California man found nearly a week after driving off highway
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 after a detective told them his last cellphone signal came from a rugged section of the Angeles National Forest.
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, he survived by eating bugs and leaves and drinking creek water, a doctor said.
One of the first things he requested after his rescue: a chocolate malt, his daughter Chardonnay Lavau said on NBC’s “Today” show.
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.
Dr. Ranbir Singh, the hospital’s trauma director, said Lavau told him he was driving 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.
It was not clear why Lavau was in the area.
Lavau 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.
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.
His children told “Today” that after realizing he was missing, they contacted a Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective, who was able to narrow Lavau’s whereabouts through his most recent cellphone use, text messages and debit card purchases, to the sparsely populated area about 50 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
The children then organized themselves into a search party.
“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 said.
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.
Lisa Lavau told KABC-TV that while her father was stranded, he used the other driver’s eyeglasses so that he could see.
The California Highway Patrol is investigating the accident, trying to establish what happened.
It was not clear why Lavau was in the area. He is expected to make a full recovery and was reported in good spirits.
“He was very desirous of a lobster taco,” Sutter said.
Matlack said the Gelfand family is grateful to the Lavaus for their search, calling it “a brave and spunky thing to do.”
Gelfand 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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