Remains of the Day

Everyone is good at something. Dr. Laura Fulginiti's genius is her ability to determine how someone died -- even if there's very little left of him.

"[Famalaro] lived next door to his mother in an upscale neighborhood, like Prescott Country Club Estates, and he has this Ryder truck sitting there with an electrical cord coming out the back and over the fence to his mom's yard, so he was running off her electricity," says Fulginiti.

"Well, this doesn't go over too well with his upscale neighbors, who eventually called to complain about this eyesore, and some local deputies went to investigate. Well, they see the truck and right away they're thinking meth lab, so they call in the Criminal Investigative Division. The CID guys go into the truck and open up the freezer, and something doesn't smell right, and there's all these plastic bags, and they're thinking elk hunter until they open up one of the bags and there's an arm with a handcuff attached."

The freezer was transported to Phoenix, and Fulginiti was called in to assist in the autopsy.

Fulginiti spends much of her time in the lab at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.
Paolo Vescia
Fulginiti spends much of her time in the lab at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.
Fulginiti spends much of her time in the lab at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.
Paolo Vescia
Fulginiti spends much of her time in the lab at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.

"The problem was, this woman's body was frozen, so we had to wait for her to thaw a little before we could do anything. Except it was touch-and-go, because she was sort of decomposing as she was thawing, so we had to time things right.

"The first thing I did was take all the cranial fragments and glue them together, and it was clear she'd been hit a minimum of 30 times. The way you could tell was to look at the pattern of fracture and actually count the impact points. There were also about seven scuff marks where it looked like he'd just tapped her, maybe to knock her out so he could control her in the storage locker where we believe he raped and killed her."

Fulginiti grows more animated in the story's telling, the scientist in her fully emerging, free of any natural, and distracting, abhorrence for the terror Huber must have suffered at the hands of her killer.

"The coolest part about that case, though, was that caught in the fractures were these little pieces of white plastic. This puzzled me, until I asked the forensic assistant if the body's head had anything over it when it was brought in. Well, when I said this, her eyes bugged out and she said yes, the victim had a white bag that had been wrapped around the head."

Fulginiti's discovery locked the case against Famalaro into a first-degree murder charge, since it proved he put the bag over Huber's head before he struck her repeatedly. Fulginiti also helped sew up the case by matching a hammer and a tire iron found in Famalaro's house (inside a box marked "Christmas") to the wounds on Huber's skull.

"Establishing those as the murder weapons was easy," she says. "You could actually fit the tire iron perfectly into a curved mark of impact."

Investigators found evidence that Famalaro murdered Huber inside a storage locker in California, then transported her body to Arizona. Based on Fulginiti's evidence, a California jury found Famalaro guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death and awaits execution.

The Huber case was big news, here and in Southern California. The second case Fulginiti recalls never made the papers.

It began in 1996, when she received a letter forwarded from the City of Mesa. The letter had a return address in Canada. It was addressed simply to "Office of the Coroner, Mesa, Arizona."

Inside was a letter from a mother who explained that 15 years before, her troubled son had left Canada to explore the United States. He became involved with a cult in Florida, and the last his family heard from him was when he phoned home that same year, 1981, to say he had moved to Arizona. The mother wrote that her son had been in his early 20s, and had brown, curly hair.

Fulginiti checked the files in the Medical Examiner's Office for unidentified bodies in 1981.

"There was only one file for that year," she says. "I pull it out and here's this brown curly haired kid who had hung himself out by one of those big electrical transformer boxes in the middle of the desert."

She wrote the mother back, and asked her to send a picture. The mother did, and the pictures matched.

"I called the Sheriff's Office and we went out to pauper's field and dug him up. He'd been buried wearing the same earring in the photo his mother sent. I got the dental records from Canada and they matched, so we sent him home."

After the reburial, the mother and other members of the dead man's family flew to Phoenix to thank Fulginiti in person. They also wanted to see the photographs from the scene of his suicide.

"I had selected a few of the less graphic images, but they said, 'No, we want to see everything,' so I showed it to them. They looked through all the pictures and thanked me again and said I had no idea how much it helped. I don't get that kind of immediate feedback very often. It felt good.

"Most people don't have death as a mind mate. They don't smell it or taste or even think about it when it visits unexpectedly. I live it, every day, all day. But I am not the neighborhood entertainment or ghoul. Each victim I work on takes a piece of me to the grave with them."

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