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Death in the Hollywood Hills

A predator struck in the glamorous hills of Hollywood. His targets? Young women with big dreams.

Every day is a bumper crop of hope here in Hollywood, California. 

The dreamers can be naive, of course.  Everybody knows. But still they come from all over to play their slim chances. Maybe lightning will strike, someone will be chosen as the next “Renee” or “Scarlett.”

This story is about Kristi Johnson. She came here from Michigan, in 2001,  to invent herself.

Terry Hall, Kristi Johnson’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.'”

But she was so pretty.  And she had that “something,” even back in high school.

Why didn’t she try out in front of the camera, people would ask. Couldn’t Kristi be an “it” girl, too?

God knows, it’s happened before.

They say it’s a myth, the story of Lana Turner’s discovery as a nobody at a drug store lunch counter. But the myth is part of that young, hopeful DNA now, just as the other one is: The story of the girl whose ambition bought fame only after her blood-drained body had been dumped in a vacant lot.  We know her now as the “Black Dahlia.”

Of all the legends born under the Hollywood sign on the hill, these two endure... two parts of a whole. They entice young hopefuls drawn to the scent of fame, and sometimes, kill them.

But Kristi Johnson had other things to think about.  She was 21.  She was in California.

Hall: Kristi loved the beach. And she told me you know how beautiful it was and how much she was enjoying being in California.

Back in Michigan, growing up, she was athletic and had a passion for the water. And then she started turning heads.

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.

They were very close and spoke on the phone every day.

Hall: We enjoyed being with each other and doing things together. 

It was the day after Valentine’s Day, 2003, a Saturday. Kristi called her mom, said she was going to the mall.

Hall: And I said okay, great: “You know, don’t buy anything. Pick something out and it’ll be your Valentine’s present.”

By Sunday, Kristi should have called again.  She did not. 

Hall: And I thought, “Now that’s strange.”Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Kind of a low-grade anxiety?Hall: Right, like, “Gee I wonder what’s happening here that I can’t get a hold of her.”

Then two days went by—no answer. No call.

Hall: So when I couldn’t get a hold of her on her cell phone and I called her on her direct line at work. And when I got her answering message on her work phone is when I became very alarmed.

Terry filed a missing person’s report with the Santa Monica Police.

Morrison: Do you remember getting the case?Det. Virginia Obenchain, Santa Monica Police Department: I do.

Veteran police detective Virginia Obenchain doesn’t rattle easily, but she knew right away that Kristi Johnson’s case was going to be bad.

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.

The circumstances?

Det. Obenchain: 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.

Det. Obenchain didn’t need to be told that con-men prey on young women in this town. Or that smart and savvy women can be seduced by the Lana Turner fantasy.

Det. Obenchain: 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.”Morrison: Sure. The drug store discovery.Det. Obenchain: Exactly.  And some gals still believe that that can happen. Morrison: Does it?Det. Obenchain: Not that I know of.

Where was Kristi Johnson?

It was February 2003. Somewhere in Hollywood, a young woman, Kristi Johnson was missing.

The veteran detective who was trying to find her knew she needed help.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: So, you had a press conference.Det. Virginia Obenchain: We did.Morrison: Did that help you in any way?Det. Obenchain: It helped us tremendously.  We got a call from a young lady on our tip line, and she told us that she, too, had been approached at the Century City mall.  Susan Murphy: I read an article a couple of weeks after what happened to me.  And, it mentions this beautiful young lady who disappeared after going to meet a photographer.  And that’s all it says. Morrison: Yeah. It doesn’t really give any indication of who it was.Murphy: Doesn’t give any indication of who it was at all.Morrison: Well, what was your reaction when you read this?Murphy: I call it “women’s intuition.” I just knew.  My heart dropped—

21 days before Kristi went to the mall to look for a Valentine’s gift,  Susan Murphy was approached by a man there too. He said he was in the business and 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.”

Just a line, of course.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if the guy was for real?

Murphy: I’d had enough experience to kind of know that this was a come-on, a pick-up. And I knew that and—Morrison: And yet?Murphy: 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.

And five years before Susan, there was Cathy Debuono.

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.

At the time, Cathy was pretty much a regular in bit parts on “Deep Space Nine,” but this offer was something else.

Debuono: He talked about “big bucks.”  He named numbers of money that I can’t recall today, but it was a lot of money. 

He said he was a Disney executive named Brian. 

Morrison: Was it like he was coming onto you?Debuono: No, no. 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.

The women talked to Det. Obenchain and gave her some clues about the man that Kristi might have met. And there was key information that Susan had to offer: she said the man told her to wear a very specific outfit to the audition.

Murphy: He said it’s very important that I wear stilettos.  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.

Was she nervous?  Was she excited?

Susan in 2003 and Cathy in 1998 agreed to meet the pleasant stranger. But they were a little nervous and just in case, each decided to bring a male friend along.

Cathy followed instructions to drive to a particular address.

Debuono: I was instructed by him to wait in my car in an area of the block where he told me to park.  He said, “Bring your car here, park here—someone will come out and get you.” Morrison: What happened?Debuono: Nothing.Morrison: Nothing?

Mind you, the male friend in the car with her was perfectly visible. “Brian from Disney” never showed.

Susan Murphy got out of her car, left her boyfriend there, down the street, watching as she walked to a busy intersection just as the man had instructed.

Morrison: What percentage of this was thinking it might be real, and “I wanna be there if it is”?Murphy: I would say 40 percent I thought it was real, 60 percent I knew it wasn’t.

Then the man showed up. Pointing behind him, he said "let’s go get a drink."

Murphy: I noticed it was an abandoned building it looked like to me.  It didn’t look like there was any sort of activity or any kind of bar or restaurant in there.  So I thought, “Okay.”  I said, “Well, first of all, I’m not going anywhere with you.” I said, “I need some identification first.”  I said, “That’s first and foremost.”  And he said, “Oh I don’t have any identification.”  I said “You don’t?”  I go, “Where is it?”  He goes, “I left it on the set.” Morrison: On the set?Murphy: On the set.

And so, Susan said, “I’m not going anywhere.” Then she signaled to her friend in the car,  and the man got angry. 

Morrison: He realized you were with somebody.Murphy: Realized I was with somebody. It’s like, you know, “You’re not right for the part anyway.”  He’s like “Just forget it.”  And then he goes and starts to walk away.

With Susan Murphy’s help, the police made up a sketch of that man who had promised a part in a Bond movie.

Det. Obenchain: Once we aired the sketch, we had a parole officer call us and said, “That happens to be one of my parolees.”

He had a name. It wasn’t "Victor Thomas," as he’d told Susan Murphy. It wasn’t, as he’d told Cathy Debuono, "Brian from Disney." 

His name: Victor Paleologus—a parolee with no connection to the film industry at all.

Morrison: So you have a suspect, or at least you know who the suspect is.  How do you proceed now?  As if she is still alive?Det. Obenchain: Absolutely as if she’s still alive. 

Feb 26, 2003 was Kristi Johnson’s 22nd birthday. She’d been missing 11 days.

Her family held a vigil. The search continued.

Det. Obenchain: What we did was we started contacting the roommate, the credit card company, or the debit card company, the cell phone company.  We tracked down where her last ping on the cell phone came from, and it came from the Laurel Canyon area. 

That last ping? She’d called information around the hills above Laurel Canyon. It was just after 5 p.m., the sun would have been just below the horizon.

Police found a man who lived in Laurel Canyon who remembered a girl in a Mazda Miata, lost, looking for a house up the hill. Kristi Johnson drove a Miata.

But by now, detectives had a name, a suspect: Victor Paleologus. He fit the description provided by both Susan Murphy and Cathy Debuono.

And that’s when Detective Obenchain caught a break.

Det. Obenchain: Mr. Paleologus happened to be in custody because Beverly Hills arrested him on unrelated charges to our case.

Beverly Hills Police videotaped their pursuit of a stolen BMW as it raced into the  parking lot of another Los Angeles mall. At the wheel was Victor Paleologus who was arrested minutes later and charged with grand theft auto.

So Detective Obenchain headed to the men’s central jail in downtown Los Angeles.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Did he talk?Det. Obenchain: No.  He would not say anything about Kristi. He told us things, that he was writing a book, and he would mention other things, but every time the interrogators would point him to “Where is Kristi?” he would answer, “I can’t help you.”

Susan Murphy was brought in to identify Victor first in pictures, what the cops call a six-pack.

Susan Murphy: Yes, I had to do a photo line-up and then later came the actual line-up.  Which was a little bit like seeing a horror film.I knew who it was immediately. And he was like disguising him—like acting all weird and like trying to think, “What is he doing”?  And I was like, "That’s the guy for sure."

Victor Paleologus, 40 years old, was divorced. He’d once owned an Italian restaurant. He looked normal.

And if his pick-up line was to pretend to be in showbiz, so what?  Didn’t make him a predator, did it?  Paleologus and his attorney Andy Flier sat down with us in the men’s central jail in Los Angeles.

Andy Flier, attorney for Victor Paleologus: I assume he’s not the first male to try to meet a young lady and maybe get lucky, irrespective of what tale they tell.Morrison: Right.Flier: And that’s the problem we have. 

And Victor Paleologus talked about his life, his mistakes, and how he had nothing to do with the disappearance of Kristi Johnson.  And denied he caused trouble for any other woman, either.

Morrison: Susan Murphy, for example, says she met you in a mall and you came on to her and suggested you were a movie producer—and then, sure enough, the video in the mall shows you approaching Susan Murphy. Kinda corroborates her story, doesn’t it?Victor Paleologus: Well, it corroborates the fact that we met.  It didn’t corroborate the fact that I told her to do anything.  No.  We met in the mall that night.  I was going to a movie.  She was going to the restaurant to have dinner.  We sat down.  We  had some discussions.  I told her about, you know, who I was, where I was—from, etcetera, etcetera.

Morrison: And yet women look at your picture and say, “Yeah, he’s the guy.  He said he was a producer.  They’re making a James Bond film.”Paleologus: That’s a lie.Morrison: They all lied? Paleologus: Yes.

And what about Kristi and the man she met at a mall?

Morrison: Where were you at the time? Paleologus: I was nowhere near there. I was in the Century Plaza Hotel.Morrison:  That’s where she met you.Paleologus: --in a spa.  No.Morrison: She met you in the mall.Paleologus: She did not meet me in the mall.  I was in the Century Plaza Hotel.

The Century Plaza Hotel is across the street from that mall. But even so, did Victor Paleologus have anything to do with Kristi Johnson’s disappearance? Detective Obenchain thought he did.

Morrison: You knew he knew something, and he’s not telling you.  And you suspect something terrible’s happened to this girl obviously.  That must be awfully frustrating.Det. Obenchain: It was extremely frustrating, especially since some time had elapsed.  We weren’t sure if she was alive.  We were hoping that she was alive.  We knew that it was critical that we find her as soon as possible.Morrison: And if she was dead, the longer the time was that went by, the less material there would be to give you clues?Det. Obenchain: Correct.

So volunteers scoured those empty parts of Los Angeles, where missing people often wind up.  Would they find her there?  Her parents hung missing posters and clung to a thin thread of hope.

Terry Hall, Kristi Johnson’s mom: The chief of police and the captain of the Santa Monica police department did come to visit me, and they said that they really felt that Kristi was probably not alive. And my first question was, “Has this person who you’ve arrested… has this person been arrested for murder before?” They said no.  As a parent, I’m very hopeful that maybe this person has abducted my daughter but he hasn’t murdered her.

They say it never rains in Southern California. But in the winter of 2003, it poured.

Torrents came roaring down the gloomy hills around Hollywood. And mud. 

And then one day, when the sun finally peaked through the clouds, there in the mud, on the side of a hill,  some hikers who thought they’d be enjoying the view found what was left of a female body.

Morrison: It was a rainy year wasn’t it?Det. Obenchain: It was very rainy.  Very rainy.Morrison: And, so when you were called up to where the body was, what was found?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.Morrison: Dumped.Det. Obenchain: Dumped.

More than two weeks in the rain.  Enough to wash away most of the evidence they might otherwise have found.

Morrison: People have expectations.  I mean, I asked you about finding that body on the hill and fully, frankly expected you to be able to say, “You know, we knew exactly the minute she died, how she died, whether there’d been penetration—or strangulation—" you know, all those questions that we’ve come to expect to be answered.  Could you answer them?Det. Obenchain: No we couldn’t.  This was not CSI.  This is reality. There isn’t always DNA.  There isn’t always trace evidence.  There isn’t always a fingerprint left. Morrison: And there wasn’t a lot of stuff in this case?Det. Obenchain: There was nothing.

And that’s how it ended, the search for Kristi Johnson, the girl who trusted, it turned out, too much.

Terry Hall, Kristi Johnson’s mother: 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.

But the world could be ugly too—and that’s where the search turned.

Up on that hill in Hollywood, the physical evidence that might have revealed who killed Kristi was gone.

But there was evidence— in defects of personality, in behaviors, in history— in the prime suspect. Detectives discovered there was a history lesson in Victor Paleologus,  a wealth of material which grew after his arrest got a little publicity and witnesses started coming forward.

Christine Kludjian, another victim:They said his name was Victor Paleologus. And I pulled over on the side of the road.  And it was like white noise.  It was unbelievable that this was the same guy. 

For Christine Kludjian, an actress from Santa Monica, it was like a bad flashback. By 2003, it had been 14 years since she’d met Victor Paleologus. Though he had told her his name was "John Maroni" and he asked her out on a date.

Kludjian: He said, “I’ll pick you up in a limousine, we’ll have dinner, and there’s a big industry party,” because he said he that he was a music executive at Columbia Records. Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: You’d meet some famous people?Kludjian: So forth and so on. I mean he mentioned Madonna, he mentioned a couple of other people.  So “Wow, that’s fun, that’s great, why not?”

He told her the party was to be a downtown hotel in a suite. She was 21. She trusted him just enough to go up there.

There was no party. Just him.

Kludjian: He’s trying to kiss me and I pushed him away and then he just attacked me.  He grabbed me, he threw me on the bed, he tried to rip my clothes off and in that moment, he pulled ropes from behind the bed.Morrison: He would have had to arranged those before—Kludjian: Exactly.  Right.Morrison (interviewing Paleologus): Did you tie her up?Victor Paleologus: No.  Nobody got tied up.  There was no attack whatsoever. 

Victor admitted he’d been there, taken her up to a suite, but had a very different story about what happened.  For example, she showed the cops back then rope burns and bruises. 

Paleologus: She had a string purse on her.  I picked up her purse and grabbed it. She wrapped it around her wrist.  She was pulling back.  We got into this tug of war type of issue, her strap broke, and she went flying back over the credenza.  We had a suite there.

Christine got away and Victor was arrested and charged with attempted rape. There was a hung jury.  But rather than face a second trial, Victor pleaded guilty to a reduced charge: false imprisonment by violence.

Paleologus: Instead of spending another $30,000 to go back to trial on that, I took the plea for false imprisonment, and went on probation for three years.

It was his first run-in with the law but by no means his last.

In 1991, there  was an actress named Elizabeth Davis. She says he told her his name was Joe Messe, from Disney. Then he said something about a Bond movie.  And he spiked her drink. She noticed a white powder and called the cops. No charges were ever filed.

In 1996, a SWAT team had to be called when Paleologus holed up in a mobile home in Malibu after he failed to show up in court on  another charge.

This time a woman he had dated accused him of breaking into her house and trying to attack her with a rope. He made a deal. Pleaded guilty to burglary and got probation.

As for the SWAT team, it was all a big mistake, he says.

Along the way Victor also got in trouble for ID theft and fraud.

It was 1998 when, according to several women, he starting refining his Bond girl scam.

And one of the victims was so traumatized she wants to remain anonymous even now.

Paleologus: I just wanted to have a good time.  That was the whole concept that night.

As Victor says all he wanted was a date. And well, yes, he did tell her, he says, that he could get her into a Bond movie.

Paleologus: Like an idiot, what comes out of me sometimes is ridiculous. 

She says he tied her up, tried to rape her after she met him at his abandoned restaurant for an audition.

Again he took a plea deal, assault, and this time he went to prison for  five years.

But get this: Victor says it never happened.  He swears.  None of them ever happened.

Paleologus: First and foremost, let’s clear up one thing.  I never struggled with any woman or forced myself upon any woman whatsoever.

January 20, 2003, Paleologus was released from prison. 26 days later, Kristi Johnson disappeared.

Morrison: It’s a pretty big leap to go from sort of minor league fumbling attempts at sexual assault to actually killing somebody, isn’t it?Det. Obenchain: It is. But as we know, and we’ve seen, people escalate in their degree of violence.

And though there were no finger prints, no DNA, fibers, nothing to connect Victor Paleologus to Kristi Johnson, he was charged with her murder.

In the nearly four years, since her daughter Kristi Johnson took that awful chance with man who came promising fame Terry Hall has lived in her own private house of horrors.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: The pain doesn’t hurt any less?Terry Hall, Kristi Johnson’s mother: No. The pain is with me every day.  Every moment. It’s almost like a wave that comes from behind me and just kind of crashes on me.

And while she wept and waited for the trial of Victor Paleologus,  Terry wondered, how her Kristi could have been taken in?

Hall: What was really striking to me was the fact that Kristi was a very savvy, smart young woman. And for her to have been convinced to go to a situation such as this, I thought to myself, this must have been a very experienced predator.

And always the question... What happened?

Hall: I think I have enough information already to know that it was very horrifying.  And that’s a great struggle.

And so it went, as legal motions ground their long and slow journey, and Victor Paleologus grew wan and pale from years in the men’s central jail.  The detective worked on the circumstantial case.  And that was getting stronger by the day.

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.

Finally July 13, 2006, it began.

The prosecution brought in Susan Murphy, Cathy Debuono, and a few other women with less than savory encounters with 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? 

Christine Kludjian, assaulted by Paleologus way back in 1989, wasn’t called to testify but observed it all and was worried.

Christine Kludjian: I was concerned that the jury was going to look at the circumstantial evidence and be swayed by that and not by his past history, his past actions. That was the most important thing for me in this case.  It’s not about a naive, trusting, young female.  Thank God for naive, trusting, young females in this world.  It’s about a repeat predator offender. 

The case depended on a pattern, an M.O.. The evidence was  circumstantial but strong. But Detective Obenchain admitted she was worried.

Det. Obenchain: It just takes one juror to not be completely convinced and we’d have to start the entire process over again.Morrison: In a trial when you’re dealing with a con man how much of a worry is that?Det. Obenchain: There is a worry.  He’s a con man, and he’s very, very good at it. He had quite a few people convinced.

So the rest of the women got up on the stand and recounted the stories of the apparently mild-manner guy who offered to help make them famous, who dangled the possibility that they, like Lana Turner might instantly find fame and glory in Hollywood—or at least an opening role as a Bond girl.

And then?  Suddenly, 13 days into the trial, Victor sprung a surprise.  After all those years of denial, all those years of blaming everybody else for his troubles with the law, and now after a parade of  opening statement and witnesses, Paleologus stopped everything.

He had decided to make a deal with the prosecution, to plead guilty to the crime of murder.

And so this past July, Paleologus appeared in open court before the judge and agreed that he and he alone had caused the death of Kristi Johnson up on that rain-soaked hill in Hollywood.

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: All these months and years saying, “Yeah, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.”  In the middle of the trial, he suddenly says, “I did it”?Det. Obenchain: I was shocked.  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. Morrison: It’s pretty chilling when you think about it that way.Det. Obenchain: It is.  And it’s a completely callous act.

And we couldn’t stop thinking about that interview, long before the trial, in which Victor Paleologus danced around the issues telling us he’d never hurt Kristi or any one else for that matter.

Having pleaded guilty, he wasn’t dancing now. Seemed like a good to go back and see if we could get the real story.

On September 15th this year, Victor Paleologus, looking ashen, appeared in court to be sentenced for the murder of Kristi Johnson.

Having admitted he killed her, having pleaded guilty, he was finally going to take responsibility for  what he did to the trusting young woman whose mistake was believing he might just be the man make her a star.

But suddenly, there was a hitch in the proceedings.

Judge (during court proceedings): The court this morning received a letter, it’s very lengthy from the defendant. It’s a 11 pages from the defendant. I’ve read the letter this morning and I’ve read it again.

Victor had written a letter to the judge. 11 handwritten pages, crammed with misused words of many syllables pleading for, well, the judge seemed astonished.

Judge: In the letter, Mr. Paleologus requests or makes a motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

Withdraw?  Victor had changed his mind about pleading guilty.

Judge: I’m going to deny the motion Mr. Paleologus. The law states clearly that a plea cannot be withdrawn simply because the defendant has changed his mind.

And then he listened as her family spoke about the loss and the hurt.

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, Kristi’s mother: 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.

And so it was a sullen and obviously miserable Victor Paleologus who listened to the judge pronounce his fate.

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.

This is how the predator was brought to justice,  after so many women, so many accusations, and so many plea deals for so little prison time (in Christine Kludjian’s case, there was no jail time at all).

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?” 

Three days after sentencing, we met once again at the men’s central jail for one more try to get inside the mind of this predator.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Are you ready now to talk more candidly about what happened?Victor Paleologus (second interview with Dateline): Well, I’ve never had an issue about talking about any piece of the case.  Hindsight right now almost immediately gave me the remorse of ever signing or ever agreeing to a plea.

There it was.

For Victor Paleologus, remorse was not about killing Kristi.  It was only for taking a deal and admitting he did it.

Morrison: You took responsibility for Kristi’s death.Paleologus: I had to. I had to in order to get the plea. Look, unless you’re actually in that situation,  you’re actually faced with the same consequences and the same pressure and the same mental mind-bending that you’re going through, that you may have just made the same choices I made that day. Morrison: I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t confess to killing somebody if I hadn’t actually killed them. Paleologus: Well, I think you say that with all sincerity.  I don’t think you’d say that I the situation if you were being bent over the barrel for 3 ½ years.Morrison: You know, it’s funny.  You always make plea deals, right?Paleologus: Yeah unfortunately. 

Victor gave us lots of reasons he took the plea this time. Unbelievably, one of them, he said, was money…

Paleologus: But only agreed to the plea based on the fact that when you considered a ruinous cost of even a successful defense, I was gonna end up in the same position anyway and—

Seem odd that a man in prison for life is worried about personal financial ruin?  Well, get this:  He wasn’t even paying his legal bills.  The state has been doing that for three years. But that was just one of his “dog ate his homework” excuses for pleading guilty to murdering an innocent young woman.

His lawyer, he told us, would have lost a prepaid vacation had he continued the trial. He really was going to win, he said.

The real victim here, he said, is himself.

Paleologus’ lawyer: This whole issue has been really about what someone else can say about Victor.  What someone else can bring up on dirty laundry about Victor.

Round and round—for more than an hour—went Victor, avoiding one topic: What really happened to Kristi Johnson?

Morrison: We all know you did it. And I think—Paleologus: What evidence do you have—Morrison: —the whole point is of finally—no, no, let me finish.  Finally somebody wants you to stand up, like a man. But the fact is, we know you did it.  So this is all a dance that’s kind of silly, don’t you think? Paleologus: No, I don’t think.  No.

It was the day after Valentine's, 2003, when Kristine Johnson thought she had met the man who’d discovered her, just like somebody discovered Lana Turner all those years ago.

How could she know it was Victor Paleologus, and that her story would end like the Black Dahlia?

Cathy Debuono: When what you want so badly is written on your sleeve, predators of any kind are gonna use that as the bait. They’re gonna tell you they have it to give. Susan Murphy: I mean I felt close to her. I felt like, "Oh my gosh... What if I had done… What if?" She didn’t make a mistake. She didn’t do anything wrong.

Sometimes it hard to spot the bad ones. He’d been honing his scheme for years. She didn’t stand a chance.

Even though the terms of Victor Paleologus' plea  prevent any appeal, he says he plans to file one anyway. Kristi Johnson's Mother Terry Hall is helping to build a memorial to Kristi -- a fountain in her name. .