Search parties combed the dry hills of Topanga Canyon on Wednesday looking for a music producer whose mysterious flight from his home three days earlier might have been connected to a common Internet scam, according to friends and relatives.
In a frantic phone call before his disappearance, Christian Julian Irwin, 48, pleaded for help, telling a friend he was being chased down a ravine by people who he believed might kill him, police said. The call, about 3:45 a.m. Sunday, was his last; no one is known to have heard from him since. Investigators have few clues besides Irwin’s glasses, found halfway down the hill behind his house, where it is believed that they fell as he ran.
Irwin’s friends and relatives say his pursuers may be linked to con artists who had entangled him in a so-called Nigerian Internet scam.
These are common e-mail swindles that often involve appeals for advance money to help transfer large sums out of Nigeria. The victim is promised a share of the supposed fortune in exchange for his or her help. Irwin reportedly told a friend months ago that he feared such scam artists might be after him.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Bill Marsh, one of the detectives on the Irwin case, said that, so far, the Internet scam story was only a theory. He said police had yet to identify any suspects.
But Irwin’s friends and relatives clung Wednesday to whatever information they could after what they said was a baffling turn in the life of an athletic and outgoing man.
Nearly a dozen relatives, including several siblings, have arrived from out of town to aid in the search, hoping that Irwin may still be found alive. They joined deputies searching the brushy canyon -- where Irwin is thought to have disappeared -- several miles up the road from the ocean.
One of seven children of a former New Jersey state assemblyman, now deceased, Irwin grew up in Mountainside, N.J., and attended Syracuse University in New York, said his stepmother, Louise Irwin, who was waiting on a dusty pull-off along Topanga Canyon Boulevard as searchers moved down the canyon. He moved to the Los Angeles area about eight years ago, she said.
According to Irwin’s online resume, he has worked with such musicians as David Bowie, David Crosby, Art Garfunkel and Carly Simon. The resume says his production enterprises have been nominated for three Grammy Awards, but that could not be confirmed by a Grammy spokeswoman.
Irwin has also scored music for television and radio commercials, according to his resume, and run a Topanga-based recording studio called Treefort.
Several months ago, Irwin told his friend and former business partner Fortunato Procopio, 47, that he had been unwittingly drawn into a Nigerian Internet fraud and had been threatened by the con artists, Procopio said.
“I told him it was clearly a scam -- don’t be silly,” Procopio said Wednesday. But Irwin later received a mysterious $50,000 check, friends and relatives said, and became increasingly concerned. Procopio and some relatives offered few details, saying police had asked them not to discuss specifics of the case.
On Sunday morning, Procopio said, he was awakened in his Venice home by a phone call that was picked up by his answering machine. When he played the recording, he heard Irwin asking for help. Irwin said he was in hiding and someone was in close pursuit.
Procopio said he tried calling Irwin on his cellphone but couldn’t reach him. Concerned, he said, he and his girlfriend began driving up Pacific Coast Highway toward Irwin’s home in Topanga.
On the way, Procopio’s cellphone rang. It was Irwin, Procopio said, telling him that he had been chased from his house down a ravine in back by people and possibly dogs. He told Procopio he was barefoot, having lost his shoes, and feared for his life, the friend said.
Procopio added that Irwin connected his pursuers to the Internet scam, but did not elaborate. “He was on the run, in the woods and very afraid,” Procopio said.
The friend said he told Irwin he was coming to pick him up, and “we would put on our flashers so he could see us on the road.” Irwin agreed, but “was afraid to reveal himself until he saw us,” Procopio said.
“He was really, really afraid,” Procopio added. “He believed these guys were close behind him, and whoever it was, if they caught him, they would kill him.”
After a second cellphone call, in which Irwin said he was running downstream along Topanga Creek, Procopio didn’t hear from him again.
Irwin’s brother-in-law, John Riolo of Carlsbad, said sheriff’s dogs tracked Irwin’s scent from his home, down the ravine to a propane shop on Topanga Canyon Boulevard where he is believed to have first phoned Procopio. The dogs then tracked the scent across the street and into the small canyon below. A short distance along the canyon creek, they lost the trail.
Irwin is described as 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds with graying brown hair and blue eyes. He is believed to have been wearing a red and blue shirt and bluejeans.
Relatives described him as a likable, compassionate man who was closely bound to friends and family and was in good physical shape, favoring organic food and tennis.
They were struggling to understand the bizarre circumstances surrounding his disappearance, which seem at odds with his life and character. “He is a great brother-in-law, just a real well-mannered, stable ... mature kind of guy,” Riolo said.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Procopio said. “It’s so hard to imagine how things would have escalated to this from this Internet thing.”