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Dark Side of a Dream

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Kristine Johnson’s 22nd birthday was coming up, and her doting grandmother Kathryn took her shopping for an early present. During their visit Kristine mentioned that the following Saturday she was planning to get together with a man she had met at a Los Angeles mall who wanted to photograph her for a movie audition. Though it was easy to see why someone might take a fancy to her stunning granddaughter, Kathryn, 79, smelled trouble. “My mom got frantic,” says Kirk Johnson, Kristine’s father. “She told Kristine, ‘That’s the oldest trick in the book. Stay away.’ ”

Kristine, like many young women drawn to Los Angeles, was an aspiring actress, and an opportunity to break into show business was very hard to resist. Late on the afternoon of Feb. 15 she told her roommate she was heading off to Beverly Hills for a photo shoot. And then…she vanished.

On March 3 two hikers stumbled across her body at the bottom of a ravine in the Hollywood Hills. She was wrapped, partially dressed, in a sleeping bag, with one hand bound by a restraint. Police refused to say how she had been killed, but later announced that they had a “subject of interest,” someone they said had tried to lure another young woman with a similar story, in custody on an unrelated charge. “Kristi didn’t know danger was lurking,” says Kirk, 52, who runs an environmental-drilling firm in Holland, Mich. “She always gave people the benefit of the doubt, and that scared me.”

Often, say friends, that generous spirit—even more than her looks—was what people found most striking about her. Born in California and raised in the resort town of Saugatuck, Mich., Kristine was an accomplished sailor and good student. (Her parents Kirk and Terry, 46, divorced in 1991 and shared joint custody of Kristine and her brother Derek, 24.) Childhood friend Amber Marcy, who was paralyzed in a car accident at age 15, says acts of kindness came easily to Kristine. “I was in a wheelchair, and everything took extra time,” says Marcy, 22, a student. “But Kristi didn’t care. She’d just throw the wheelchair in the back of the car and say, ‘Let’s go.’ ” Kristine also loved to compete in Odyssey of the Mind, a program in which teams of students explain issues or historical events using performing arts. “She was really creative,” says Marcy. “She came up with really good ideas.”

Not long after she graduated from high school Johnson decided that she wanted to move back to California and try her hand in the entertainment world. Although differing in detail, her story would be familiar to thousands of hopeful twentysomethings and the parents who worry about them. Living with her grandmother near Santa Barbara, she enrolled briefly in college, then landed a job as a production assistant for Sandra Bullock, who was filming the movie Murder by Numbers. That small brush with stardom helped convince Kristine that she was on the right track. She enrolled in a school for movie makeup artists, but after completing the course had difficulty finding work. “She was talented, but had no experience,” says her father. “It’s a hard business to make it in.” She had recently enrolled at Santa Monica College and was working part-time at a cellular-phone company.

Very little is known about how Kristine came to meet the supposed photographer at the Century City Shopping Center. She told friends that it might lead to her getting a shot at a part in a specific movie (police won’t release the name). Two days after she failed to return, her mother notified police. Family members, aided by scores of volunteers, searched the scrubby terrain of the Hollywood Hills and Topanga Canyon.

A break in the case came on Feb. 20. A woman phoned Santa Monica police to say that in late January a stranger had also approached her at the Century City Shopping Center and said he wanted to photograph her for a movie—the same movie that Kristine had told her friends about. The woman, whose identity has not been disclosed, was intrigued but also wary, she later told cops, and had her boyfriend, a former police officer, come along for protection. When she met the stranger on a street corner in West Hollywood he aggressively insisted that she get in his car. The woman signaled to her boyfriend, who raced over to confront the man, but he managed to break free and escape.

Based on that account and description, police took a hard look at a man who had been arrested on Feb. 17. Authorities declined to name this “subject of interest,” but, citing police sources, the Los Angeles Times identified the man as Victor Paleologus, 40, who was being held on charges of auto theft. Paleologus has two prior convictions, both for luring young women with the promise of access to show business. In one case, in 1989, his victim testified, he told her that he was a record-industry executive and he would be bringing her to a party where she would meet Madonna and Billy Joel. But when they got to the hotel he tried to tie her to the bed. She fought her way out, and Paleologus ultimately pleaded guilty to false imprisonment with violence. In January he had been released from prison after serving four years on a separate set of charges, including assaulting a woman with intent to commit a sex offense.

Now in jail, with his bond set at $1.5 million, Paleologus is likely to be charged with Kristine’s murder soon. Meanwhile the Johnson family is grieving. Kirk says that even now he still calls Kristine’s cell phone every day to hear her voice. “It was my only way of praying for her,” he says. “She’d say, ‘Hi, it’s Kristi, I’m not in at the moment, please leave a message.’ ”

Bill Hewitt

Lorenzo Benet and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles and John Slania in Saugatuck