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Family hopes to spread message

Posted: October 7, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Updated: October 7, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Melvin Gelfand Melvin Gelfand
Melvin Gelfand

The family of a West Los Angeles man who lay dead at the bottom of a ravine for two weeks plans to launch a public campaign to ensure elderly drivers have a cellphone with them so they can be found if something similar happens to them.

For two weeks, members of Melvin Gelfand’s family suffered the pain of not knowing what happened to him when the 88-year-old took a drive in September.

Then, on Sept. 29, when searchers found crash survivor David La Vau at the bottom of a 200-foot ravine next to his badly damaged car, they also found Gelfand’s crumpled Toyota Camry.

Gelfand’s daughter Joan Matlack and her husband, Will, were pretty sure they knew Gelfand’s fate when his car was pulled from the ravine off Lake Hughes Road in Castaic.

But it wasn’t until Tuesday that county coroner’s investigators confirmed the body was, in fact, Melvin Gelfand’s.

Coroner’s spokesman Ed Winter said the cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma. Gelfand did not suffer a heart attack or other natural ailment that might have caused him to lose control of the car.

The news, while upsetting, provided the man’s family with closure.

“The worst kind of pain is the pain of uncertainty,” son-in-law Will Matlack said.

“Two weeks of not knowing was the worst of it,” he said. “It’s like you’re underwater, holding your breath. And, when you come up for air, it’s like you can’t breathe. Then, you get the news, and it knocks the wind out of you again.”

Planned trip

Melvin Gelfand lived with his wife, Lillian, in a small apartment in West Los Angeles.

When his wife planned a day playing cards with friends, he decided to take a bus to a casino.

“His favorite thing to do was to go to one of those casinos,” Matlack said. “He was going to catch a bus in Hawthorne and go to one of the casinos near San Diego.

“But it appears that instead of going south, he went north,” he said.

Gelfand apparently drove up Interstate 5 and exited at Lake Hughes Road for unknown reasons. But the road is a precarious drive with several hairpin turns as it dips into valleys and rises in crests for more than 20 miles.

Gelfand’s car went over a cliff halfway between Castaic Lake and Lake Hughes.

Ten days later, a car driven by David La Vau went over the same cliff, crashing at the bottom of the ravine nearly bumper-to-bumper with Gelfand’s car.

La Vau survived the 200-foot plunge and waited six days before family members found him. His condition was upgraded this week from serious to fair at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital.

The La Vau family’s discovery finally revealed what happened to Gelfand.

“He was supposed to go there,” Matlack said about La Vau’s crash and the bizarre chain of events that followed. “He was there to help us find him.”

Before searchers found La Vau, they had no idea what happened to Gelfand.

Cellphone campaign
La Vau’s family enlisted a sheriff’s detective to try to help them find their father, a Lake Hughes resident. His phone use as recorded by cellphone towers helped in locating him.

Now, Gelfand’s family wonders if a cellphone signal would have allowed searchers to triangulate his location.

“When all this settles down, I’d like to start some sort of campaign to convince seniors to turn on their cellphones,” Matlack said.

“If he (Gelfand) had a cellphone, perhaps we could have found him,” he said.

“We had absolutely no clues as to where he was,” Matlack said. “Looking at a map of Los Angeles wilderness is daunting. It is surrounded by wilderness. You can drive just a few minutes and be in wilderness.”


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