Kristi Johnson's Family Believes Her Desire to Be Famous Led to Her Death — What Happened?

"Kristi was a little girl from Holland, Mich., and she went to big Los Angeles and it gobbled her up," said her father.

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

May 31 2024, Published 4:38 p.m. ET

Kristi Johnson was like so many eager people who moved to Los Angeles, Calif., hoping to become someone other than the person they were in their hometown. She grew up in Holland, Mich., which (to no one's surprise) was known for its Dutch heritage. The city of nearly 35,000 even had its own tulip festival every May. And while that sounds charming and idyllic, Johnson wanted to return to California where she was born.

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After graduating high school and lasting exactly one year in college, Johnson moved to Santa Maria, Calif., where she lived with her grandmother and got a job working on the Sandra Bullock movie Murder by Numbers, reported the Los Angeles Times. This was the push she needed to finally get herself to Hollywood. Things were going great until Johnson vanished in February 2003 while en route to an audition. What happened to Kristi Johnson?

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What happened to Kristi Johnson? She was last seen in February 2003.

Douglas Kirkland was one of the last people to see Johnson alive. The celebrity photographer answered the door of his home in the Hollywood Hills when a frantic Johnson appeared out of nowhere. She was lost and needed directions. After sending her on her way, Kirkland saw her face again a week later when she was all over the local news. Johnson had gone missing Feb. 13, 2003, and her family was desperate for answers.

At nearly 22 years-old, the 5'9" Johnson was striking and according to her family, a bit naive when it came to the ways of the world. That didn't stop her from enrolling in a makeup and design school in Burbank. By July 2002, the eager young woman was already working on a music video. In an email to her father Kirk, Kristi said, "I was so nervous when I first got down here, but I knew this is what I wanted ... so I stuck with it."

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While in school, Johnson worked at a cell phone store in the Century City mall which is where she was approached by a man claiming to be a filmmaker. This man told Johnson he was working on a new James Bond movie and thought she would make the perfect Bond girl. In her excitement, Johnson barely noticed the stranger's odd request. He asked that she bring black stilettos, a black miniskirt, and a white men's dress shirt to the audition, and assured Johnson other girls would be there.

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It was while driving to this so-called audition that Johnson stopped at Kirkland's place to ask for directions. Nearly three weeks later, Johnson's body would be found on March 3, 2003. Her hands and feet were bound, and she had been strangled. It would later be determined that the young actor had been raped. Desperate for answers, her family set up a tip line which lead to the apprehension of a man named Victor Paleologus.

Where is Victor Paleologus now?

Hundreds of people called the tip line but three women shared stories similar to the one Johnson told her roommate the day she vanished. Less than a month before Johnson was murdered, a man came up to Susan Murphy at the Century City Mall and peddled the same James Bond movie line. Like Johhson, Murphy went to the audition but she brought her boyfriend with her. When her partner began asking questions, the man left. Alice Walker and Laura Hayden told authorities similar stories.

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Five years before Johnson was killed, Cathy Debuono was living in Los Angeles where she occasionally snagged small roles on shows like Deep Space Nine, per NBC News. A man who claimed to be a Disney executive named Brian told Debuono she would make a great Bond girl. Debuono didn't come alone to the meeting. Brian never showed up and Debuono believes it was because he saw her male friend in the passenger seat of her car.

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The four women were able to help a police create a sketch of the man they all had interactions with. It wasn't long before they narrowed down their suspects to a man named Victor Paleologus, who had a history of similar incidents. Not long after speaking with Debuono, Paleologus was convicted of attempted rape and sentenced to five years in prison. He was paroled in January 2003, a month before Johnson went missing.

Authorities didn't have to look hard for Paleologus as he was already in custody for vehicle theft. All four women identified him and when Paleologus spke with detectives, he said they were all lying. Those women were just the tip of an iceberg that went as far back as 1991. Paleologus had been using variations of the James Bond lie, for years.

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In July 2006, 13 days into his trial, Paleologus suddenly changed his plea to guilty. In an effort to avoid the death penalty, which was still legal in California, he opted to receive 25 years to life. When Dateline reporter Keith Morrison spoke with Paleologus after his sentencing, the only remorse he felt was over taking the deal. He still denied killing Johnson.

Johnson's family has made sure her killer never sees a free day again. They started the Justice for Kristi website where they provide updates about Paleologus and their commitment to keep him from being paroled. After his daughter died, Kirk Johnson told the Los Angeles Times that she had everything needed to make it big in Hollywood. "Kristi was a little girl from Holland, Mich., and she went to big Los Angeles and it gobbled her up," he said. "I don’t think she was ready for the fast lane of L.A."

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