Calif. man found alive by his children after wreck

Associated Press

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) — David Lavau's children drove slowly along the perilously curved mountain road, stopping to peer over the treacherous drop-offs and call out for their father, missing for six days.

Then, finally, a faint cry: "Help, help." The voice from the wilderness not only let Lavau's children find him, it may have brought closure to another family and another missing persons case.

Close to a week after his car plunged 200 feet into a ravine, Lavau, 68, was rescued Thursday by his three adult children, who took matters into their own hands and searched a highway between their father's home in northern Los Angeles County and Ventura County, where a detective told them Lavau's bank and cell phone calls had placed him, sheriff's spokesman Capt. Mike Parker said.

And near him they found a body in another car that belonged to an 88-year-old man reported missing 10 days earlier.

As Lavau lay injured in the woods next to his wrecked car in the rugged section of the Angeles National Forest, he survived by eating bugs and leaves and drinking creek water, a doctor said.

His family told the Los Angeles Times that Lavau expected to die, and scrawled a farewell note on his dusty trunk: "I love my kids. Dead man was not my fault. Love, Dad."

Lavau was in serious but stable condition Friday at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital with three rib fractures, a dislocated shoulder, a broken arm and fractures in his back, said emergency room physician Dr. Garrett Sutter. He was expected to be released in three to four days after surgery on his shoulder and to make a full recovery.

One of the first things he requested after his rescue: a chocolate malt, Sutter said. Sutter said he was also "very desirous of a lobster taco."

Dr. Ranbir Singh, the hospital's trauma director, said Lavau told him he was driving to his home about 7 p.m. when he was temporarily blinded by the headlights of an oncoming car. He braked, but failed to gain traction. The car flipped and plunged down the embankment. He said he was unsure if he collided with the car.

However, a second car containing a male body was found next to Lavau's vehicle in a case believed to be unrelated.

That car, a Toyota Camry, was identified as belonging to 88-year-old Melvin Gelfand, whose family had reported him missing on Sept. 14, said Los Angeles police Detective Marla Ciuffetelli of the missing persons unit.

The body found in the car could not be visually identified due to decomposition, but Gelfand's son-in-law Will Matlack said the family had been contacted by the coroner's office, which was trying to match fingerprints or dental records to make a positive identification.

"The coroner said it's 99 percent a sure thing," Matlack said.

Lavau spent the night in his wrecked car and crawled out in daylight. He found a stream nearby and ate ants, the doctor said. He also found a flare in the other car and tried to light it, but it was expired. He also couldn't find his cellphone.

Lavau could hear cars and see their lights on the road above and was hopeful he'd be discovered, but as time passed, he grew more uncertain.

"He mentally said goodbye to his family. He wasn't sure anyone would be able to find him," Singh said.

Lavau's children had reported him missing last Friday, though they were not certain when exactly he had disappeared.

"Each family member and friend thought that he was with someone else, then everyone started talking to each other and said 'oh my gosh, he's missing,'" Parker said.

Parker said by the next day the sheriff's detective assigned the case turned up bank records showing Lavau had made a purchase in Oxnard in Ventura County on the day he was reported missing, and mobile phone records showed he had been in the same area.

The children then organized themselves into a search party.

They drove along the long highway between his home and Ventura County, where he liked to take weekend shopping trips, Parker said.

"We stopped at every ravine and looked over every hill, and then my brother got out of the car and we kept screaming, and the next thing we heard Dad saying, 'Help, help,' and there he was," Lisa Lavau told NBC's "Today" show.

Sean Lavau slid down the embankment to reach his father, who was airlifted to the hospital while firefighters helped his children get back up the ravine.

Parker said it was "remarkable" the family was able to make the find in the sparsely populated area about 50 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

"We admire this family for doing what they did. You've got to love them." the sheriff's spokesman said. "I think there was a higher power involved."

Parker said the fact that the family found their father was no reflection on the work of the Sheriff's Department, which followed all the proper procedures for a missing persons case with no evidence of foul play.

"What else could we possibly do?" said Parker, pointing out the speed with which detectives turned up records showing Lavau's activity. "I was surprised we did as much as we did. I'm glad we did it."

The California Highway Patrol is investigating the accidents, trying to establish what happened.

Matlack said the Gelfand family is grateful to the Lavaus for their search, calling it "a brave and spunky thing to do."

Gelfand, a veteran of World War II, simply disappeared, leaving no clues. How he ended up 50 miles north of Los Angeles in his own car remains a mystery, his son-in-law said.

"He didn't show any signs of dementia," Matlack said. "This is the part of the question we'll never know the answer to."

Matlack called on authorities to look at the dangerous stretch of road that claimed his father-in-law's life and endangered another. "How many cars have to go over the edge of that road before somebody has to do anything about it?" he asked.

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Associated Press writers Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, Christina Hoag and Andrew Dalton contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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