On the morning of June 11, 1998, Jonathan Aujay pulled his white Ford pickup into Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area, 60 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley. It was a Thursday, and Aujay had the day off from his job as a K9-unit dog handler with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. At around 11:45 a.m. he spread a sunshade across his windshield and locked the truck, which he had filled at a gas station en route to the park from his Palmdale home. He slung a forest green daypack over his shoulders and set out for a run. He had told his wife, Debra, that he would be home by dark. Before his swearing in as a deputy 18 years earlier, Aujay (pronounced O-jay) had been a paratrooper in the Army’s Special Forces unit. At 38, he still wore his brown hair in a military buzz cut. He had a tattoo of the U.S. Army Eagle on his left biceps; on the right one, an old tattoo of Yosemite Sam had been covered with the letters SEB. An elite unit, the Special Enforcement Bureau handles SWAT and K9 operations for the sheriff’s department, negotiating hostage situations and serving warrants on sometimes-volatile suspects, among other tasks. Aujay worked nights so that he could be in the thick of the action, and he was reliable and conscientious, seldom calling in sick or using his vacation time.
Because of the nature of the job, the SEB attracts the most physically fit deputies. Six feet tall and lean, Aujay was an avid runner and an experienced outdoorsman. He regularly escaped to the Sierra on the weekends for hiking and camping trips, and he had staged more than ten climbing expeditions on Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. As a member of the SEB running team, he competed against other local law enforcement agencies, and he also ran in individual races. The previous weekend he and a few SEB deputies had completed a 50-mile ultramarathon, his sixth.
Two weeks from now he planned to be grinding it out at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, a 20-plus-hour trek through steep mountain terrain in Northern California. The run was a long-held dream, and he’d lined up a support crew to help with logistical challenges during the event. In the six months since he had qualified for the race, Aujay had been going on daily runs, including trips a couple of times a month to the Punchbowl. It was an area he knew well, having spent countless hours over the years hiking and running its trail network through a desert landscape punctuated by sandstone rock formations and a deep canyon.
Early into his outing on this day, Aujay came across a teacher with a group of kids whose classroom he had recently visited with his K9 partner, a Belgian Malinois shepherd named Bosco. Aujay stopped to talk, enthusiastically describing his route to the summit of 9,400-foot Mount Baden-Powell, 20 miles off. He said he’d be back around sunset. Then he continued running.
Over the next several hours, two employees of a camp along the trail saw a man who fit Aujay’s description jogging in the direction of Baden-Powell. At 6 that evening a third camp employee spotted a man with a green pack heading toward the parking lot. Not long after that sighting, a nearby resident told a park employee he heard a single gunshot in the vicinity of the Punchbowl. The sun set, and Aujay didn’t return home. At 11 p.m. Debra reported her husband missing to the Palmdale sheriff’s station, and a pair of deputies drove to the Punchbowl. They discovered the truck, preserving it as a possible crime scene, and called for the department’s search and rescue squad, which was deployed at 11:30 that night. The next day searchers from the SEB joined the effort, as did three more search and rescue groups, the K9 unit, and the sheriff’s Emergency Services Detail.
His former partner on the SWAT team, David Rathbun, joined in the search, assuming Aujay would reappear quickly. “Jon’s tough as nails,” he remembers thinking. “They’ll find him and bring him out, and he’ll probably have a sprained or broken ankle.” Some of Aujay’s family members were confident he’d be able to withstand the harsh desert. His father-in-law recalled how Aujay had once scared off a 500-pound black bear when the two were camping in the Sierra. But when Aujay didn’t come limping from the wilderness within the first 24 hours, says Rathbun, “we got pretty antsy.”
On the third day, searchers from as far away as Malibu were participating, along with those from the nearby Air Force base. An Army Blackhawk helicopter scanned the area around Mount Baden-Powell while additional helicopters, horses, all-terrain vehicles, thermal-imaging equipment, and infrared technology were deployed to scour the Punchbowl’s ravines and crevices. Searchers were airlifted to mountaintops and to some of the mines dotting the landscape. An ultramarathoner named Vicki DeVita, whom Aujay had grown close to in recent months, said to investigators that Aujay had told her he planned to go on an overnight “walkabout” in the wilderness; accompanied by a deputy friend of Aujay’s, she spent the night prowling the Punchbowl, calling for him.
After a week, an SEB lieutenant opened Aujay’s truck and removed his badge and wallet, according to the official log. Deputies drove the truck back to the Aujays’ Palmdale house. Days before the Western States 100, a friend handed Aujay’s race packet over to investigators. Deputies thought he might show up to run. He never did.
It’s the not knowing, the proverbial “lack of closure” that makes a missing person case so difficult—at least for the people left behind. Is he dead? Alive? Did he suffer? Was it voluntary? If so, why? Will he come back? Theories and suspicion stand in for evidence and hard facts—of a murder, a suicide, an abandonment. In this way the story of Jon Aujay’s disappearance is like so many others. The questions linger, and the pain only fades into the background, never fully relenting. Limbo becomes the norm. But it’s not often that a member of law enforcement vaporizes, or that the circumstances surrounding his case create divisions and disagreements among people who’ve spent their careers honing their ability to remain objective in their work.
A few of Aujay’s friends thought he had surreptitiously returned to the military for a covert assignment. There was speculation that he might have dropped out and moved to Alaska, a place he’d fantasized about living in. Aujay’s younger sister, Jan Kaltenbach, decided that he had plans to flee, stashing money, obtaining a new identity, and staging his disappearance. She knew her brother was increasingly miserable living in the Antelope Valley; he was a loner who desperately wanted to move to the mountains for better access to hiking and fishing. The last time she saw him was at a family wedding the month before he disappeared. “He was ready to go,” she says. “He was checked out. He was done.”
Though Kaltenbach wasn’t aware at the time, Aujay and his wife had been discussing divorce. The couple had been married for 12 years and had a five-year-old daughter, Chloe. A month before he left his home for the last time, Jon had told Debra he thought they should go their separate ways. He had packed his running medals as well as climbing and hiking memorabilia that had been on the walls of a spare room and returned a family heirloom bookshelf to his in-laws. Aujay also gave a gold necklace of his father’s to DeVita, the runner with whom he was starting a relationship. Did all of that merely signal the end of his marriage, or was he wrapping up his affairs, as people do when they’re planning to die?