The Deputy Who Disappeared

Jon Aujay went for a desert run in 1998 and never returned. A member of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Special Enforcement Bureau, he seemed to have evaporated into the hot blue sky. Theories, suspicions, hunches—they’ve all been far more plentiful than actual clues in the search to discover his fate
2668

The day before his disappearance, the Aujays had attended their first therapy session with a sheriff’s department psychologist, and it hadn’t gone well. But Debra didn’t consider Jon unstable. “I thought he was just going through a rough time,” she says. “I thought he would be OK.” The therapist, Elizabeth White, asked if either was contemplating suicide; according to Debra, they both said no. While the search was ongoing, White told investigators Jon was not suicidal. According to legal documents, she reversed her opinion several years later, saying she did believe it was a suicide.

The last thing Debra remembers Jon saying the morning of the Punchbowl run was “Have a nice life” and “Tell Chloe I love her.” To her, those words initially pointed to a man exiting his marriage. In fact, her first call the night he went missing was to a private investigator. She wanted to find out whether Aujay was cheating on her, but she abandoned that line of inquiry after learning it would cost her $500. Soon she began to think her husband’s good-bye seemed like that of a man planning to kill himself. In retrospect she thought Jon had been acting differently: There had been a cold, intense look in his eye the final time she saw him, and a month before, during an argument about their relationship, he had held a loaded gun to his temple as he drove the freeway. “What do you want me to do, kill myself?” he asked. Shocked, Debra burst into tears in the passenger seat.

Family members find it hard to believe that Aujay would commit suicide, if for no other reason than his bond with Chloe. Suicide also seemed unlikely for a man with such a strong sense of honor and dignity. The hours of physical training he logged in his spare time were in order to stay in optimal shape for his job—he believed it was his duty to give 110 percent of himself to the department. And out of respect for his position, he polished his sheriff’s badge and boots twice a week. “I never believed it for a minute,” his older brother, Joe, says of the suicide ruling. “The guy had too much pride,” says his nephew, Derec Aujay. “I’d put that on the back burner and rule that out.” Scott Griffis, a close friend who frequently went on ride-alongs with Aujay, felt the deputy simply had no reason to kill himself. “I mean, he had a zest for life,” Griffis told me last spring. Still grieving, he recalled how his friend seemed happy about the new relationship he was starting with DeVita. (She died in 2010, and Griffis died this past summer—both from health-related causes.) Aujay hoped to move in with her and had requested she submit to an HIV test before the two consummated their relationship.

Also skeptical of the suicide theory is Mike Bauer, a retired LASD captain living in Idaho who has devoted the past decade to hunting down new leads in the Aujay mystery. Bauer agrees with family members. It doesn’t make sense to him that a survivalist would end his own life. “That’s not what survivalists do,” he says. “They survive.” Instead Bauer and several others from law enforcement think it was murder.

////

When you’re part of a search and rescue crew, there’s a set of protocols to follow. You help preserve a crime scene around the missing person’s car, set up a command post, and start asking questions. Is this person a fighter? Is he a survivor? How would he react in the environment he’s ventured into? You hang up a map, draw a line around an area within it, and estimate how far he could have gone. Then you consider all the trails and the various hazards before you dispatch people to walk those trails. Your goal is to try and locate footprints, a piece of clothing—any sign of the person you’re looking for. Find something, and you can shrink the search area.

The problem in Aujay’s case was that they hadn’t found anything at all, except for a few unidentified footprints near Baden-Powell. With an outdoorsman like him, you know he’d be able to handle such variables as a change in the weather. But he might push deeper into the woods and tackle more extreme terrain than a casual hiker would. There are times when the person’s background, whether it’s military training or possessing backcountry skills, can be a liability.

Deputy Randell Heberle insists that when he arrived at the Punchbowl after Aujay was reported missing, he spotted a snub-nosed .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver on the center console of the truck. He was alarmed. “No deputy back then would leave their gun visible,” says Heberle, who retired in 2010. The chance that a passerby might see it, break into the vehicle, and use the gun to commit a crime was too high. “It’s not just a red flag,” he says. “It’s full-on fireworks. Fourth of July.” He says he reported the gun to others at the site, but the official missing person flyers stated that Aujay was likely carrying the gun. “My recollection is that we could not account for his two-inch revolver,” says Dave Sauer, the sergeant who led the search.

Aujay-missingpersonAfter learning from Aujay’s friends that he didn’t typically run with his gun, Sauer began to question whether there had even been a Baden-Powell jog. “I don’t think that’s what he was going to do,” says Sauer, now a sergeant in the department’s mounted forces detail. He and other investigators determined that distress over his crumbling marriage likely prompted Aujay to turn the gun on himself—a theory Sauer announced the following week to searchers assembled at the Punchbowl, he says.

“They said, ‘Well, it’s a suicide. Let’s all go home,’ ” recalls Rathbun, who’s now retired and working as a reserve deputy with LASD search and rescue teams. The lack of any tangible clues was mystifying. “Unless we had a note and some physical evidence, I don’t remember us ever stopping a search and declaring it a suicide in six days,” he says. “When we inquired about the evidence—because obviously you want to know, ‘Well, how did you decide my ex-partner committed suicide?’ It wasn’t physical evidence. It was circumstantial.”

The decision made no sense to Rathbun, who, along with others in the department, continued to look for Aujay months after the official search ended. Though Rathbun interpreted Aujay’s “hard, crusty surface” as a reflection of his rabid devotion to his job, various former colleagues found him downright abrasive and thought he probably provoked his own demise. “He was very, very locked into his beliefs, his morals and ethics,” says Rathbun. “If you crossed him, he’d just tell you right to your face. I’m sure he annoyed some people, and other deputies might describe him as an asshole because he was about as diplomatic as a train wreck if he had something to say to you. He didn’t hold back.”

That even applied to supervisors. In 1996, a sergeant chided him for failing to control Bosco, saying, “if Bosco bit him, he would kill me first—then the dog,” Aujay wrote in his journal. “I told him I would work the L.A. area where they need real police dogs—& [deputies] approve.”

He didn’t socialize with coworkers aside from his running mates, and his hard-nosed demeanor was intensified by his booming baritone, which Rathbun describes as “Lurch-like,” after the Addams Family butler. “He was excellent at his job,” according to a deputy friend. “But as a person, they didn’t like him because he was standoffish. He was like, ‘Hey, this is work, you’re not in my personal life. Good-bye.’ ”

Aujay’s sister, Jan, remembers riding with him in the bus to summer camp when they were kids. An older boy demanded they relinquish their seat, but Jon, nicknamed “Jont” by the family, refused. “Jont wasn’t going to give his seat up for anything,” she says. “The guy threatened to throw him off a mountain, but he didn’t budge. He didn’t talk about it later, either. It didn’t scare him, even at a young age.”

His tendency to hold steady served him well as a sharpshooter in the early 1990s. One time, a suspect was firing at police from behind a cinder-block wall at a gas station; he exchanged gunfire with Aujay before running into a building, where Aujay killed the assailant by shooting through the side of the structure. He became guilt-ridden after discovering that the man had a daughter who was Chloe’s age.

Another time, Aujay was positioned on a rooftop when a gunman pointed a semiautomatic pistol at a hostage. Just as he pressed the barrel to his victim’s head and cocked the hammer, Aujay squeezed the trigger on his rifle, killing him. It was a traumatic experience, according to Rathbun. “This severe guy who was in the military, who seemed to be kind of a hard-ass, wasn’t really that way underneath,” says Rathbun. “When he had to take a human life, he was dramatically affected by it, as are most police officers who that happens to.” Aujay was plagued by nightmares after the shooting; Rathbun believes it may have helped prompt his transfer to the K9 unit, where a dog rather than a rifle would be his constant companion.

FAMILY TIES: Friends thought that one reason it was unlikely Aujay committed suicide was his devotion to his daughter, Chloe, who was five when her father disappeared in 1998. Bosco, the Belgian Malinois Aujay worked with as a canine handler for the sheriff’s department, lived with the family
BONDING: Friends thought that one reason it was unlikely Aujay committed suicide was his devotion to his daughter, Chloe, who was five when her father disappeared in 1998. Bosco, the Belgian Malinois Aujay worked with for the sheriff’s department, lived with the family

Photograph courtesy Chloe Aujay

K9 dogs live with their handlers, and Bosco was considered a member of the family. Aujay’s connection with Bosco was tight even by K9 standards. Once the duo responded to an incident in a shopping mall, and Aujay was ordered to send Bosco in to flush out a shooter. “He wouldn’t do it,” says Bauer, captain of the SEB at the time and Aujay’s last boss. Bauer issued the order again, to no avail. “I was furious,” he says. If Bosco were out of his sight, Aujay said, he couldn’t control—or protect—the dog.

Typically when a K9 handler dies, retires, or transfers, the dog is reassigned. Without a handler to make sure it doesn’t bite anyone, a police dog is considered a legal liability to the department, so in the first week after Aujay’s disappearance, the department retrieved Bosco from the Aujay residence and boarded him at a kennel in Riverside. Within two weeks, Bosco, who was seven, died. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s department told reporters the cause was a ruptured artery, but Debra’s mother was quoted as saying Bosco had died of a broken heart.

////

As much as Aujay craved the action that went with being in the SEB, it was wearing on him. His sister recalls he had been dismayed by the worsening crime in the Antelope Valley in the late 1990s. Outlaw biker gangs had spun a violent, sophisticated crime web with methamphetamine at its center. They operated out of pockets of rugged country linked by dirt roads surrounding the towns of Pearblossom and Littlerock. “You consider it a rural, sleepy area,” Rathbun says of the Antelope Valley in those days. “But if you stop some outlaw motorcycle gangs by yourself 20 miles out in the desert, it’s pretty stressful.” And if you happened to step onto the wrong person’s property, “they’d shoot a shotgun at you,” he says. Some deputies viewed the Antelope Valley “like it was a different country,” says Bauer. Though the valley had two sheriff’s stations, in Palmdale and Lancaster, the most remote sections were each patrolled by a single deputy, working from home and with minimal supervision. The brass, says Bauer, treated its rural contingent “almost like a second department.”

Six meth cells had proliferated in the valley. Operating within one of the largest drug rings in the Southwest, they produced up to 97 percent pure “biker” meth in huge quantities that fetched $30,000 to $40,000 per pound in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Among them were members of motorcycle clubs—the Vagos, Hells Angels, and Nazi Low Riders—who used the area’s vast, empty spaces for cooking the drug. Any abandoned shed or out-of-the-way piece of public land was an opportunity for a lab. RV meth labs like the iconic one in Breaking Bad rolled through the streets. Subterranean superlabs churned out as much as 200 pounds of drugs per month. When cops found meth stewing in buckets in the desert, they could rarely trace them to anyone. Often the meth wasn’t discovered at all. While local deputies knew who the drug cell leaders were, arresting them proved nearly impossible—a phenomenon that earned the distributors the nickname “the Untouchables.”

There were rumors circulating within the Antelope Valley stations that deputies were warning meth players of pending drug busts. This wasn’t the first time the department had struggled to police itself. In the early 1990s, a five-year internal investigation led to the indictments of 35 deputies who’d stolen millions of dollars from drug dealers. FBI video surveillance captured a sergeant and two narcotics detectives swiping $30,000 from a drug dealer’s hotel room. A detective assigned to an elite narcotics team was arrested for hiding $150,000 stolen by a colleague. The sheriff back then, Sherman Block, had been the one to call in the FBI to help root out the corruption. “Transparency” was a motto of his. But these were different times. Lee Baca had taken the helm of the LASD, and the culture of the organization was changing. One of the more remarkable interactions Baca’s administration would have with the FBI, years later, would be when its deputies showed up at an FBI agent’s home and threatened to arrest her. As one LASD deputy put it, “That’s not a fight you’re going to win.”

A few days after Aujay vanished, a woman with ties to the Antelope Valley’s outlaw bikers called the sheriff’s department to report she’d heard that Aujay had come across a meth lab and “was taken care of.” Then a tip came in from an informant who said a biker dealer claimed that after the deputy discovered something on his jog, he “was going to be a hero and was taken care of” before being “put into a hole.”

Once homicide detective Larry Brandenburg began investigating the case in early 2000, nine more people connected to the meth community shared similar stories. Several had heard that a deputy named Rick Engels was involved in the disappearance, according to legal documents and testimony. He was said to have been linked to four known meth cooks and dealers. Engels was the resident deputy of the Pearblossom area, the sole patrolman of a region that is inhabited by 7,000 to 10,000 people and encompasses the Devil’s Punchbowl. And although the park was just six miles from Engels’s house, he never joined the search that week.

Brandenburg had begun working the case after finding flaws with the initial missing person inquiry; he grew frustrated that it hadn’t received the homicide department’s full scrutiny and investigative expertise. “They didn’t do a thorough investigation,” he tells me. Moreover, he says, when the homicide department classified it in its case management system as a “missing person with a possible suicide,” a so-called murder team was never assigned to disseminate the evidence and develop new leads, as it should have been.

Brandenburg learned of a large underground meth lab that had been on property adjacent to the Punchbowl, not far from where Aujay was last seen, and he went up in a helicopter to survey the terrain with an officer who used to run the trails there with Aujay. “The southeast side of the property drops directly down into the Devil’s Punchbowl Park,” Brandenburg noted in his files. He believed this might be the lab Aujay was said to have encountered.

As he collected more evidence, he felt he had probable cause to obtain a warrant for Engels’s phone and financial records and to seek permission to install a tracking device on the deputy’s patrol cruiser. “I believe that Deputy Engels and some other unidentified individuals…murdered Deputy Aujay to prevent him from arresting them or exposing their criminal enterprise,” the detective would write in a search warrant affidavit, adding that he spoke with an FBI agent who had received similar information from sources concerning the possible murder of Aujay.

Now Engels was the top suspect in a homicide investigation. Before Brandenburg could get the search warrant from a judge, he needed to present it to the district attorney’s office and then have his boss, the captain of the homicide bureau, sign off. The meeting with his boss did not go well. “He began yelling at me,” Brandenburg testified. “He said, ‘I’m ordering you, you will not take this search warrant to a judge. And if you do, you will not work here any longer.’ ” The captain threw the document in his bottom desk drawer, Brandenburg said.

Outraged, Brandenburg appealed to the chief of the detective division and a commander in the homicide bureau in a meeting at the LASD headquarters, in Monterey Park, describing his boss’s behavior and the evidence against Engels. Soon after, a fellow homicide detective, Joe Holmes, was ordered to visit Brandenburg’s house to collect his case records, he said. Just like that, the investigation into Aujay’s possible murder was reassigned to Holmes. Brandenburg would testify that he overheard the homicide captain say to Holmes, “Take care of me on this.”

////

This past July I meet Debra Aujay in Marie Kerr Park in Palmdale. There’s a softball game in progress, and teenagers are trying to land tricks in a skate park. Marie Kerr is a half mile from the two-story tract home she and Jon shared for 11 years. They met at a roller rink while high school students in Downey and dated on and off for several years. When Debra called him out of the blue from a pay phone after a three-year breakup, he said he’d been thinking about her, too. They married five months later. Debra worked as a receptionist, but she quit before becoming pregnant and has not been employed since—partly, she says, because she suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. She and Chloe lived in the house on their own for a year after Jon’s disappearance. Because Jon’s body was never found, Debra had to wait five years to receive his death certificate; only then could she access her husband’s contributions to his retirement account. Unable to pay the bills, they moved in with Debra’s parents, who had relocated to Palmdale from Downey a few years earlier.

By 2013, her parents had both died. The money she was receiving each month in Social Security disability payments for her OCD, around $950, wasn’t enough to cover the mortgage, so she began living in her white Pontiac Grand Prix with her Boston terrier-pug mix, Carlton. Chloe, who was 20, moved to Los Angeles to live with her boyfriend and his mother.

Facebook Comments