A puzzle that has haunted Hollywood for more than a year, the disappearance of screenwriter Gary Devore, was apparently solved Wednesday when an armchair detective, saying he was guided only by a newspaper account of the mystery, led investigators to Devore’s vehicle submerged in an aqueduct near Palmdale, with a body still at the wheel.
Divers found a partially decomposed body dressed in blue jeans, a Western-style shirt and cowboy boots. They match the clothes worn by Devore when he disappeared, but final confirmation of the identity was pending.
Detectives said they believe Devore died in an accident but have not ruled out foul play.
Investigators were led to the spot in the California Aqueduct by Douglas Crawford, a San Diego man who said his interest was aroused by a newspaper story marking the one-year anniversary of Devore’s disappearance. He retraced Devore’s last known route, he said, until he came across evidence of a car wreck beside the aqueduct, and e-mailed his discovery Sunday to Devore’s publicist, setting off Wednesday’s underwater search.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department divers found the white Ford Explorer that Devore was driving when he vanished en route to his home in Santa Barbara County from a screenwriting job in Santa Fe, N.M., on June 28, 1997.
Crawford is not considered a suspect but simply provided a badly needed break in the case, said Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Mike Burridge.
“Our detectives met with him and they had no reason to doubt what he said,” Burridge said. “It seems like he did a good job of putting the facts together.”
Crawford said that when he read about Devore’s disappearance, it struck him as remarkably similar to the story of an Orange County woman who vanished on a trip to Montana some years ago and was later found to have crashed into the California Aqueduct.
Devore had stopped for gas in Fenner, Calif., about 10:15 p.m. on June 27, 1997, and spoke with his wife by cellular telephone outside of Barstow about 1:15 a.m. the next morning.
“From this, I deduced that he was traveling in the direction of home, and he had traveled approximately 110 miles since refueling,” Crawford said in the e-mail, which was forwarded to investigators with the Santa Barbara County and Los Angeles County sheriff’s departments.
Crawford said that during his July 3 trip, he stopped at the spot where the Antelope Valley Freeway crosses the aqueduct. There, he found debris matching Devore’s Ford Explorer.
In response to Crawford’s message, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s detectives began their search of the area Tuesday.
Inside Devore’s Explorer, detectives on Wednesday found a 35-millimeter camera and a pottery vase, which they believe Devore may have purchased while staying at actress Marsha Mason’s New Mexico ranch.
Investigators said they expect to identify the body through dental records.
“We know that Mr. Devore was last traveling southbound on the [Antelope Valley Freeway]. It looks like someone could have come off . . . and landed in the aqueduct,” Burridge said. “I don’t want to speculate. But if anything, he may have been tired. He was traveling straight through from Santa Fe and it was early in the morning.”
Devore, 55, who had screen credits for the films “The Dogs of War” and “Running Scared,” had a directing job when he disappeared.
Wendy Oates-Devore, his wife, said the last conversation she had with her husband began: “Was that you trying to call me, sweetie?” Devore had called by cellular phone as he drove through the High Desert toward the couple’s beachfront Carpinteria home.
“Who else would it be at 1 o’clock in the morning?” she answered.
Devore had just passed Barstow, and told his wife not to wait up.
On Wednesday, a grieving Oates-Devore said, “I assume that it’s him. If it is, at least we have found him now. That’s a very big relief.”
Oates-Devore said that she also felt vindicated after having been asked by detectives to take a lie detector test. She believes she had been viewed with some suspicion.
Burridge credited Crawford with helping solve a mystery that had baffled law enforcement for more than a year, and did not question his motives.
“I don’t think it’s odd at all,” Burridge said. “He was coming up here anyway to visit some friends and he thought he’d stop by and check it out. He came down here and he found [some debris from the crash], and he thought, ‘Hey, I may be onto something.’ ”
Crawford declined to discuss the case, saying he had agreed to an exclusive paid interview with the television program “Extra.”
“I didn’t know the guy, that’s all I’ll say,” Crawford said.
He refused to state his age or his occupation.
Devore’s disappearance had spurred several theories from family and friends about what became of the handsome, rough-around-the-edges screenwriter.
Some believed he was carjacked and killed for his 1997 Eddie Bauer Edition Ford Explorer. Others believed he decided to drop out of sight for a while, and would one day return.
The most farfetched of the theories was that Devore had been recruited for a secret mission with the Central Intelligence Agency--based on several conversations he had with a friend who works in public affairs at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Authorities conducted intensive ground and air searches shortly after his disappearance. But even features on “America’s Most Wanted” and other television shows brought forth few clues.
Michael Sands, the publicist who passed Crawford’s e-mail tip to investigators, said he was saddened to learn of his friend’s death. At the same time, he said, he felt some relief.
“We’re not in limbo anymore,” Sands said while watching the recovery operation. “I mean, think of how many people never get to find their loved one.”
Times staff writer Robert W. Welkos contributed to this story.