SAN DIEGO – The mutilation murder of a 15-year-old girl at Torrey Pines State Beach remains unsolved 39 years later, but the teen’s sister and one-time boyfriend are not giving up on finding her killer.
Barbara Nantais was strangled and beaten to death Aug. 13, 1978, after she’d gone to the beach the previous night with friends and her boyfriend, said Lt. Mike Holden of the San Diego Police Department’s homicide unit. Her boyfriend, James Alt, was discovered semiconscious nearby suffering from a severe head wound and unable to remember the attack when he emerged from a coma.
Investigators believe an unknown suspect or suspects assaulted the couple and killed Nantais, raping her and severing her breast, while the teens were asleep together in the sand.
Wednesday, Alt and one of the victim’s sister, Lorraine Nantais Thall, plan to speak out and once again plead for help in finding Barbara’s killer. Wednesday’s date marks 39 years and one month since the attack.
Nantais’ death and a similar killing on the same beach six years later have been the subject of much media scrutiny, including a CBS News Forty Eight Hours investigation called “Blood in the Sand.” The program probed the connections and possible suspects in the murders of Nantais and 14-year-old Claire Hough. According to that investigation, Hough’s body was found a few hundred yards from where Nantais died, and she was also beaten, strangled, sexually assaulted and mutilated.
According to a story about the murders in The Atlantic two years ago, FBI profilers concluded the Nantais and Hough murders “are suspected to be related based on victim selection, location, and case characteristics.”
As for Nantais and Alt, photos from the time and interviews over the years paint them as the perfect Southern California couple. She was a cheerleader with long brown hair, high cheek bones and a wide smile. He was a tanned surfer with long blond hair who once appeared in a wet suit advertisement.
The night before the attack, Nantais’ parents had gone out of town and the couple secretly slinked away from Nantais’ house to go to a party at the beach. After the party, another couple they were with went to sleep in a car while Alt and Nantais zipped two sleeping bags together on the sand. Alt told a Forty Eight Hours interviewer that he woke up cold and covered in blood.
He said he still wakes up nearly four decades later gripping at his bed to feel if he’s asleep on sheets or the sand.
Police got a momentary break in the Hough case with a bizarre twist earlier this decade when new DNA evidence connected two men to the 1984 killing. One was a convicted rapist, but the other was Kevin Charles Brown, who worked as a San Diego police crime-lab analyst from 1982 until his retirement in 2002.
In 2012, Brown’s DNA was found on a vaginal swab from Hough’s body, according to San Diego police. In 2014, Brown committed suicide the same week that detectives were preparing to arrest him in connection with Hough’s death, SDPD Lt. Paul Rorrison said at the time.
“The investigation confirmed Kevin Brown had no association with any of the evidence processed in this case; nor was he assigned to any part of the murder investigation,” Rorrison said. Homicide detectives had “conducted extensive investigative follow-ups to bring forward a prosecutable case,” the lieutenant said, and at the time of Brown’s death in 2014, “preparations were being made” for his arrest.
The convicted rapist who was also implicated by the DNA evidence, Ronald Clyde Tatro, died in 2011 at the age of 67 from a boating accident in Tennessee.
Despite the FBI linking the murders of Hough and Nantais, police have not said whether Tatro and Brown were also suspects in Nantais’ death.
As Alt and Nantais’ sister continue searching for the killer, the SDPD and San Diego County Crime Stoppers are also asking for tips. Anyone with information about the murder can call the police department’s homicide unit at (619) 531-2293 or San Diego County Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477, or contact the agency online at sdcrimestoppers.org.
Tipsters may remain anonymous.