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Woman says dead motorist found over cliff is her father

October 1, 2011 | 12:24 pm

Two cars went off the cliff

The body of a dead motorist who was discovered recently by a second driver who plunged over the same roadside cliff, yet survived, may belong to an 88-year-old former liquor store owner and West Los Angeles resident.
Officials have not formally identified the dead motorist, whose decaying remains were discovered behind the wheel of a battered Toyota Camry in a deep ravine in Angeles National Forest. However, the daughter of Melvin Gelfand, who has been missing for two weeks, said Saturday that she is certain the body is that of her father.
Daughter Joan Matlack said the description of the dead motorist's vehicle matches that of her father’s and that Los Angeles police investigators 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 West Los Angeles 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 may never have been discovered if it weren't 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 Road, based on Sheriff’s Department reports that the area was the last place he’d used his cellular phone.

La Vau said later he had lived next to Gelfand’s car and corpse for the duration of his ordeal, scavenging what food and clothes he could from Gelfand’s car.

“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 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 film “The Wedding Singer,” among others. 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,” said Matlack.

It was shortly after 7 a.m. on Sept. 14 that Gelfand told his wife 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 LAPD 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 Gelfand was heading to a casino in San Diego and found nothing. “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’d already been in touch with the California Highway Patrol, which was 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. The best they can figure is that he got lost or confused and headed north on Interstate 405 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.”


Sheriff's department moved 'as fast as we could' in cliff rescue

Man who drove off cliff wrote farewell note to family: 'Love Dad'

Man who drove off cliff ate bugs, leaves for 6 days, doctor says

-- Sam Quinones

Photo: Two cars crashed off the road are seen in ravine about 200 feet down along Lake Hughes Road, where a survivor was found in the second crash. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times