After 37 years with few answers, San Diego Police Department (SDPD) detectives may finally have a break – and a person of interest – in the brutal cold case of a 15-year-old girl killed and mutilated on a beach.
On Tuesday, SDPD Lt. Manuel Del Toro and other investigators met with loved ones of murder victim Barbara Nantais to give an update on her decades-old cold case.
At the two-hour meeting – attended by Nantais’ older sister Lorraine Nantais Thall, Nantais’ then-boyfriend James Alt and Rick Selga, the man who found the teen’s body on the beach – the group was told cold case detectives have a person of interest in connection with the case, Thall confirmed to NBC 7.
On Aug. 13, 1978, Nantais and her boyfriend, Alt, were sleeping on the sand at Torrey Pines State Beach when they were attacked by an unknown suspect or suspects.
Nantais was beaten and strangled to death, raped and one of her breasts was severed. The teenager’s killer was never found and, to this day, the murder remains unsolved.
Alt survived the violent attack, but suffered a severe head wound that left him semi-conscious with no recollection of the assault. Alt has told NBC 7 that to this day, the murder haunts him.
Today, Alt lives with depression and post-traumatic stress caused by the incident. He said the pain of not knowing who killed Nantais or why weighs heavily on him.
He carries a titanium plate in his forehead. His skull was crushed with a rock and fire log during the 1978 attack.
“That same person tried to kill me,” he told NBC 7 in an interview a few weeks ago. “They did a really good job of trying, but guess what – I am living, breathing and right here.”
As the 37th anniversary of the slaying loomed, Alt said he planned to meet with SDPD detectives.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, a frustrated Alt told NBC 7 he was hoping detectives would tell him the department had decided to turn the cold case over to another law enforcement agency.
“I hope to hear that they’re going to let another entity handle this case,” said Alt, adding that he’s discouraged by the SDPD’s handling of the case and the length of time it has remained unsolved.
Heading into the meeting, Nantais’ sister echoed Alt’s frustration.
“It’s been frustrating because we feel that there was an initial push to solve the case the first few years and as the years went by and the case got colder and colder, it fell off their radar,” Thall told NBC 7.
Selga – the man who found Nantais’ slain body on that day in 1978 – was also there to support the family and get his own peace of mind.
“I’d like to hear the police become willing to ultimately solve this for the family and Jim,” said Selga.
He admitted the crime has stayed with him to this day.
“It’s something that hasn’t left me. I feel it. Especially this time of year – every August I feel heavy-hearted. It comes back every year for me,” Selga told NBC 7. “I’m very emotional about it. I’ve been hiding from it for years.”
Media was not allowed inside the meeting, so further details were not immediately disclosed by officials.
Afterwards, Alt said several lead investigators as well as SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman were at the meeting and he, along with Thall and Selga, felt a sense of hope and progress for the first time in a long time.
"We felt like we were heard for sure this time," Alt told NBC 7.
Thall also felt a sense of renewed committment by investigators to her sister's cold case.
"I'm encouraged. [The Chief] wants fresh eyes looking at the case," Thall explained. "They are interviewing someone of interest. I'm not allowed to say who, but it's encouraging and the person is at the top of their list. It's someone who has been on the radar before."
NBC 7 reached out to Lt. Del Toro for comment, but we have not yet heard back.
In 2013, SDPD Lt. Ernie Herbert told NBC 7 Nantais’ case was being reviewed, as there had been huge advances in DNA technology. Detectives planned to re-interview witnesses and use new, high-tech science in hopes of generating new leads.
In late July, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis spoke with NBC 7 about the relentless work of the SDPD's Cold Case Unit. Since its formation in 2003, Dumanis said the unit has solved and prosecuted 35 cold cases.