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Body Found Near Missing Teacher's Car

September 23, 1997|BONNIE HAYES and STEVE CARNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Searchers looking for a missing teacher from Laguna Beach discovered a woman's body Monday in a barren and rocky ravine in Riverside County, about a quarter-mile from where Diana Furry's car was found two days earlier.

Investigators won't be able to retrieve the body--which authorities described as about the same height and weight as Furry--until this morning. Authorities seek to determine if it is the 51-year-old woman who vanished Sept. 13, prompting an intensive search and widespread newspaper and television coverage.

"This could possibly be her, but we won't know until she's positively identified," Riverside County Sheriff's Sgt. Mark Lohman said.

A search party found the clothed body under two large overhanging rocks about 3:30 p.m., but darkness fell before investigators could extract the remains and probe for the cause of death.

The body "does not appear to be traumatized," Laguna Beach Police Sgt. Doris Weaver said.

A security detail spent Monday night guarding the remains, which were found in a steep rocky area not far from Furry's red 1991 Honda Civic CRX.

On Saturday, a week after the disappearance, two Orange County men found the car stuck in the dirt about 11 miles off California 243 near Idyllwild.

James Campbell, who was driving on the rugged roads in his new Jeep with his wife and a friend, said Monday that the car was stuck on a path, with indications someone had tried to free it from the soft dirt with branches and sticks.

The car was empty except for a pillow and an opened suitcase in the back seat, according to Campbell.

Lohman added that searchers had earlier found Furry's hat, purse and identification near the car. The discovery of the body, he said, prompted authorities to call off the massive search for Furry.

Furry's boyfriend, Robert Brown, 46, of Claremont, told authorities the couple had plans to meet in Idyllwild.

But it was Furry's failure to report to work on Monday, Sept. 15, that especially upset friends and relatives of the responsible, dedicated first- and second-grade teacher at Monte Vista Elementary School in Santa Ana.

Her sister, Linda Bellstrom of San Diego, filed a missing-person report with Laguna Beach police, and had friends check the jail, hospitals and even the Tijuana morgue.

As the Riverside County Sheriff's Department mobilized, sending a helicopter and its Mountain Rescue Unit to scour the San Bernardino National Forest, the mystery weighed on Furry's loved ones.

"This is a living hell," Brown said Monday before learning that a body had been located. "Every time the phone rings, I'm climbing the walls. This was not a case of some woman taking a little break from life or something."

Campbell and his friend, Ken Domer, contemplated trying to pull the car out of the dirt but figured the driver was probably getting help.

Campbell said it wasn't until he returned to Orange County on Sunday and read about Furry's disappearance that he realized he and Domer had seen her car.

"I saw that description and the plate number and I just froze," he said. "I couldn't believe it. It's just so weird to think we were right there."

Campbell called Laguna Beach police, who confirmed that the car belonged to Furry. Riverside sheriff's officials resumed their search of the area Sunday and Monday. Crews started looking for Furry when she was reported missing last week, Lohman said.

Police said it was "totally uncharacteristic" of the woman not to call relatives or friends, although she would sometimes change her plans on a whim.

She has not withdrawn any money from her bank account since she left her house, police said.

Laguna Beach Police Sgt. Greg Bartz said it's possible Furry became lost on rough trails off Black Mountain Road while trying to find a campground where the Whole Being Festival was being held, and where she was to meet Brown.

A woman matching Furry's description drove to a nearby campsite on the evening of Sept. 13 and asked for directions, Bartz said.

"If she got stuck and tried to go out on foot, and it was night, any number of things could have happened," Bartz said. "She could've lost her footing and fallen; she could've been a victim of a criminal act; she could've been attacked by an animal. Until we find her, we just don't know."

Lohman said forensic investigators examined Furry's car Monday but found no evidence of foul play.

Her car was found about 11 miles from the main highway in an area dotted with campgrounds and frequented by hikers, he said. "By no means would it be impossible for someone to walk out of there or find help," Lohman said. "It's remote but not desolate."

Investigators ask that anyone with information on Furry call (714) 497-0371.

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