An unemployed attorney with an engineering degree and a taste for true crime novels is the mysterious armchair detective who on a hunch led authorities to a section of the California Aqueduct where divers recovered what is believed to be the body of Gary Devore, the screenwriter who had been missing for more than a year.
While now an instant celebrity, Douglas Crawford said nobody believed him at first.
“They told me that unless I killed the guy, call back Monday,” he said.
Crawford recounted in an interview Thursday how he read a newspaper story marking the one-year anniversary of Devore’s disappearance and was reminded of a case involving an Orange County woman missing for three years. The body of the woman, a car crash victim, was later found in the aqueduct.
Crawford, 35, hypothesized that Devore had suffered a similar fate, and set out to retrace Devore’s path the night he disappeared while traveling through the Mojave Desert en route to his home in Santa Barbara County.
When Crawford arrived last week at the spot where the Antelope Valley Freeway crosses the California Aqueduct, he got out of his car, climbed down the embankment and found debris from a white Ford Explorer--the same make and model Devore had been driving.
Crawford said he first called Santa Barbara County sheriff’s investigators with his findings on July 3. But authorities, he said, were skeptical.
He said he faxed a 30-page report of his findings to the Sheriff’s Department but still got no response. Authorities became interested in his theory, he said, only after he sent an e-mail message to Devore’s publicist, who passed the information to sheriff’s investigators.
“I had to put the fire under their feet to get them to do something,” he said.
When investigators finally became interested, they treated him like a suspect rather than a tipster, Crawford said.
“They really put me through the wringer,” he said. “I felt like I did something wrong.”
Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Mike Burridge denied Crawford was ever a suspect, and said the agency, in fact, had pursued Crawford’s information as soon as it was received.
“You can’t have a suspect if you don’t have a crime,” Burridge said. “We don’t have any evidence to suggest there is a crime.”
Authorities have not yet ruled out foul play.
But Rhett Price, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said a special team of officers is investigating the death as a traffic accident.
“They are eventually going to go back and try to reconstruct the puzzle,” Price said. “They’ll use the vehicle to try to put the puzzle back together and determine how he ended up in the aqueduct.”
Meanwhile, Capt. Dean Gilmour of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said the body pulled from the aqueduct has not yet been identified as Devore’s, pending the results of a dental examination.
He said, however, that a wallet containing Devore’s driver’s license was found in the back pocket of the bluejeans on the recovered body.
Gilmour said determination of the cause of death is awaiting the results of an autopsy, which could be done as early as today.
“It looks like a straight accident,” he said. “There are no obvious signs of trauma.”
Devore, 55, who had screen credits for the films “The Dogs of War” and “Running Scared,” was returning to his Carpinteria home from a visit to Santa Fe when he disappeared in the early morning of June 28, 1997.
His disappearance spurred several theories among friends and family members. Some believed he was carjacked and killed for his 1997 Ford Explorer. The most farfetched theory had him accepting a covert assignment with the Central Intelligence Agency.
Authorities, however, had little else to go on until Crawford took up the case.
The amateur sleuth graduated from law school in 1996, passing the bar on his first try. He then promptly sued his school, California Western School of Law in San Diego, alleging he had received a substandard education.
“I investigated them and they are making representations that are not true,” he said. The case was dismissed, but Crawford is appealing.
That same year, Crawford sued Continental Airlines after he missed his flight from Honolulu to San Diego. The airline, which contended Crawford was late to the gate, settled for $500.
Crawford said he is disappointed so far with his 15 minutes of fame.
For starters, he said, producers from the television program “Extra” reneged on a promise to pay him for an exclusive interview on the show--a contention Extra officials deny. Show executives say the program does not pay for interviews.
Crawford said he is also bothered by people questioning his motives, as well as his ability to solve the case that had stumped law enforcement.
He said he has been accused, for instance, of being “Dr. Find It,” a secret Internet entity who allegedly approached Devore’s publicist, Michael Sands, inquiring about a reward for finding Devore. He also was upset by Devore’s wife, Wendy Oates-Devore, who reportedly demanded during a TV interview that Crawford take a lie-detector test on his role in finding her husband.
“I’m a harbinger of bad news,” Crawford said. “What’s that saying? Kill the messenger?”
Crawford said he still worries about police considering him a potential suspect. He said he recently had been digging through credit card receipts to prove his whereabouts on June 28, 1997, the night Devore disappeared.
“I was right here,” he said from his San Diego home. “I didn’t go anywhere.”
The one thing Crawford won’t talk about is how he makes a living.
“I just like to say I’m unemployed,” he said. “I have plenty of things to do, I just don’t have a job.”
Times staff writers Tony Perry, Jeff Leeds and Robert W. Welkos contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Solving the Mystery
Information that Douglas Crawford used to lead police to the desert location.
Clues that lead to his deductions:
* Saw story about a missing woman from Orange County who disappeared while en route to Montana.
* Using a credit card, Devore refueled in Fenner, Ca., at 10:15 p.m. (about a 350-mile range of travel.)
* Devore spoke to his wife at about 1:15 a.m. stating that he had left Barstow.
* Traveling in the direction of home, he had driven about 110 miles since refueling.
On-scene evidence found by Crawford:
* Piece of white metal on the embankment of the aqueduct.
* Latch for a hood with a Ford logo.
* Broken glass on the embankment between eastbound and westbound lanes of California 14.
* Fiberglass debris from parts found only on the Limited Edition Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer, the model Devore was driving.