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Killer Lures Woman with Fake Bond Girl Audition, Strangles Her And Dumps Her Body in Hollywood Hills
Victor Paleologus repeatedly preyed on women with big dreams before meeting Kristi Johnson at a mall and telling her to wear a "black miniskirt, nylons and stiletto heels" to a phony film audition.
Stories of stars being discovered by chance are legendary. But some tales don’t have Hollywood endings.
On February 18, 2003, Santa Monica detectives were searching for 21-year-old Kristine “Kristi” Johnson, who’d recently moved from Michigan to Southern California to pursue a career in the film industry.
Johnson had vanished three days earlier after going to meet a supposed film producer who approached her at Century City mall in Los Angeles. He promised her an audition for a part in a James Bond sequel. The role came with a potential six-figure paycheck, a fortune too tempting to pass up.
“She was told if she had a white blouse, black miniskirt, nylons and stiletto heels, that would really impress,” Ronald E. Bowers, a retired prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, told The Real Murders of Los Angeles, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
Kristi Johnson vanishes after supposed Bond Girl audition
It was not unheard of for film companies to scout talent at stores, so the arrangement wasn’t automatically suspect, according to Robert Almada, who was a sergeant with the Santa Monica Police Department at the time of Johnson's disappearance.
Police determined that no new Bond film was in the works. Detectives went to the shopping complex “to check the security tape to see if they could find Kristi,” said Bowers.
After poring through tapes, officials spotted her buying clothes. But she was always alone, so the images provided no useful clues. A press conference was held to release information and photos of Johnson and her car.
“We knew that Kristi was a very conscientious person,” said Virginia Irlikis, who was the lead investigator on the case for the Santa Monica Police Department. “She wasn’t someone who would just want to run away from her life.”
Johnson’s cell phone records revealed that she made her last call at 5:34 p.m. on February 15. “It pinged off the cell phone tower in Studio City, which is very close to the Hollywood Hills,” said Irlikis.
There was no phone activity after that. There were no withdrawals from her bank. Taken together, those indicators were cause for alarm.
“It’s very likely that the person has been harmed” in that kind of scenario, said James T. Butts Jr., who was the Chief of Police in Santa Monica at the time and is now the mayor of Inglewood, California.
Another potential Bond Girl victim surfaces
A few days into the case, detectives got their first lead. A witness named Susan Murphy came forward. She reported that she’d also been approached at Century City mall by a man who claimed to be a producer.
“He said he wanted her to be a 'Bond Girl.' She would be paid $100,000,” said Irlikis. He arranged for them to meet near his office at the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevards.
What Murphy said next shocked police. The man also asked her to bring a white dress shirt, a short black miniskirt, nylons and stiletto heels. “It had to be the same person,” said Irlikis.
Murphy arrived for the meeting but wasn’t wearing the requested audition outfit. She explained she had it in the car, but the man got enraged and grabbed her, according to Bowers.
Murphy’s boyfriend, who was in her car, tried to intervene but the man ran. Murphy described the assailant as a white male with curly short brown hair. He’d called himself Victor Thomas.
After an exhaustive search for a suspect with that name turned out to be a dead end, Murphy helped to create a composite sketch that was shared by the media, investigators said.
Detectives returned to Century City mall surveillance footage and found a man on tape who matched the sketch. Murphy confirmed that he was the man who’d grabbed her.
As the days went by, Johnson’s family hoped for a break in the case. “Over time, you’re realizing that the outcome may not be one that you're wanting,” said her mom, Terry Hall. Her father, Kirk Johnson, recalled the events as “a nightmare.”
On February 24, Johnson’s car was found but it provided no clues.
How did Victor Paleologus emerge as a suspect in Kristi Johnson's disappearance?
A parole officer called the Santa Monica Police Department on February 25 and said she recognized the composite sketch. She believed it was her parolee Victor Paleologus, who was in his early 40s and had a criminal past, according to Irlikis. In 1999, he was sentenced to eight years and eight months for writing fictitious checks, burglary and sexual assault.
“He was released from prison 26 days before Kristi Johnson disappeared,” said Irlikis, adding that he lived near the area where Murphy was attacked. Both Murphy and her boyfriend identified Paleologus from a photo array as her assailant.
Investigators tracked Paleologus down to the Los Angeles County jail. Two days after Johnson vanished, he’d tried to steal a BMW in Beverly Hills. Police interviewed Paleologus.
Despite being caught on camera at the Century City mall on the day of her disappearance, Paleologus denied knowing anything about Johnson. Detectives were at a standstill.
As police worked the case, a real estate agent came forward who’d recognized the sketch as a client who’d looked at 10 houses in early February. The residences were all near the area of Johnson’s final cell phone ping.
The agent said the client had a bizarre request. “Victor wanted him to see if he could hear him shouting from one of the bedrooms,” said Butts. “Victor said that was because he wanted to test the acoustic insulation.”
The 10 residences were thoroughly searched but turned up no leads. “Nothing,” said Irlikis. “No blood, no broken glass, no body.”
Kristi Johnson's body found dumped in the Hollywood Hills
On March 3, the body of a young woman found in the Hollywood Hills was confirmed to be Johnson. She was initially identified by a hibiscus tattoo on her lower back.
The medical examiner determined that her body had been out there for about 16 days, according to Bowers. She'd been strangled, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Because of the decomposition, they were not able to determine if she was sexually assaulted,” said Irlikis. No DNA evidence linked Paleologus to the crime.
While he remained in jail for the charges on the stolen car, detectives doubled down in the search for hard evidence linking him to Johnson’s death.
Investigators focused on the possibility that there were more victims than Susan Murphy — that Paleologus had a pattern. Two days after Johnson’s body was recovered, Alice Walker stepped up as a witness.
Victor Paleologus' other victims come forward
Walker told police that on January 25, 2003, Paleologus approached her at the restaurant where she worked in the Century City mall. He told her about casting her as a Bond Girl.
“He just told me to meet him a block south of the corner of Santa Monica and La Cienega to do a rehearsal,” said Walker. “I would need to wear a button-down shirt, a pair of nylons and a skirt and then high heels.”
The encounter turned violent, she said. Walker recognized the sketch of Paleologus as her attacker. More women also surfaced. “At least 13 women came forward who he had either completed or attempted assaults upon,” said Almada, adding that Paleologus had been doing this for several years.
Paleologus was charged with first-degree murder in Johnson's case. He initially pleaded not guilty. “His trial began July 13, 2006,” said Irlikis. “The most impactful evidence against Victor [came from] the seven women who testified against him and identified him with the same MO.”
Victor Paleologus strikes a "shocking" plea deal
Paleologus’ defense team eventually made a deal with the prosecution to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for admitting he was guilty of murdering Johnson. In September 2006, he was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years to life with the chance of parole.
Johnson’s mother said that Paleologus’ chance at parole was “shocking” to her. Paleologus waived his right to a parole hearing on August 25, 2023. His next parole hearing is in 2025.
To learn more about the case, watch The Real Murders of Los Angeles, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.