12.10.2008

TS - Curtis Huntzinger's remains found after 18 years

☛ TS Missing teen's remains found after 18 years

The remains of Curtis Huntzinger, a 14-year-old teen missing since 1990, were unearthed Monday night from a shallow grave on the outskirts of Blue Lake, just off the old State Route 299.

The discovery came less than a week after Humboldt County District Attorney investigators arrested 53-year-old Blue Lake resident Stephen Daniel Hash on suspicion of voluntary manslaughter in connection with Huntzinger's death. At his Dec. 5 arraignment, Hash admitted guilt before a judge and the Huntzinger family.

On Monday afternoon, around 2 p.m., the boy's skeleton was located, entangled in a ball of roots under less than two feet of soil. The grave, which was dug about 35 yards from the road, was surrounded by a dense stand of young redwoods, and blanketed by a thick mat of leaf litter and poison oak.

But in 1990, when Huntzinger is presumed to have been buried, that grave site looked very different.

Chief DA Investigator Mike Hislop said when Hash allegedly dumped the body, the area looked like a “moonscape,” as a result of heavy logging and burning activity.

Despite those major changes to the landscape, Hash was reportedly able to recall the location of the grave well enough to lead investigators within 25 feet of where the body was found, said DA investigator Wayne Cox.

”It must be a vivid memory that's permanently imbedded in his (Hash's) hard drive,” he said.

The same tract of land was searched in 1999 by teams using cadaver dogs, but authorities came up empty. This time, Cox said investigators deployed new methods.

According to Hislop, the body was found by a volunteer who canvassed the area using a high-end metal detector loaned by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The grave was located when the metal detector picked up a faint signal from a small piece of metal on Huntzinger's remains -- possibly a zipper or a coin.

Members of the Huntzinger family were immediately notified, and brought to the site before the body was exhumed, said District Attorney Paul Gallegos.

As the redwoods grew back after the logging, they lifted nutrients from Huntzinger's grave, entwining the remains in roots. According to Deputy Coroner Roy Horton, the search team excavated the approximately 400-pound root ball, which contains Huntzinger's remains.

Now the Coroner's Office is tasked with the painstaking removal of those remains from the root encasement.

Horton said that while they have not been able to positively identify the remains through DNA or dental records, there are other signs it is Huntzinger. The clothing found around the skeleton -- a black jacket and tennis shoes -- are consistent with the outfit Huntzinger was last seen wearing. And there appear to be signs of blunt force trauma to the skull, Horton said.

Although Gallegos and the DA investigators have declined to release the cause of Huntzinger's death, a criminal complaint in Hash's court file charges him with using a barbell to kill the 14-year-old.

The body was found unbound, and Horton said he believes Huntzinger was dead before he was buried.

Horton said Nancy Huntzinger, Curtis' mother, has called the Coroner's Office frequently over the past 18 years, to inquire about her son whenever there was a new John Doe found in Humboldt County.

”We are just so happy the body was recovered, for her sake,” Horton said. “It finally gives some closure to the family.”

During Hash's Dec. 5 arraignment he asked to plead guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter with a deadly weapon -- a crime that carries a maximum 12-year sentence. Judge Bruce Watson declined the plea, and advised him to speak with council before deciding to make such an admission in court.

Hash is expected to return to court today to discuss a possible disposition before a judge. That hearing will be closed to the public.

Sean Garmire can be reached at 441-0514 or sgarmire@times-standard.com.

A timeline of the Curtis Huntzinger case


May 19, 1990 -- Huntzinger, an Arcata High School freshman, is last seen walking home from his sister's home and is reported missing later in the month. It is initially believed that Huntzinger, who had some trouble in school and a recent brush with the law, ran away from home. Then Blue Lake Police Chief Don Trumble said at the time he was confident that Huntzinger was not a victim of foul play.

April 1999 -- Thomas Michael Fox, who was serving life in prison for the killing of 11-year old Danny Williams of Eureka, reportedly confesses to having killed Huntzinger. As a part of the confession, Fox reportedly admitted to shooting Huntzinger and fingered the accomplices who he said helped him bury the boy.

April 24, 1999 -- During a confrontation with Huntzinger's mom, Nancy, family acquaintance Stephen Daniel Hash reportedly admits to killing Curtis Huntzinger, even taking Nancy Huntzinger to her son's burial site. Hash, however, refuses to talk to law enforcement about the case.

Over the ensuing weeks, police investigators search Hash's property, even removing the floor boards of his house and sending its carpets to the Department of Justice Crime Lab for testing. The area where Hash claimed to have buried Huntzinger is scoured by dozens of members of the California Conservation Corps, police and the Huntzinger family. Several bones, including a vertebrae, are found, and believed to be those of Curtis Huntzinger. “This could be over in a few weeks,” then Blue Lake Police Chief Floyd Stokes said. The bones are later determined to be animal remains, and the case goes dormant.

May 2008 -- The Blue Lake Police Department is disbanded after the arrest of Police Chief, David Gundersen, and the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office quickly picks up the Huntzinger case.

Dec. 3, 2008 -- Hash is arrested on suspicion of voluntary manslaughter by District Attorney's Office investigators after reportedly giving a “complete confession” and showing them where Huntzinger was buried.

Dec. 9, 2008 -- Investigators find a body believed to be Huntzinger's located off old State Route 299 between Blue Lake and Korbel in the location Hash had led them to. The body is sent to the Humboldt County Coroner for an autopsy.

Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 12/10/2008 01:30:19 AM PST

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☛ TS Never too late for resolution

In musty filing cabinets up and down the state are the remains of unsolved cases of every variety, including those of young men and women who for years have been lost to their families.

In Humboldt County, we've had more than our fair share of those types of cases -- the most famous being that of Karen Mitchell, followed closely by a case that appears to be nearing some resolution -- that of the long-missing Curtis Huntzinger.

While the conclusion of the Huntzinger investigation is not a happy one, he has finally been found after all these year, which may provide some comfort to a family that has long been wondering about the fate of their lost loved one.

We would encourage law enforcement officials of all stripes to be vigilant with such cases, and to remember their significance in the face of frustration and dead ends.

Each and every one represents a family in pain, and a family in need of closure and relief. When those cases gather dust because of neglect, and remain unsolved because they aren't getting the necessary attention, it only compounds the original crime, and the pain it causes the family.

The case of Curtis Huntzinger shows us that it's never too late to follow a lead, to pursue a suspect, and do the necessary footwork. Such efforts can make all the difference. Our thanks to those who helped bring Curtis home.

The Times-Standard
Posted: 12/10/2008 01:30:20 AM PST