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Body in Van Believed to Be Ex-Musician

Mystery: Thousand Oaks entrepreneur and ex-rock bass player Philip Kramer disappeared in 1995. His vehicle was discovered by hikers.

May 31, 1999|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN and HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MALIBU — Human remains found at the bottom of a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains are probably those of missing Thousand Oaks computer entrepreneur Philip "Taylor" Kramer, the former bassist for the rock group Iron Butterfly who disappeared more than four years ago, authorities said Sunday.

The discovery was made Saturday afternoon by two hikers traveling in a canyon about 1 1/2 miles east of Pacific Coast Highway off Decker Canyon Road, sheriff's deputies said.

The remains were found about 450 feet below Decker Canyon Road inside a 1993 green Ford Aerostar van owned by Kramer. Decker Canyon Road is a mountainous pass of switchbacks that runs between Malibu and Westlake Village.

The hikers had been in the area shooting photographs of abandoned vehicles and other debris when they came upon Kramer's van. Hiker Walter Lockwood of Hollywood was the first to spot the remains, deputies said.

"We came upon a Ford Aerostar which was fairly intact from the back side," Lockwood said. "We had to shimmy around to get to the front end. It was completely smashed, the windshield was completely shattered," he said.

Lockwood said he looked in the passenger's side window and saw what appeared to be a human leg bone sticking up from the seat. "I freaked, and told my friend. My friend said, 'No way.' I said, 'You're probably right, it couldn't be. It's just a stick shift.' "

After further inspection, Lockwood and his friend, who asked not to be identified, determined they were indeed human bones. They headed south across the creek to an area covered with grass and dead leaves.

"As I was walking through I stepped on the back part of the skull," Lockwood said. "I just let out the most primal, guttural shriek."

Dental records will be used to make a positive identification, but authorities are all but certain the remains are Kramer's, according to Sgt. Jon Jones of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department station in Lost Hills.

Ventura County sheriff's deputies went to Kramer's home in Thousand Oaks on Sunday night to talk with his wife, Jennifer, who along with Kramer's parents and sister have held out hope for years that he was still alive.

A man who answered the door when a reporter arrived at the two-story home said Jennifer Kramer had just been notified of the discovery and was too distraught to comment.

"Now's not a good time. She just found out. Give her a little time," the man said.

The hikers notified the L.A. County Sheriff's Department late Saturday, and deputies went to the scene Sunday morning. Four members of the department's rescue team were lowered by helicopter down the 65-degree sheer cliffside to reach the wreckage, authorities said.

A sheriff's helicopter flew deep into the canyon and hovered at the tree line about 60 feet above the canyon floor while deputies loaded the remains into a green body bag, which was hoisted up into the chopper.

The deputies were also airlifted out the canyon, authorities said.

Born in 1952, Kramer joined Iron Butterfly when the band reformed in 1975. The group is best known for its 1969 album "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," which was on the record charts for more than two years.

The disappearance of then-42-year-old Kramer on Feb. 12, 1995, was a mystery from the start because there were no physical clues, only the absence of a 6-foot-5 computer executive who had been stressed out over money.

Kramer's company, the now-closed Total Multimedia in Thousand Oaks, had just come out of bankruptcy at the end of 1994. He also owed tens of thousands of dollars he had borrowed from friends, court records show.

The company specialized in fractal compression, a software-based approach to recording and playing back video images without high-end hardware accessories.

On the day he disappeared, Kramer told his family he was going to Los Angeles International Airport to pick up a business associate.

An airport parking lot attendant confirmed that Kramer was at the airport but that he never picked up the business associate, authorities said.

On his return to his home in Thousand Oaks, Kramer called both his wife and Iron Butterfly's drummer during both its incarnations, Ron Bushy, and told them each he loved them.

Kramer then called 911 from somewhere on the Ventura Freeway in the San Fernando Valley and told a 911 operator, "This is Philip Taylor Kramer and I am going to kill myself."

Since his disappearance, Kramer's family, including Jennifer Kramer and his sister, Kathy Kramer, dedicated their lives to seeking clues in the case. They went on the "Phil Donahue Show," "Unsolved Mysteries" and other television shows asking for help. They created a Web page and hired a private investigator.

Kramer's mother also speculated he could have been kidnapped.

In February 1996, a year after her husband disappeared, Jennifer Kramer said: "I vacillate back and forth all the time over what could have happened. I think he may be out there continuing his work somewhere. I think he is probably alive. But it is out of my hands. I am moving on, and so are my children."

Authorities said Sunday they found no suicide note in the car, no weapons and nothing suspicious. An investigation into the cause of death continues.

Blankstein is a Times staff writer. Wolcott is a Times Community News reporter.

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