The Cadillac Coupe de Ville--red with white leather interior--sat in the parking lot of a strip mall in Van Nuys for about four days, undisturbed.
Its doors were unlocked and the keys were in the ignition. On the seat was a portable cellular telephone.
The fact that nobody disturbed it could give one hope in an era when carjackings, break-ins and thefts are epidemic. But this particular Caddy is at the heart of a mystery more menacing than the majority of car thefts.
On June 12 the owner of a yogurt shop in the mall pointed out the Cadillac to one of the police officers who frequent his place, not far from the Los Angeles Police Department's Van Nuys station. The officer ran a check on the license and found it belonged to Ronald Bram, a life insurance salesman living in El Cajon, about 15 miles east of San Diego.
At the time the officer checked the car, Bram, 55, had been missing from his home for five days.
He still is.
"This is a picture of my father. I was wondering if you ever saw him in the neighborhood," said Steve Bram, 32, to a man sitting in a frozen yogurt shop in the strip mall. The snapshot showed a smiling, rotund man in a casual sport shirt. There was gold jewelry on his wrists and a pinky ring next to the wedding ring on his left hand.
The customer stared blankly at Steve's questions. Steve's uncle, Mark Holguin, took over in Spanish. Steve walked over to the door to tape up a poster offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for his father's disappearance.
"The money was given by his Rotary Club," Steve explained.
Ron Bram did not have any problems that would cause him to disappear on his own, his son said. "No money problems, no marriage troubles, no abnormal behavior," said Steve, who was obviously used to rattling off the list.
His father did like to play cards at one of the local American Indian gambling spots a couple nights a week, but was not a high roller. "He might lose, maybe $100 in a week at the most," Steve said.
Steve was the last of his family to see his father. While driving through his parents' neighborhood on June 7, he said he spotted his father driving, alone, through an intersection.
"He waved and gave me a smile," said Steve, "I had my son with me and I told him to wave at Grandpa."
Ron Bram had told his daughter he was going out for an appointment. When he didn't return that evening, his family figured he had gone on from work to play cards. But the next day they reported him missing. The valets at the card parlors he usually frequents later told police they had not seen Bram that night.
Det. Clyde Conkin of the El Cajon Police Department is in charge of the investigation. He said that finding the car was a break for the investigation, but did not give him much hope that Bram is OK.
"I can't talk much about what we found in the car," said Conkin, "but I have certain information that leads us to believe there was foul play."
On Monday, Conkin's office issued composite drawings of a man and woman who a witness spotted in the car sometime between the time Bram was reported missing and the Cadillac was found. The witness did not see Bram in the car with them.
Ron Bram had a life insurance policy. The beneficiary is his wife.
Steve Bram, who also sells life insurance, was used to answering questions about his father's policy. He was adamant that whatever happened to Ron couldn't be seen as an insurance matter.
"It would not pay off for years, I think seven years, if there is no body or death certificate," said Steve. "Besides, what I tell people is that life insurance is for when you die. We don't know that my father is dead."
The Spanish-speaking man said he doesn't recall seeing a man who looked like Ron Bram in the neighborhood. Steve and his uncle moved on to the Beef Bowl next door.
One of the workers in the restaurant saw them coming and opened the door. He was used to Steve's visits.
"Is he still missing?" he asked.