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Grim news from pair of LA area car crashes provides closure for victim's family
LOS ANGELES (AP) ' Melvin Gelfand left West Hollywood on a day trip to a casino and didn't come home.
Two weeks later, the family of the 88-year-old World War II veteran began to give up hope that they'd ever find him, whether dead or alive.
No clues emerged from separate investigations by a Los Angeles police detective who was "terrific" and a private detective who was "equally good," Gelfand's son-in-law Will Matlack said Saturday.
Then came a bizarre twist.
The family of another missing man, 67-year-old David Lavau, found Lavau and his wrecked car at the bottom of a remote ravine 50 miles north of Los Angeles. He was alive, and on Saturday was undergoing surgery, expected to make a full recovery.
But the car came to rest next to another, with a driver who was not so fortunate. The car was registered to Gelfand, and while investigators have not given the body an official identification, they told family members they were "99 percent sure" it was him, Matlack said.
The news was bad, but the longshot coincidence gave them a degree of closure they would have been unlikely to get. Gelfand was 70 miles from where he'd been headed. Unlike Lavau, whose family used cellphone signals to know where to look for him, Gelfand's phone was turned off.
"If you speculate the odds, it would be astronomical," Matlack said.
Gelfand had left the house in his Toyota Camry, headed 10 miles away to Hawthorne where he would catch a shuttle to a San Diego-area casino.
"He loved going to the casino and sit there at the slots all day," said Matlack, who is married to Gelfand's daughter Joan. "His wife was having a card party. It was a good excuse for him to get out and have some fun."
But instead of heading south to the park-and-ride, he apparently went north on Interstate 405 instead and didn't turn around, merging with Interstate 5 and ending up on the remote mountain road.
Gelfand got slightly lost on occasions, but nothing like this.
"He never exhibited symptoms of dementia," Matlack said. "He was a diabetic but he had taken his medication. I guess it's possible for someone to slip into a full dementia episode, but that would be speculation."
Speculation was all the family had two days after he was found. The California Highway Patrol, which took over the investigation, has not been in touch, though coroner's officials have.
Messages left with local CHP officials by The Associated Press were not immediately returned.
Gelfand, a World War II veteran who fought in Pacific battles including Iwo Jima, moved to California from New Jersey in 1959.
He owned a liquor store with his brothers before a retirement spent hanging out with his large family, going to casinos and occasionally working as a movie extra.
"He was the favorite uncle of everybody," Matlack said.
Meanwhile, the family of Lavau, who was having surgery on a dislocated shoulder at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital on Saturday, had far more answers but were still reeling at their luck in finding him six days after he disappeared.
A sheriff's detective helped them determine a general area to look by tracing Lavau's cellphone, but it was a large and remote mountain area with canyons and ravines that could barely be seen from the road.
Once they had that information, they found him quickly, which was essential because he had been living on bugs, leaves and creek water and borrowing Gelfand's glasses for nearly a week.
"It seemed like forever, but it wasn't, we're talking hours," Lavau's son-in-law Jesse Hooker, one of the six in the family search party, said Saturday.
Hooker said family members took matters into their own hands not because they had a big problem with the response of the Sheriff's Department, but they didn't have the patience for police procedure.
"I don't think they did a bad job," said Hooker, husband of Lavau's daughter Chardonnay Hooker. "I know that we weren't willing to wait the time periods we were going to have to."
And Hooker had only praise for Diane Harris, the sheriff's detective who gave the family direction. Hooker said "if she didn't do that, we wouldn't have been able to do what we did."
Sheriff's spokesman Capt. Mike Parker said the department did everything it could on a missing persons case with no evidence of foul play, and called the rescue "remarkable."
"We admire this family for doing what they did," Parker said.
Gelfand's family said they see some good that can come of his accident.
They would first like to see state highway officials install a guard rail on the sharp curve where the men ran off the road, and hope the Lavau family will join them in the effort.
"From my point of view, two cars go off the same spot within a week of each other, is Caltrans paying attention here?" Will Matlack said.
"If there's another thing I'd like to see come of this, it's getting older people to turn on their cellphones when they leave home," he said. "They don't do it because they think no one's going to call, but it's not about people calling, it's about being able to find them."
Associated Press writers Christopher Weber, John Rogers, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer and Christina Hoag and contributed to this report.