It was 35 years ago -- Aug. 12, 1978 -- when four teenagers from Lakewood drove down to Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego to surf and party. James Alt, 17, and his girlfriend, Barbara Nantais, 15, cuddled up in sleeping bags and dozed off together on the beach.
By the time the sun rose the next morning, Alt was severely beaten and left for dead. Barbara had been bludgeoned and strangled to death, her young body left mutilated and posed on the sand. James, who suffered serious head injuries, had no memory of the attack.
The San Diego Police Department has never been able to solve the case -- even after a second, similar slaying on the beach years later of a girl who looked much like Barbara, pictured below. It ended up in the department’s cold case files.
But now, new DNA technology might lead detectives to a suspect.
James Alt, now 52, said he has grown frustrated with what he sees as inaction by the San Diego Police Department. The brutal crime has left deep scars Alt - scars both physical and psychological.
Barbara’s family grieved and moved on, but Alt said his entire life has been defined by the attack.
He said he feels guilty for failing to protect his girlfriend, and he constantly feels anxious and angry that whoever killed her -- and nearly killed him -- could still be out there somewhere.
"It's the same song and dance every year,” Alt said. “The clock keeps ticking. ‘We're working on it.’ Working on what?”
Nantais family and Alt last year joined together to push the San Diego Police Department to reopen the cold case, or at least release more information about it to them. Their efforts have apparently paid off as detectives recently began conducting new DNA tests and re-interviewing witnesses.
San Diego police Lt. Ernie Herbert said there have been major advances in DNA technology since the case was last reviewed.
Barbara’s younger brother is Tom Nantais, an attorney in Long Beach. He said his family has moved on from the intensely painful experience of losing Barbara, but Alt’s daily torment still weighs on them.
"For us as a family, until (Alt) gets resolution, it'll be that one nagging door left open that we'd like to be able to shut,” Nantais said. “If he gets resolution, I'll have resolution."
Nantais said he still thinks about Barbara, especially as he watches his own daughter grow up.
"I see that picture of my sister who's (15) years old, and I see my daughter getting older and I just recognize how she just barely had any time on this earth to fulfill her potential,” Nantais said. “She was just budding as a person, as a human being, and she had massive potential. ... That's probably the biggest frustration, is to not see what she would have been.”
Police believe a another killing on the same beach on Aug. 24, 1984 -- almost exactly six years later -- maybe related to Barbara’s death, according to the San Diego Police Department. In that case,
Claire Hough, 14, was killed and mutilated in a similar manner to Barbara.
"I believe somewhere down the line someone dropped the ball and they're not willing to admit it,” Alt said.