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Officials identify body found buried in mud in Palmdale after heavy downpour

Virginia Driscoll, center, mother of Robert Michael Rasmussen, visits the site with other family members near the 12-foot-deep culvert in Palmdale where authorities excavated Rasmussen's body.

Virginia Driscoll, center, mother of Robert Michael Rasmussen, visits the site with other family members near the 12-foot-deep culvert in Palmdale where authorities excavated Rasmussen’s body.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Authorities have identified the driver found dead in a vehicle that was buried in mud and water in Palmdale during a heavy rainstorm and dug up this week.

The body of Robert Michael Rasmussen, 49, of Palmdale, was found Tuesday after residents continually prodded authorities to look in the culvert for a vehicle they saw disappear in the 12-foot-deep square hole last week.

Sheriff’s department crews had checked the area before but did not apparently look deep enough.

On Tuesday, crews tried again and dug deeper and found Rasmussen’s hand sticking out of a car. Authorities used heavy equipment to dig out the car and recover Rasmussen’s body.

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“As a family, we’re trying to come together,” said Rasmussen’s younger brother, Robert Driscoll. “I know my brother loved the Lord, I’m confident that I’ll see him again.”

Robert Michael Rasmussen, 49, of Palmdale.

Robert Michael Rasmussen, 49, of Palmdale.

(Family photo)

Rasmussen and his SUV were buried Thursday during a record-breaking rain storm that swept over the Antelope Valley. He lives in Rosamond but was house sitting for his parents, who were visiting Israel, Driscoll said.

Rasmussen was on his way there from work when his car and hundreds of others were overwhelmed by rushing water and mud flows.

When no one heard from Rasmussen for a few days, his family called areas he might be but didn’t hear anything. They figured they would see him soon, Driscoll said. Rasmussen was a father and self-employed painter, his brother said.

Neighbors weren’t surprised that crews found Rasmussen and his SUV in the culvert Tuesday.

“We’ve been standing there looking at it, going ‘Somebody’s in there,’” resident Stacey Horwood told NBC4.

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Horwood told media outlets she and others saw the vehicle’s front end drop down into the culvert last week, then sink until the SUV disappeared.

“The water just kept going and going and going, and nothing came up,” she told KTLA.

A cause of death for Rasmussen has yet to be determined but there’s no indication of foul play.

Palmdale and other parts of northern Los Angeles County were pummeled by a series of heavy downpours Thursday, triggering mudslides and flash floods that trapped drivers, overwhelmed roads and prompted the closure of a 40-mile stretch of the 5 Freeway. Golf-ball-sized hail pounded Lake Hughes and parts of Palmdale.

The Leona Valley, just west of Palmdale, was the hardest hit, with rain falling at 6 inches an hour and winds gusting to 60 mph at 4:20 p.m., according to the weather service. The storm eventually diminished, but as it moved eastward, it brought record daily rainfall to Palmdale. Ten homes were damaged in Palmdale, city officials said.

Rasmussen may be one of two possible victims from the storm. In Kern County, a 67-year-old man who was swept away in a river of mud during the storm is still missing.

Richard Harvell and a friend were having a meal inside a mobile home on a mountain near 150th Street and Highgate Avenue about 10:45 p.m. Thursday when the downpour hit. Harvell went outside to move his truck to safety when a 3-foot rock barreled down the mountain and struck his leg. As Harvell tumbled over, a wall of mud came rushing down and swallowed him. He hasn’t been seen since.

The Kern County Sheriff’s Office stopped the search for Harvell until Saturday, said spokesman Ray Pruitt. The search area is about half a mile long, 100-yards wide and buried in mud 4- to 6-feet deep, he said.

Times staff writers Matt Hamilton and Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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