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Body in ravine may be that of missing 88-year-old man

A body was found in a car by a man injured in a similar accident. Although the body had not yet been identified, the man's daughter says the car belonged to her father.

October 02, 2011|By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times
  • La Vau's blue Toyota Corolla is seen crushed in a ravine. Authorities say they believe the silver car, which was found with a man's body inside, had plummeted off the cliff a few days before La Vau. See full story
La Vau's blue Toyota Corolla is seen crushed in a ravine. Authorities… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

The body of a dead motorist discovered recently when a second driver plunged over the same roadside cliff but survived may be that of an 88-year-old former liquor store owner and West Los Angeles resident.

Officials have not formally identified the deceased motorist, whose decaying remains were discovered behind the wheel of a battered Toyota Camry in a deep ravine in the Angeles National Forest. However, the daughter of Melvin Gelfand, who has been missing for two weeks, said Saturday that she is certain the unknown motorist is her father.

Joan Matlack said the description of the dead motorist's vehicle — and its license plates — matches her father's car. Matlack also said that a Los Angeles police investigator told her Gelfand's identification and car registration were in the vehicle.

According to a Los Angeles Police Department missing persons bulletin, Gelfand was last seen at his home on Sept. 14. On Saturday, Matlack said she believed her father was headed to a San Diego casino the day he disappeared. How he and his car ended up almost 10 miles north of Santa Clarita, in the opposite direction, she does not know.

The missing motorist might never have been discovered if not for the misfortune of another driver, David La Vau, who also drove off twisting Lake Hughes Road. The retired 67-year-old Castaic cable company worker survived at the bottom of the ravine by drinking creek water and eating leaves and insects for six days. On Thursday, he was discovered by his children, who had set off in teams to search for their missing father along Lake Hughes.

La Vau said later that he lived next to the other car for the duration of his ordeal, scavenging for food and clothes from it.

"What a bizarre coincidence, that they landed almost touching each other," Matlack said. "We're grateful that this other family didn't give up. We would have no idea where he was had that not happened. We had no clues."

Gelfand and his wife and two young daughters moved from New Jersey to California in 1959. He'd owned liquor stores in Los Angeles and then Glendale before retiring years ago.

In retirement, he occasionally worked as a movie extra and was in "The Wedding Singer," among other films. He also liked to play casino slot machines.

"He would sit there and play the machines and have a good old time with all the seniors," Matlack said.

Shortly after 7 a.m. on Sept. 14, Gelfand told his wife that he was going to a Hawthorne park-and-ride, about 10 miles from their West Los Angeles apartment. From there, he planned to take a shuttle to the Valley View Casino near San Diego.

It wasn't until late that night, after he should have returned, that his wife felt something was wrong.

Over the next few days, the family searched the casino and went by the park-and-ride repeatedly. They filed a missing persons report with Los Angeles police missing persons Det. Marla Ciuffetelli. The Times published a notice of his disappearance on its website. Eventually the family hired a private detective.

But all were told that Gelfand was heading to a casino in San Diego. "Everybody was doing what they could do, considering the only clues they had was that he was going in that direction," Matlack said.

Then Friday, as reports of La Vau's rescue emerged, a relative called to say that television reports showed another car — a silver one — in the ravine. Matlack contacted Ciuffetelli, who had already been in touch with the California Highway Patrol, investigating La Vau's accident.

With the discovery comes some small measure of relief, Matlack said. "The last two weeks were almost worse than yesterday because we were sitting around saying, 'Where do we look?' Obviously no one knew to look up there," she said.

Since his disappearance, Gelfand's family has learned that his first great-grandchild will be a boy. "It's something for my mom to look forward to, but it's sad," Matlack said.

They are urging authorities to put up a guard rail along Lake Hughes Road.

Meanwhile, they are left to wonder how he ended up north of Los Angeles, driving along that winding mountain road in an area of Southern California where, as far as they know, he'd never been before. Gelfand did not suffer from dementia, his daughter said. They speculate that he got lost or confused and headed north on the 405 Freeway instead of south. But who knows?

"The whole story has been strange from the first day," Matlack said. "I couldn't write a better mystery story."

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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