Yesterday was the birthday of Kristi Johnson. She would have been 34 years old today. As promised this is a re-post of a story first published on Feb 27th 2011
A few weeks ago, a little more than a month, I wasn't feeling very well, and between bouts of running to the bathroom, for a time I stayed in bed, covers up to chin, while I watched MSNBC on my television. This was on a Saturday, near noon, and because there is no news on the weekends, MSNBC devotes it's programming time to stories about being locked up in prison, or in this case, the NBC newsmagazine, Dateline, of which most of the information in this post is based.
As I laid in bed I began watching the episode entitled "Death in the Hollywood Hills." The correspondent who reported this story was Keith Morrison, and it was first aired on March 1st, of 2007. It concerned the young woman mentioned above, 21 year old Kristi Johnson.
Like so many other hopefuls she came to Southern California in 2001 in search of a job in the entertainment industry.
Terry Hall, Kristi's mother: “She thought, 'I would really like to be involved in this industry but on the production side of it, on the other side of the camera.'”
She was exceptionally pretty, as the pictures above indicate (Hall: "She could you know tie her hair back in a ponytail and wear no make-up and look absolutely smashing. Or she could put on her high heels and a great outfit and look a totally a different way too"), and was repeatedly told she should audition for acting jobs.
Hall: "Kristi loved the beach. And she told me you know how beautiful it was and how much she was enjoying being in California."
Kristi and her mother were very close and spoke to each other every day. In 2003, on Valentine's Day, another Saturday, Kristi called her mother and told her she was going shopping at the mall. That was the last time she got to speak to her daughter.
A nightmare was about to begin for Terry. One that every caring parent must dread the possibility of enduring. Thousands of miles away, the link to Kristi's existence suddenly faded away. She should have called her mom back the next day. No word was heard from her.
Two days passed. No word... no call.
Terry filed a missing person's report with the police in Santa Monica. Det. Virginia Obenchain was given the case.
Det. Obenchain: "The original patrol officer that was sent to take the missing persons report didn’t feel too good about the circumstances, so he came upstairs to the detective bureau, and I was the only one upstairs. So he told me, and I remember when he explained the circumstances, the hair on the back of my neck started to rise.
We talked to the roommate, and the roommate told us that she had gone to Century City mall, went shopping there and was very excited when she came home because she was going to audition for a James Bond clip.
There are some girls that will go with perfect strangers in the hopes that they can make it big. They don’t know Hollywood. They just come in, and they figure, 'Oh, back in the old days where you used to meet at the drug store counter and then you’re all of a sudden a star...' some gals still believe that that can happen."
Morrison: "Does it?"
Det. Obenchain: "Not that I know of."
Kristi remained missing, and Det. Obenchain had few clues to work with. She held a press conference and explained Kristi's case, and got a call from another young woman on a tip line, who said that she had been approached too in the Century City Mall.
21 days before Kristi went to the mall to look for a Valentine’s gift, Susan Murphy was approached by a man who claimed to be in the entrainment business, and that his name was Victor Thomas.
Murphy: "He looked normal and he just said, “I think you’re very attractive. He said, 'I’m a director of photography and we’re casting for the new James Bond movie.' And he said, 'We’ve been casting all day and you’re the look we want, you’re perfect.'
I’d had enough experience to kind of know that this was a come-on, a pick-up. And I knew that and— I was very intrigued. If it’s true, hey cool, that’d be great. How fun would that be, to be a 'Bond Girl?' I think every girl has a dream about that."
Five years earlier this happened to yet another pretty girl, Cathy Debuono.
"He told me he really liked my legs and that he was working closely with the James Bond movies and that they were looking for new people, people who weren’t so recognizable. He talked about 'big bucks.' He named numbers of money that I can’t recall today, but it was a lot of money."
To Cathy the man's name was Brian.
"He wasn’t lascivious at all. He didn’t try to touch me. He didn’t try to flirt with me or come onto me. He seemed like he could be legitimately in the business and talking to me about a real opportunity."
Susan told Det. Obenchain that the man had requested she ware specific types of clothing for her "audition."
"He said it’s very important that I wear stilettos," she said. "Black stilettos as high as possible. And then he said a black mini-skirt preferably, but any mini-skirt would be great. Panty hose, pantyhose not nylons, a white man’s shirt, hair slicked back really tight in a ponytail. And a man’s tie. And he said he would provide the tie."
Det. Obenchain: "And, that happens to be everything that Kristi purchased on February 15."
In the hours before she disappeared, Kristi Johnson bought a black mini skirt, sheer nylons, stiletto heels, and the white shirt. This is what was so heart wrenching for me as I watched this on my television. You see there was actual video footage taken in the Mall of Kristi on that day, footage of her being approached by a man, although his features were indiscernible, and other footage of Kristi making those purchases. What I can't seem to wrap around my head is the report of Kristi's roommate saying that Kristi was so excited, so happy to be getting this break, and her apparent joy and happiness as she bought these items, you could almost see it in the videos, her hopes of getting that impossible opportunity that thousands of men and women dream about, only to discover a human monster instead, one that would use her and end her short life.
For that's exactly what happened very soon after those last video pictures of Kristi Johnson alive were taken that day. I'll never get those images out of my consciousness for the rest of my life.
I'm not a father. I've not been fortunate in life to have had that privilege. But I can imagine the pleasure of having a child that is part of you, to share that beautiful creatures early life, to help mold that child's world view, helping it to understand, and one day cope with the world's intricacies and joys, and dangers. Of sharing birthdays, and Christmases, and spelling tests, and first dates, and Halloweens, and everything else, and then to suddenly have all of that abruptly taken away by the insane acts of that human monster. Maybe just monster, for the act perpetrated upon Kristi can hardly be called human.
It rained hard during the winter of 2003. In the hills above Hollywood rivers of water poured off the hills, and mud, and one day some hikers found what looked like the remains of a female body.
Det. Obenchain: "Kristine’s body was found. Her hands tied behind her back. Her legs tied. She was partially in a sleeping bag, and she was severely decomposed from the shoulders up."
Morrison: "Simply by being out of doors in a very rainy, wet season."
Det. Obenchain: "Correct."
Det. Obenchain: "Dumped."
Terry Hall: "I think Kristi appreciated life very much. She was very aware that what there was in this world, you know that was beautiful about this world."
The name of the man who murdered Kristi is Victor Paleologus, 40 years old at the time, and had no connection with the film industry. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about this piece of filth. The two women he had attempted this scam on before had taken precautions when meeting him for the "audition," one taking a male friend along. They were able to identify Paleologus, after a police sketch had been issued of the person of interest in Kristi's case. A parole officer contacted Det. Obenchain and told her he was one of theirs. Fortunately for Det. Obenchain, Paleologus was already in county jail for an unrelated offense. He admitted to meeting Kristi on that day, but nothing else.
Any physical evidence that might have tied Kristi's murder to Paleologus had been washed away, but after his arrest got a little publicity other witnesses came forth, and...
Det. Obenchain: "We had another woman call us on the tip line, and she said that she saw Mr. Paleologus at the Century City mall on February 15. We also got a call from Mr. Paul Cady who is a realtor, who had shown Mr. Paleologus numerous houses, particularly one house on Skyline Drive that was several hundred yards away from where her body was found."
The prosecution brought in Susan Murphy, Cathy Debuono, and other women who had encountered Paleologus in the past.
Susan Murphy: "Anyone who was in that court will tell you my voice. I was shaking. There’s a jury right there. And then just looking at her family, that broke my heart. Broke my heart. And I kept thinking about, what if that was my dad sitting out there?"
Over 3 years after her disappearance, 13 days into his trial, Paleologus decided to make a deal and pled guilty to Kristi's murder.
The deal: He would escape the death penalty and get 25 to life with the possibility of parole but without the right to appeal.
Morrison: "Was it important to the family to hear him say, 'I killed your daughter?'"
Det. Obenchain: "It was."
Morrison: "Did they get as much as they wanted in that respect?"
Det. Obenchain: "No. I think they wanted to know why she had to die. I have a theory. I can’t prove it. Only Victor knows if it’s true. But I think he lured her up there for the purposes of raping her. He assaulted her, she fought back, he strangled her, went a little too far, she lost consciousness, he thought he had killed her and he dumped her over the hill."
Morrison: "You think it’s even possible she went down the side of that hill still alive?"
Det. Obenchain: "According to the coroner the head wound was peri-mortem, which is on the brink of death, so she may have still been alive."
Then Paleologus asked the judge through a letter if he could withdraw his guilty plea. The judge denied his request.
Kristi's parents were then allowed to address the murderer of their daughter.
Kirk Johnson, Kristi’s father: "The reason we are here is because of Mr. Paleologus. And there is a reason why this happened. Only God knows. And I can’t find an answer for that."
Terry Hall: "Victor Paleologus has been allowed the freedom to let the evil in his life escalate, resulting in the heinous murder of Kristi my beloved young daughter, a beautiful young woman on the threshold of her life."
Judge: "For the willful deliberate and premeditated first degree murder of Kristine Johnson, the court sentences the defendant to serve 25 years to life in the state penitentiary."
Christine Kludjian: "One had to die for us to pay attention? One had to die for us to look at a situation and say, 'Wait a minute, what is going on with our laws in this country that put repeat offenders who are not rehabilitateable out on the street again and again and again?'"
Back in jail Victor Paleologus continued to deny killing Kristi, stating he only pled guilty because it would cost too much to go to trial.
He continues to deny the murder to this day.
Here is the link to the Dateline story:
Yesterday would have been Kristi's 34th birthday.
Below is an essay written by Kristi's mother, Terry Hall:
I reported Kristi as missing on Monday morning, February 17, 2003. It was about two weeks later that I retrieved a phone message telling me her body had been discovered. I was alone in the back of a limo at night heading into New York City. The plans had been to speak on a national talk show the next morning to continue efforts escalating publicity on Kristi’s disappearance in the hopes that she was still alive and would be found. The words on the voice mail from the chief of police confirming Kristi’s death extinguished all hope. I was engulfed with an overwhelming physical hollowness and a mental paralysis. At the same time, I was filled with a presence of strength and love. I was not alone in the back of the limo; a spirit resided within me. Kristi was now at peace in an everlasting world filled with love.
During the search for Kristi, everything moved rapidly — but not fast enough. The last time I had spoken with Kristi was on Saturday, February 15, 2003, the day of her murder. We spoke with each other daily. That morning we chatted a little about this and that; I thanked her for the e-Valentine she had sent me the day before. It was a sweet message accompanied by a song she liked. She was going to go to the mall later on; she wanted to buy some candles. I told her to pick some out. The candles would be my Valentine Day present to her. President's Day was going to be on Monday, she had to work but I had the day off.
Later during the day, I tried to call Kristi. She didn’t pick up. The next day I tried several times to call her again, still no pick up. I thought it was odd; maybe she didn’t remember to charge her cell phone or maybe she was busy with friends. Whatever the reason, I’d try back on Monday morning.
Monday morning came and still nothing. At 9 a.m., I called her office number; no pick up on her direct line. I called the main number and they hadn’t heard from her either. This was unusual since Kristi was always on time or would have called if running late.
The next call I made was to the Santa Monica Police Department to report Kristi as missing. I was concerned she had been in an accident. The SMPD suggested I contact local hospitals. I called multiple hospitals. Kristi had not been admitted to any of them. I called SMPD back to confirm reporting Kristi as missing. An officer was deployed to her apartment around noon to interview one of her roommates. The search for Kristi was on.
Every waking moment was spent ramping up the search efforts for Kristi. Any possible scenario of her whereabouts was ever present in my mind. Phone calls became constant. Missing persons and search organizations, the media, the police department, family, friends, Kristi’s co-workers. Pictures of Kristi were put together to assist in building the awareness of her [being] missing. The circumstances related to Kristi's disappearance combined with her beauty and innocence heightened media interest. I was grateful to get the attention to build awareness of search efforts. Time was lapsing but never my hope that she would be found. I hadn’t known at this time the fact that after 72 hours of a person [being] missing, they most would not be found alive.
Kristi’s birthday was coming up soon. She was born on February 27, 1981. She would have turned 22 years old on that birthday had she lived. I reached out to the Episcopal Church in Santa Monica to organize a vigil on Kristi’s birthday. I had been an Episcopalian all my life and Kristi and her brother grew up attending the Episcopal Church. Saint Augustine by the Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica welcomed me with love and support.
A candlelight vigil was held on Kristi’s birthday, February 27. On the evening the vigil was held, I received much love, support and prayers. The music at the service was beautiful. Two songs were sung, one “You Are So Beautiful To Me,” a song I used to sing to Kristi as a baby when I rocked her to sleep. The other song, “Hero,” by Enrique Iglesias, was the song Kristi had sent to me in her e-Valentine. The crowd that had gathered for the vigil proceeded outside to the courtyard while singing and holding lit candles. A circle of prayer was formed under a beautiful tree within the courtyard. This would eventually be the location of the Fountain of Joy in Kristi’s memory.
On March 3, 2003, Kristi’s body was discovered down a ravine in the Hollywood hills. The circumstances of her murder are beyond horrendous. After receiving the news of Kristi’s death, all my energy immediately went to planning a beautiful funeral. This was my last opportunity to lay Kristi to rest with the respect and dignity her life deserved. The activity of dealing with details of funeral preparation somehow kept me functional. It diminished my deep dark grief.
I shopped for Kristi for the last time, picking out a lovely sleeping gown and wrap for her to be dressed in. Even though the casket would be closed, it gave me comfort to know I could somehow make a contribution to honor her, no matter how unnecessary. I could barely see the road driving home as my eyes welted with tears, the shopping bag on floor next to me containing the sleeping gown packed in a gift box.
Kristi’s funeral was held at the Episcopal Church in the town where I was then living, Los Gatos, Calif. Simultaneously, a memorial service for Kristi was being held at the Episcopal Church in Saugatuck, Mich. A memorial service was also held later that week in Santa Monica, at St. Augustine by the Sea Episcopal Church.
While Kristi's brother and I were planning her funeral with the Father at St. Luke’s in Los Gatos, he told us that his mother had always said, “Funerals are for the living.” These words still reside with me. Not only was Kristi’s funeral for the living, but also any future tributes to Kristi’s life would be for the living. Kristi loved life and that’s how she would want us to continue ours.
An incredible amount of people had given time, effort and support during the search effort for Kristi. People continued to give of themselves and made financial donations in her memory after her death. I contacted St. Augustine by the Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica to discuss possible projects to channel contributions to. The church had started a project a couple years before to erect a fountain in the courtyard but the project had taken a back burner.
A fountain sounded perfect. My parents have a fountain in the courtyard at their home. This fountain had always been a focal point of family photo shoots during gatherings and events. The fountain could represent so much of what Kristi’s life emitted, it would be called the Fountain of Joy.
It’s been over three years since Kristi’s murder. The trial just recently completed with an outcome we can be satisfied with. The Fountain of Joy project is still living. As with many projects, it’s evolved into a larger undertaking than originally anticipated. The Fountain of Joy’s concept and intent have grown as well.
The Fountain of Joy is still a tribute to Kristi’s life and a gift to all inside and beyond the community who gave so unselfishly during a time of another person’s tragedy. Many of the people who donated their energies did not even know Kristi or anything about her. It was inspiring for me during my difficult journey to see how truly loving and generous people are.
In addition to these tributes, the Fountain of Joy will also be presented to anyone seeking a place of respite and meditation from the challenges of daily life. The fountains beautiful final design, comprised of natural elements; water, stone and light, will evoke the essence of the project, to “Celebrate the Quiet Power.”
How wonderful it will be to see a tranquil welcoming spot in the middle of a busy metropolis welcoming the human sprit to pause, gain strength and celebrate the beauty of this world. I hope the Fountain of Joy will help flourish the joy, love and celebration encompassed in Kristi’s life. Terry Hall, November 9th, 2006
I'm sorry to report that I took a trip to the St. Augustine by the Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica one recent Sunday morning, and no one there could point out, tell me about, or remember anything concerning the Fountain of Joy. After only five years it seems to have been discarded and forgotten, or perhaps it was never built.
But I, and this website will always remember Kristi and her short, beautiful, wondrous life, and will repost this story every February 27th for the remainder of Joyce's Take's active existence.
Not only for Kristi, though she would be enough, but for all of the children who have tragically died under similar circumstances. All of those children who disappear. All of the ones we have loved and refuse to forget.