residence faced west and the truck was backed into a side driveway.
On foot, DiGiacomo approached the vehicle and brought out his notes to compare the license number. Something was wrong. The truck he found had plates from Maine, not Massachusetts, and bore the numbers 488708. It seemed strange to the officer that two Ryder trucks might be in the same tract, but since this one had different plates, he had no choice but to leave and request more information. Because the disparity didn’t make sense to Deputy DiGiacomo, he decided to contact the Phoenix detective.
Coincidentally, Detective Gregory had dropped into the warehouse belonging to Jack Court and Elaine Canalia, to pick up the paint he had ordered, when his beeper went off at 9:48 that morning. After conversing with Deputy DiGiacomo, Gregory asked Canalia to verify the location of the truck she had seen. It corresponded perfectly with the site DiGiacomo had visited. Something seemed really out of whack. Gregory had confirmed that the truck was stolen and that Ryder wanted to press charges. Maybe someone had switched the plates overnight. He asked DiGiacomo to take a second look.
To play it safe, DiGiacomo took a backup officer with him, and returned at noon to the location where the truck sat. This time, he checked the VIN number. Bingo! It was the right truck. Something else nagged the back of the officer’s mind. Buckets, five-gallon cans, and one-gallon cans, many of them unlabeled, littered the driveway, all around the truck, and in the yard on the other side of the fence. DiGiacomo had no way of knowing what they contained. Furthermore, a thick electrical extension cord snaked from under the locked back door of the truck, and looped over a fence to a large home on the north side. The scene had all the makings of a clandestine drug lab.
Attempts to raise anyone in the house produced only silence from inside. DiGiacomo contacted the Prescott Area Narcotics Team (PANT).
The narcs arrived at 1:15 P.M., listened as DiGiacomo briefed them, and conducted an examination of the various containers. They found no trace of chemicals used in drug labs, but the extension cord coming out of the truck’s rear doors made them wonder if illegal materials could be inside. A secure lock kept them from opening it for an inspection. They noted that the vehicle apparently hadn’t been moved for several months. The long orange extension cord looped over the wooden fence, across the backyard to the adjacent property. The detectives would wait for a search warrant before asking the residents of the neighboring home why they apparently were supplying electric power to the truck.
Examining an older model white Dodge pickup truck parked beside the Ryder vehicle, the investigators found nothing unusual or suspicious. They wrote down its license number, and called in for a make on the owner’s name.
Deputy DiGiacomo summoned a local locksmith, who showed up within a few minutes and easily unlocked the Ryder truck’s back door.
In the shadowed interior, more cans of paint stood stacked in the spacious cargo section. Close to the rear of the truck bed, the officers could see a large off-white rectangular appliance which appeared to be a chest-type freezer. They found a switch in the “on” position, with the appliance running to keep the contents frozen. It, too, was locked, and a dozen wide strips of heavy masking tape had been placed at intervals to seal the lid. The locksmith went to work again.
Detective Mike Garcia, a member of the PANT team, wearing a white apron, placed a gauze mask over his mouth and nose, donned rubber gloves, and ripped through each strip of the masking tape. When he raised the lid, a foul odor assaulted the assembled cops’ noses. Garcia, controlling an urge to heave, said he thought it smelled like decaying flesh. As he and two other investigators peered into the interior, they could see frost on the inside walls, and a large object completely covered with black plastic garbage bags resting at the bottom.
Garcia tentatively reached in, and felt along the top section of plastic. His face grim, he withdrew his hand and said, “It feels like a human arm!” He added that it seemed to be frozen solid. The PANT officers, realizing they very likely had found the makings of a homicide, carefully closed the freezer lid and halted their portion of the investigation to summon the homicide team.
Want to keep reading? Download Cold Storage by Don Lasseter.
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