Two heinous crimes took place within six years of each other in the exact same spot at Torrey Pines Beach. While the first case was shocking in its own right, the second was even more mysterious. Even though they occurred six years apart, the similarities simply couldn’t be ignored. What’s even more disturbing is what happened three decades later when DNA testing was conducted.
The Torrey Pines cases come together to tell a story that doesn’t have a happy ending. What started as a spotlight on two headlining murders from the late ‘70s grew into something deeper and a lot more sinister. It was only after the results came to light that three possible suspects involved in the cases took their lives…
The Perfect Couple: The Surfer and the Cheerleader
It was 1978, and Jim Alt, a surfer, and his cheerleader girlfriend Barbara Nantais were the perfect, all-American, young couple. You can just picture their yearbook pages being filled with well-wishing hopes for the future. No one expected that one of these high school sweethearts wouldn’t make it to graduation.
Over the years, Jim has been interviewed time and time again about what happened on August 12, 1978. And each time, the conversations were laced with one thread running through: What was his role in Barbara Nantais’s death?
Barbara, a 15-year-old sophomore, was popular at her high school in Lakewood, California. She had just made the varsity cheerleading squad, and she was described as smart, outspoken and strong-willed.
A Couple of High School Sweethearts
Jim went to a different high school in Long Beach, and he was also one of the popular kids. Friends described him as “the life of the party.” It was Barbara’s sister Sue who introduced the pair to each other. Soon enough, the teens were an item, and they liked to hang out at the beach.
On that evening back in ’78, Barbara and Jim decided to go camping and surfing at Torrey Pines beach. It was the weekend, and Barbara’s parents had left town, entrusting the safety of their youngest daughter to her 17-year-old boyfriend. “Take care of my girl, OK?” Ralph Nantais said to him before leaving for the weekend.
A Decision That Haunts Him to This Day
Jim promised his girlfriend’s dad that they would stay in for the weekend. Of course, he planned on going out with his girlfriend, but hey, what teenagers don’t lie to adults? It was both his and Barbara’s decision to head down to the beach once her parents left. But that fact hasn’t stopped Jim from carrying the full weight of the tragedy over the years.
On the evening of August 12th, the teenagers headed over to the Torrey Pines beach with two friends, 19-year-old Rick Selga and his girlfriend. It was around 9:30 p.m. when the car reached the beach parking lot. Jim and Barbara were planning to camp on the beach with their sleeping bags.
The Last Thing He Remembers
The two walked down to the beach for some privacy while Rick and his girlfriend stayed in Rick’s station wagon. Barbara and Jim found a spot near lifeguard tower 7; they set up camp and settled under the stars with a fire. The last thing Jim claims to remember is looking up at the dark sky and falling asleep with Barbara under his arm.
When the sun came up the next morning, Jim awoke confused. He could hardly see anything and was covered in blood. He pawed around in the sand, looking for Barbara, but she didn’t seem to be nearby. He crawled and staggered back to the parking lot, managing to make it to the car.
Two Words: “Find Barbara”
Rick and his girlfriend had slept the night in the car, and by the time morning came, he was awoken by Jim tapping weakly on the car window. Rick later recalled just how terrible Jim looked in that state. His head was swollen and blood-soaked. He was barely recognizable.
“Find Barbara” were the only words Jim could muster. Baffled and unsure of what was happening, Rick rushed down to the beach. That’s when he found Barbara’s unclothed body behind lifeguard tower 7. It was later discovered that both she and Jim had been bludgeoned with a rock. But Barbara had been strangled, violated with a sharp object and mutilated.
Jim Was Cleared as a Suspect
Sand had been stuffed into Barbara’s mouth, and there were cuts around her chest. Her body appeared to have been posed, with her arms spread above the head and her legs spread and bent at the knees. The scene was horrifying and mysterious. What happened?
The detective assigned to the case, Paul Ybarrondo, had his work cut out for him. Jim was immediately cleared as a suspect. His injuries were so severe that he ended up in a coma for days after the incident, which meant that Ybarrondo was left with no real suspects.
Six Years Later… a Second Murder
All Ybarrondo could do was hold on to the evidence and pray that something would come through from it. But there simply wasn’t enough evidence, and the case eventually went cold. This was long before DNA testing became a standard and lucrative feature of crime scene investigations. The good news is that the physical evidence was well preserved for future analysis.
But it was only after a second murder took place at Torrey Pines that new testing was warranted. Six years after Barbara’s murder, on August 24, 1984, a 14-year-old named Claire Hough was found murdered on the very same beach.
Summer at Grandma and Grandpa’s
Claire Hough was actually from Rhode Island, but she spent a lot of time at Torrey Pines. Claire was always fond of the beautiful beaches that marked the Eastern Seaboard. The young teen was also fond of visiting her grandparents, who lived at Torrey Pines.
In August of ‘84, Claire took her friend Kim with her to California for a summer vacation. Both girls stayed with Claire’s grandparents. Two days before Kim was supposed to head back home, Claire suggested they sneak out for some fun. Kim recalled the two of them sneaking out of the house and heading down to Torrey Pines State beach.
Another Empty Promise
It was late at night, and once they got to the sand, Kim felt unsafe in the pitch-black area. There was no light coming from the parking lot or any of the nearby roads. It didn’t take long for the girls to scratch the idea and head back. A couple days later, it was time for Kim to return home.
Knowing that Claire would likely go back to the beach at night, Kim made her friend promise that she wouldn’t – at least not when it was so dark. Claire agreed, but just as Jim had promised his girlfriend’s parents, the young girl didn’t really mean it.
The Similarities Were Hard to Ignore
Claire was last seen on August 24th at 9:00 p.m. at a convenience store before walking towards the beach. The following morning, beachcomber Wallace Wheeler found what turned out to be Claire’s body under a bridge near lifeguard tower 5. It was the same spot that she and Kim had visited a few nights prior.
Once again, Detective Ybarrondo entered the picture was after being assigned to the investigation. He couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Claire’s case and Barbara’s. It was hard to ignore, after all. First of all, both their bodies were dumped 300 meters apart.
One Significant Difference
In addition, Claire was also badly beaten, strangled, sexually assaulted and mutilated in the same regions of her chest as Barbara had been. The killer had also forced sand through Claire’s mouth. It doesn’t take a crime expert to figure out that there was a connection between the two murders.
There was, however, one significant difference between the two crimes. Claire’s body wasn’t put in a pose as Barbara’s had been. If it was, indeed, the same killer, did someone interrupt his sick ritual? Did the killer have to stop before his mission was complete?
A Connection or a Copycat?
These two cases beg the question: Was one killer responsible? Or, perhaps, it was a copycat killer? The answer to that question has changed over the years, leaving everyone following the case in a frustrating limbo. Why has it been so hard to solve? Let’s look at the evidence in the Nantais case…
The California Department of Justice released a portion of the investigative reports of the forensic studies from the Barbara Nantais crime scene. It turns out that there are some interesting bits of information that have rarely been spoken about. For some reason, no one really considered how Barbara’s killer arrived at the scene or left afterward.
Looking at the Evidence
We know that Rick Selga and his girlfriend, who stayed in the station wagon throughout the night, said they saw and heard nothing during the wee hours of the night. But were they the only ones in the parking lot that night?
Based on the evidence report, we can see that the killer likely escaped through the public toilets. Some of the noted “red substance” was confirmed in later testing to be Barbara’s blood. The reports also reveal that saliva, semen, and DNA evidence were mixed together from multiple donors.
Were There Multiple Perpetrators?
In the Barbara Nantais case, samples were taken from all four friends for elimination purposes. Yet, at the end of the day, the evidence points to multiple perpetrators. This report shows the problems with the body fluid analysis.
The testing shows a Type-A secretor (probably Jim), a Type-AB, a Type-O, and a Type-B secretor. The hairs found actually matched none of the teenagers, and the good news is that these hair samples can be used in future identification attempts. What remains unclear is if the hairs match those found in the public toilets.
Was a Female Involved?
I think it’s safe to say that a crime of this nature is unlikely to have been carried out by a woman. But further testing in the case was done in 2012, which confirmed that Barbara’s blood was indeed found in the women’s public toilets at the beach,
The DNA from the “unknown female,” however, was found on one of the sleeping bags that Barbara and Jim took to the beach. And it can’t be Rick Selga’s girlfriend because she was placed on the exclusion list. And it’s not like it can just be dismissed as an unidentified friend of Barbara’s because of the evidence found in the women’s bathrooms.
The Perpetrators Remain Unidentified
It all just makes one think that perhaps a female was involved in the murder. But who? And why? A partial DNA profile seems to indicate that two males and possibly a female were at the scene. To this day, those three perpetrators have remained nameless.
In 2013, the Nantais case was re-opened for further DNA testing, which might have been the result of Jim Alt’s continuous badgering of the San Diego PD to revisit the Torrey Pines murders cases. The recent results seem to confirm that there are DNA profiles of at least two unknown subjects.
The Kind of Story You Can’t Just Make Up
Based on reports, a “Cynthia Sloan” is named, which is likely Rick Selga’s girlfriend. “Christopher Ream” appears to have been a suspect at one point, up until DNA analysis cleared him of any involvement. All these confusing results ended up becoming a prelude to the saga that became the Claire Hough investigation – the second Torrey Pines murder.
Unlike the Nantais case, forensics in Claire’s murder provide three suspects – all of whom would go on to commit suicide. Yes, this is the kind of story you can’t just make up.
Let’s look at the evidence in the second murder…
The Beach Comber Was Acting Strangely
Wallace Wheeler was the beachcomber who had the unfortunate experience of finding Claire Hough’s body. But Wheeler soon came to the attention of the police after he was reportedly behaving strangely.
The man started contacting the Hough family by letter, telling them that he’s a psychic and claiming to have had visions of Claire’s murder. Wheeler’s fingerprints were found on a coffee cup in a garbage can near the crime scene. But as a beachcomber, it’s not a very helpful piece of evidence. He did, after all, admit to being in the area.
Wallace Wheeler: the First of Three
Then, in 1997, the FBI was working on a theory in the Torrey Pines murders. Their theory was that one man killed both girls, and all signs pointed to Wheeler. While the motive remains unclear, you should know that Wheeler committed suicide in 1998 by jumping off the roof of a hotel.
While that surely raises a red flag, Wheeler was ruled out as a suspect eight years after committing suicide. Why? Because his daughter provided a DNA sample to the police. Did Wallace Wheeler have anything to do with Claire’s death? It seems unlikely, especially after hearing what ended up happening after a second round of testing in 2012.
Kevin Brown: A Shocking, New Suspect
It seems as though these cases have a habit of destroying lives. Not only were Barbara and Claire’s immediate families mourning their losses, so were Jim Alt and Wheeler’s daughter. And now there’s Kevin Brown and his wife, Rebecca.
The San Diego criminalist became a shocking suspect after it was announced that his DNA (via his sperm) was found on a swab from Claire’s body. Brown, who by then had given 20 years of his life to law enforcement as a lab technician and crime scene photographer from 1982 to 2002, was suddenly a major suspect in a decades-old crime.
A Mistaken “A-Ha!” Moment
Brown was arrested in 2014, and at first, the press and the public gripped the news as an “A-Ha!” moment. Barbara and Claire’s killer would finally be put behind bars after having gotten away with it for so long. Right? Well, not so much. There was more to the story.
It seems that the San Diego PD was a little too keen on making it look like their days of corruption were behind them and they investigated Brown a little too strongly. After receiving a warrant to search Brown’s home, they took items that were obviously unrelated to the case, like Rebecca’s work files, a book of Christmas carols and wedding pictures.
A Practice No Longer Needed
It looked like the authorities wanted to pressure him into a confession. But many scientists stood behind Brown. Remember, though, that laboratory procedures in 1984 were nowhere near what they are today.
Back then, it was actually quite common for male criminalists to provide semen samples to the lab for the purpose of control experiments. Yes, Kevin Brown was one of them. While he never worked on the Claire Hough case directly, his desk was next to the lab technician who did. It was then confirmed that Brown’s swab had been air-dried on the lab desk, meaning the risk of contamination was extreme.
The Police Wanted to Take Brown Out
Still, the police were steadfast in pursuing Brown. They delved into his past, highlighting his apparent liking of adult films and strip clubs as indications of a corrupt mind. As Brown’s lawyers pointed out in court, this should then be a worrying fact to the entire male population.
In that 2012 round of DNA re-testing, a second male’s DNA was discovered in some blood on Claire’s jeans. This evidence led to convicted rapist Ronald Tatro. To SDPD, this meant only one thing – that both Brown and Tatro killed the girl together. But there was no evidence whatsoever that the two men ever met, let alone became a pair of killers.
“I Remember Her”
Brown stated that he never met or knew a Ronald Tatro. His past with Claire, though, is less clear. When Brown was shown a picture of Claire in an interview, he said, “I remember her.” Investigators understood that comment as “I met her.”
Brown’s lawyer explained that Brown simply meant he remembered the case. While it might seem reasonable to think that authorities could have just gone and asked Brown, it was impossible. You see, eight months after being arrested, he hanged himself from a tree. Three days later, San Diego police solved the case – Brown and Tatro were both guilty, and the case could now be closed.
A Victory and an Exoneration
Rebecca Brown was furious at how the authorities treated her husband. In 2015, she sued the city of San Diego for wrongful death. In February 2020, she won the lawsuit with a total of $6 million in damages. It wasn’t just a victory for the widow but also an exoneration of her late husband.
This, then, begs the question: Will the Claire Hough case be re-opened? And can the evidence against Ronald Tatro be trusted? What we know about Tatro is that he was born in 1943, served in the Vietnam War, and earned three medals.
The Suspect They Were Waiting For
From 1970 to 1972, he worked as a cop in Hot Springs, Arizona. On the surface, Tatro seemed to fit the bill for a murder suspect. The behavioral science unit had actually suspected a veteran for the Torrey Pines murders due to the mutilation of the girls’ bodies.
Tatro began a crime spree in 1974 when he grew angry that a woman he picked up turned out to NOT be a prostitute. He then beat her but was caught quickly. While he was out on bail, he kidnapped another woman and assaulted her, too.
But It’s Not So Simple
Six months before Claire’s murder, Tatro became a suspect in the killing of prostitute Carol Defelice. In the year following Claire’s murder, he was convicted yet again for the attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl. Although he’s clearly a sick man, Tatro is a difficult suspect.
First, he was in jail when Barbara was murdered. So, he is definitely not her killer. Second, he never killed his assault victims – at least the known ones. And third, Tatro’s DNA in the Claire Hough case was found along with Kevin’s – in the confirmed contaminated samples. So, how sure can we be that there wasn’t any further contamination?
Under Mysterious Circumstances
The police were never able to investigate Tatro any further because he died under mysterious circumstances. In 2011, his boat was found adrift in a lake in Tennessee… on the anniversary of Claire’s death, no less. Tatro left his wallet and glasses on the seat, suggesting it was a suspected suicide.
In 2014, the FBI released a report that looked into the possible link between Barbara and Claire’s cases. The report also looked at other unsolved crimes from the same area and time. And some of them have striking similarities.
The Case of Donna Gentile
In June 1985, Donna Gentile’s naked body was found on the side of the road, 50 miles east of Torrey Pines. Her killer stuffed gravel down her throat, but other details of her death are murky. Her autopsy was sealed. But why?
All the footprints and tire tracks that would have been left by the killer were brushed away before he (or they) left the scene of the crime. It’s the mark of an experienced killer or at least someone who is familiar with police investigations. Was there a serial killer in San Diego… and was he a cop?
All Eyes on Larry
Donna had been working as an informant for the San Diego PD, and it came to light that her relationship with officers Larry Avrech and Carlton Black was going south. Rumors led to an Internal Affairs investigation and Avrech getting fired.
Six months later, and five weeks after testifying in court, Donna was killed. That’s when all eyes turned to Avrech. Avrech was working with the San Diego District Attorney’s office to investigate over 40 murders of young women, including prostitutes and hitchhikers. Of those murders were a handful of unusual signs of mutilation and sand/gravel being forced into their throats.
Ruling Out the Likely Suspects
William Suff, known as the “Riverside Prostitute Killer,” used the hills east of Torrey Pines as a dumping ground for his 13 known victims. But, like Ronald Tatro, Suff was serving time in 1978 for killing his daughter. Therefore, he couldn’t have been Barbara’s killer.
There was another serial killer by the name of Ronald Porter who also dumped bodies in the same area, and he was only discovered as a result of Avrech’s investigation. Porter is suspected of at least 14 killings. His method was picking up women in his car before taking them to a secluded area and strangling them.
Was Kevin Brown Set Up?
Let’s go back to Kevin Brown for a moment. It’s clear that there were some trust issues at the San Diego PD in the late ‘70s up to the ‘90s. Brown began serving there in 1982, two years before Claire’s murder. There is always the possibility that Brown happened to discover things he shouldn’t have, and someone tried to cover it up.
It’s not that difficult to take a sample of his semen from the freezer and plant it on a swab of murder evidence. Of course, it was years before the material was re-tested, but a perpetrator wouldn’t have known that at the time.
Here’s to Hoping
Meanwhile, Jim Alt has been waiting for a break in the case opened over 43 years ago. It looks as though he’ll never forget his last memories of Barbara. “Just her laying in my arm. Us talking. Looking at the stars,” he reminisced. Each year, on the anniversary of her murder, Jim and the Nantais family meet with San Diego police to get any updates on the case. SDPD Lt. Dobbs has tried to bring closure to the victims and their families:
“This is still an open case, which is frequently reviewed. We constantly monitor emerging forensic sciences against the evidence in unsolved cases to evaluate the viability of the new processes in solving cases… We are committed to solving all of our cases and will take any reasonable steps towards doing so.”
Here’s to hoping…