Violent 1978 Cold Case Haunts Survivor

On Aug. 13, 1978, teenage couple Barbara Nantais and James Alt were savagely attacked on Torrey Pines State Beach

A man who survived a brutal attack on a San Diego beach in 1978 as his girlfriend was murdered and mutilated says the cold case continues to haunt him, and he wants answers.

“Survivor’s guilt is something I struggle with every day,” James Alt told NBC 7.

On Aug. 13, 1978, Alt – 17 years old at the time – and his girlfriend, Barbara Nantais, 15, were sleeping on the sand at Torrey Pines State Beach when they were attacked by an unknown suspect or suspects.

Alt suffered a severe head wound that left him semi-conscious with no recollection of the assault. 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.

Nearly 37 years later, 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.

Alt 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 said. “They did a really good job of trying, but guess what, I am living, breathing and right here.”

After all these years with no arrests in the cold case, Alt says he wants the San Diego Police Department’s (SDPD) Cold Case Unit to hand over the investigation to another law enforcement agency.

Alt and members of the Nantais family are scheduled to meet with cold case detectives later this month.

Barbara Nantais was murdered in 1978. She was found naked, beaten and strangled. Like Claire Hough, her breast had also been disfigured.

He said he doesn't expect to hear much new information about the case, but has plenty to say about the investigation of his case and recent developments in the 1984 murder of another San Diego teen, Claire Hough.

Hough, 14, was beaten and murdered on the very same stretch of beach as Nantais’ slaying. Similarities in both cases have suggested the killings could’ve been committed by the same perpetrator.

Last fall, San Diego police said they found DNA from Hough's body matching that of police lab technician Kevin Brown.

“I was excited, scared obviously, and just optimistically hopeful,” Alt said, referring to the break in Hough’s cold case.

Police said they were preparing a warrant for Brown’s arrest in connection with Hough’s murder before Brown hung himself Oct. 21, 2014.

Alt said the developments in Hough’s case only wound up adding to his frustration.

“I want proof. I want evidence. I'm not going to take your word for it. Show me what the District Attorney was going to hold this person for,” Alt said.

Alt fears whatever evidence police have against Brown will be buried with him.

Since the San Diego County District Attorney’s cold case unit began in 2003, it has solved and prosecuted 35 cases. NBC 7’s Catherine Garcia talks with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis about the work of this unit.

Investigators told NBC 7 Brown could not be connected to the Nantais murder. Brown's widow has filed complaints against the SDPD and the City of San Diego to clear Brown's name.

Meanwhile, Alt insists he wants his case in other hands.

“I want them to let go of my case. They haven’t done anything in 37 years. What, are we going to hold them another 37? No sir,” Alt told NBC 7.

In 2013, SDPD Lt. Ernie Herbert told NBC 7 Nantais’ case was being reviewed once more, 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 on the case that still remains cold.

On Thursday, 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.
This includes a recent arrest in the murder of Damon Green, a San Diego man gunned down at a doughnut shop in 2007.

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