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Updated: Recovery, mystery in pair of Lake Hughes area crashes

Posted: October 1, 2011 4:27 p.m.
Updated: October 1, 2011 10:46 p.m.

Two cars at the bottom of a remote mountain are recovered in Castaic, Friday.

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A man who was found in a 200-foot-deep ravine six days after crashing his car is recovering from surgery in a Valencia hospital Saturday evening, his family said.

“He’s pretty tired, wanted to sleep,” said Jesse Hooker, David La Vau’s son-in-law, at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital.

The surgery, aimed at setting 68-year-old La Vau’s dislocated shoulder and repairing his broken forearm, lasted twice as long as expected due to the extended time period without medical attention in the ravine off Lake Hughes Road north of Castaic. He’s expected to make a full recovery.

“We truly didn’t understand the severity and the doctors didn’t understand the severity of it until they took him into surgery and opened his arm up,” said Chardonnay Hooker, La Vau’s daughter. “Then they realized they were dealing with something much more deeper.”

Chardonnay Hooker, her sister Lisa La Vau and several family members were donning pink hats with “La Vau” drawn on them. In 48 hours since finding their father, the group has appeared on several national TV shows, recounting their search.

“It’s surreal. We’re just taking this as a huge blessing,” said Sean La Vau, David La Vau’s son. “We’re just in awe.”

Before the La Vaus’ discovery, the family of 88-year-old Melvin Gelfand was beginning to think they would never find him, whether dead or alive.

Two weeks ago, he had left his West Hollywood home on a day trip to a casino and they still had no clue where he was, despite the work of 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 the bizarre twist of David La Vau crashing his car in the ravine.

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 La Vau, whose family used cell phone 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, then off, 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, the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants came to the West Coast.

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 La Vau 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 La Vau’s cell phone, 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,” Jesse Hooker said Saturday in an earlier interview.

Jesse 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 Jesse 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.

“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.

The La Vau family wants to help improve the road.

“We’re jointly going to try and improve that road, especially that spot, in memorial for that family,” Sean La Vau said.

“If there’s another thing I’d like to see come of this, it’s getting older people to turn on their cell phones when they leave home,” Matlack 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.”

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