When I first arrive, Debra is jumpy, nervous to talk. Fifty-three years old, she spends most days at Marie Kerr, often sidling her car into the shade cast by a row of elevated solar panels. Across the street there’s a shopping center with a Subway sandwich shop and a Vons. “I can get everything I need right here,” she says. Soft strawberry blond curls frame her deeply suntanned face; a pair of sparkly red cherries and a silver cross hang around her neck on a black rope fastened with a safety pin. At night she parks outside a 24-Hour Fitness that she joined so she can use the shower and bathroom. She sleeps with her sunglasses on to shield her eyes from the parking lot’s fluorescent lights. In the winter Palmdale occasionally gets snow; in the summer the mercury creeps into the triple digits. “Doing this for a long time would not be good,” she tells me. She’s already two years into this life.
Debra and her daughter talk frequently by phone. Chloe’s memories of her father are faint; she used to nap on his chest, and he taught her to rappel from the side of the staircase using a climber’s harness. Until she was 15 or 16, Chloe didn’t question the story she’d grown up with—that her dad had simply vanished. But once she began to recognize there was a gaping hole in her life, she became angry; she began to believe that her father must have been murdered, though she’s uncertain of precisely how or why.
Debra suggests we drive up to the Punchbowl. She climbs behind the wheel of her Grand Prix, and I follow her to the house she shared with Jon. From there we trace the last route he probably drove, country music on the radio as he cruised through gritty desert flats flecked with Joshua trees and past an entrance to a U.S. Air Force manufacturing plant.
Although she still maintains that her husband must have committed suicide, the lack of evidence has left her repeatedly toggling back to the possibility that he’s alive. Early on, she consulted psychics, looking for answers. One told her Jon was dead. Three said he was living in another state, each naming a different one. If he did leave, Debra thinks, Alaska was his destination. He had tried persuading her to move with him to an Alaskan town accessible only by airplane—and he’d sent away for real estate listings. She wasn’t interested.
Sitting at a picnic table in the Punchbowl, near where the search command center was set up in 1998, Debra eats a Subway sandwich with Carlton by her side. She gradually settles into the conversation, answering my questions about her marriage and Jon’s demeanor. Then a male hiker catches her eye, and for a second she thinks, Could it be Jon? I wonder if she’s being melodramatic, performing for me, but she genuinely seems confused. Gesturing with her turkey-avocado sub, she explains that these mistaken sightings of hers used to be more frequent. The Punchbowl has stirred up the old question: Is he living off the land in the wilderness? After all, she says, he kept supplies stashed for his longer outdoor excursions, and he once bragged that he could hide in the mountains and elude searchers if he wanted to.
Struggling to manage the meth scourge in the Antelope Valley but unable to trust some of its deputies, the LASD called the Drug Enforcement Agency to set up a joint task force with the sheriff’s department in the spring of 2000. Dubbed “Operation Silent Thunder,” it was composed of several DEA agents and co-led by a sheriff’s deputy named Darren Hager and supervised by LASD lieutenant Ron Shreves. As the task force began to infiltrate the cartels, it set up 30 wiretaps to listen in on phone conversations between drug cell members, and it established a network of confidential informants. Several offered information about Engels. There were claims that he allegedly would make frequent visits to a dealer who worked at a Chevron station and that the two men once talked while three pounds of meth sat in plain sight on the front seat of the dealer’s car. And in an interview led by the task force, an informant said of Engels, “I’m not going to talk about him and end up dead.” The investigators noted a total of some 50 suspicious incidents involving deputies from the wiretaps and informants.
They observed transgressions firsthand, too, such as when a deputy provided false information to the task force in an apparent effort to protect a meth dealer. Others were alleged to have tipped off the Untouchables about major raids that were in the works. Then there was the deputy whose wife had ties to the largest-volume meth dealer in the Antelope Valley. Soon after he left for work, agents raided his home, finding drugs on a table and an entire wall papered in counterfeit $20 bills.
New leads cropped up regarding Aujay as well, says Hager. A woman claimed to know where his body was buried, and a man contacted the task force, saying he was present when the deputy was murdered. A third person reported seeing Aujay return to his truck in the Devil’s Punchbowl parking lot at dusk before walking back out with his backpack in the direction of two armed bikers. The witness then heard screaming.
According to court testimony by task force members, however, it didn’t pursue the leads concerning deputy misconduct or, for that matter, Aujay. The DEA and LASD had agreed at the outset of the 18-month operation that the department would handle anything that turned up regarding deputy misconduct. But when the task force tried to brief the sheriff’s detectives on its Aujay-related findings so that the department could follow up on them, the Antelope Valley homicide captain—the same man who had blocked Brandenburg’s search warrant for Engels—denied them a meeting. What’s more, he wouldn’t assign a homicide detective to work with the task force on Aujay-related leads.
Ultimately the Operation Silent Thunder task force arrested 320 drug manufacturers, dealers, and users, leading to 32 federal convictions—five of the six meth kingpins were among them. It seized two dozen meth labs and 200 pounds of meth as well. Sheriff Lee Baca attended the press conference announcing the operation’s achievements, and the Lancaster station commander praised Hager in a memo. “He is one of two Department personnel, assigned to the task force, most responsible for the success of the operation,” he wrote. “His level of commitment and performance rises clearly to the level of EXEMPLARY PERFORMANCE.” Hager flew to Washington, D.C., to receive the DEA’s highest honor, the Administrator’s Award for Investigative Excellence, for his work.
But then Engels and five other deputies filed a complaint with the department against Hager and Lieutenant Shreves. They alleged that the two had defamed them, used falsified documents and search warrants in the course of their work with Operation Silent Thunder, and unfairly announced to department staff that Engels was the main suspect in the Aujay case. As Internal Affairs investigated the claims, Hager was reassigned to the custody division, but he quickly took a disability leave for a neck injury he’d incurred tackling a suspect.
Less than a week after the complaint was filed, the results from Joe Holmes’s investigation were released. Holmes had interviewed 60 witnesses and informants from Operation Silent Thunder. Although the DEA had already vetted the informants, and some would help the U.S. Attorney’s Office score its 32 convictions, he concluded that none of them was believable. “Of all the people I interviewed in the entire investigation, there’s not one piece of credible evidence,” Holmes later testified. He determined that the claims against Engels were unfounded and that the department was right: Aujay, distraught over his failing marriage, had committed suicide using his off-duty gun.
A year into the Internal Affairs investigation of Hager, the bureau sent the deputy a letter stating that Hager had “recklessly accused” Engels of criminal activities and lied to support his theory that Engels was committing crimes with drug dealers and had been involved in the murder of a fellow deputy. Two charges resulted: falsifying information (he’d been cited for errors in summaries that he didn’t actually write) and conducting a personnel investigation of Engels. According to the department’s disciplinary guidelines, these offenses should have carried a standard 15-day suspension, yet Hager was fired.
Following his dismissal, Hager, who was 36, sued for wrongful termination, and struggling to find steady work, he and his wife filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in 2010. His case finally went to trial nearly a decade after he left the force. It shed new light on the department’s handling of Aujay’s case as well as its approach to policing itself. Department executives, Internal Affairs detectives, and lower-level deputies—including then-commander Neal Tyler, in charge of the region encompassing the Antelope Valley; homicide detective Joe Holmes; and Rick Engels—streamed into a downtown L.A. courtroom to testify.
When Holmes was called to the stand, he admitted that Engels couldn’t provide him with an alibi, but he insisted that he had obtained his phone and financial records and asked to search his home. However, some of that testimony was contradicted by Engels, who was still patrolling the Antelope Valley as a resident deputy. (Engels retired from the department in 2012. When I reached him by phone in September to discuss Aujay, he said, “I’m not interested in any of that. I keep that close to my heart. Thank you very much, though.”) With salt-and-pepper hair, a white mustache, and a country lilt, he was emphatic that he had never handed over any records and that Holmes had never asked to enter his house. On the stand he again claimed not to know where he was the day Aujay went missing. Someone with the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau then testified that he hadn’t looked into the narcotics or other allegations against Engels; Engels, he said, wouldn’t cooperate, and he didn’t push him to.
It’s 7:30 on a late spring morning, and Mike Bauer, the retired LASD captain who was Aujay’s former boss, is feeling optimistic. He has hired a tall, lean day laborer named Rick to spend the morning helping him. The two men drive their pickups from a lakeside village in western Idaho into a narrow clearing in the pine forest a few miles outside of town. Juggling the coffees and coconut-flavored doughnuts Bauer bought at a convenience store, they begin dragging tools from the trucks: three shovels, an ax, a pickax, a digging rod, a bucket—everything they’ll need to dig up a body. They spread a brown tarp on the ground next to a depression in the forest floor. Rick stabs the soil and dumps the dirt onto the tarp.
Before I left Los Angeles two days earlier, I e-mailed Bauer’s phone numbers and address to my Los Angeles editor. “If something should happen…,” the e-mail started. I’d never laid eyes on Bauer—much less Rick—and until recently I didn’t know Bauer’s true identity. In February he had written to me, using the pseudonym Harry Feer. I only knew that he had worked for the sheriff’s department—cold comfort in the context of Aujay’s story. He said he was investigating the deputy’s disappearance on his own. Bauer’s missives were packed with information, including his theory that Aujay had been murdered. The way Bauer sees it, Aujay didn’t make it to the Punchbowl parking lot at all. He believes the deputy was killed and his body may have been taken across state lines to be disposed of before he ever went on his run—hence, this digging expedition in the Idaho woods. By the time I decided to meet him out here, I’d grown to trust him, but I hadn’t forgotten that he’d used the fake name to test me. “If my work and information were mishandled, it could be dangerous,” he later told me. He was concerned enough for his safety that he was armed at all times, going so far as to carry a semiautomatic rifle when he went out to feed his horses at night.
Bauer is 66 years old, with deep-set hazel eyes, silver hair, and a matching mustache. He moved to a 182-acre ranch in western Montana a dozen years ago with his wife after more than three decades with the sheriff’s department. A private pilot since 1994, he built a small experimental plane that he flew from his own landing strip and parked in a hangar on the property. Near the front door of the Bauers’ luxury log cabin hung a sign given to him by two CIA agents he had worked with when he was on the sheriff’s antiterrorism task force during the 1984 Olympics in L.A.: “Please unload your gun and remove ski mask before entering.” Over the years he also did stints in the Organized Crime and Surveillance units and the Risk Management Bureau before he was promoted in 1996 to captain of the Special Enforcement Bureau and the Aero Bureau. He retired in 2002 as captain of the Special Investigations Bureau, now known as Major Crimes, overseeing organized crime, metro, vice, intelligence, and warrants.
Bauer, whose office was in East L.A. in the late 1990s, monitored and participated in the search for Aujay, but he didn’t have authority over it. Nor was he in a position to initiate an official investigation—that was the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s department’s North County patrol region commander. He had no reason to suspect a crime had been committed back then.
Aujay had asked for a transfer out of the SEB to a position at a shooting range; his hope was that the less-intense schedule would allow him to spend more time with his family. Bauer, his boss, made the arrangements, but a few days before his disappearance, Aujay changed his mind; his marriage was over, he said. On the morning Aujay went missing, Bauer planned to let him know the transfer had been canceled and he could stay in SEB. Aujay called the office before his run to ask about the transfer, but a miscommunication with a receptionist prevented the two men from speaking that morning—or ever again. Bauer couldn’t stop wondering whether the missed call had pushed Aujay further to the edge. “For years I took it to mean that, Gee, maybe he was depressed because he didn’t think he would get his job back,” Bauer says. But in time his thinking changed. “You kill yourself if you can’t get your job back and you’re depressed about it. You don’t kill yourself because you can’t find out if you got your job back.”
As he looked closer at the department’s reasoning about its suicide ruling, he saw more evidence of what he calls “the decomposition of divorce” than a man on the verge of ending his life. “A lot of stuff Jon did is normal for a guy who’s hitting the road,” says Bauer. He knows; he’s been married four times.
When Bauer talks about Aujay, he quickly delves into granular details of the case—he can discuss it for hours on end, and he often does. By his estimate, he has spent at least $5,000 in a quest that has included flying or driving out to Los Angeles more than half a dozen times and reaching out to as many of Aujay’s family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers as he could find, in addition to park rangers and land assessors. He is constantly working the phones, talking to sources, and cultivating new leads. He doesn’t get disappointed easily; I’ve yet to see him deterred by news that doesn’t support his thesis. He says that he won’t stop investigating until he has run out of leads—that it’s his duty as a fellow officer and Aujay’s former boss. “Have you ever had somebody who works for you disappear?” he asks. “I feel responsible. The department should have done this in ’98.”
Yesterday a three-legged cadaver-sniffing black Labrador retriever named Buster barked confidently in this woodsy location, signaling that he smelled a body. Buster had traveled here from California with his owner, Paul Dostie, a retired sergeant with the Mammoth Lakes Police Department who spends his time helping solve cold cases. The dog has positively identified about 200 hidden graves, among them those of World War II soldiers.
But aside from a strong diesel- or petroleum-like odor that causes Rick to threaten to puke several times and gives me a searing headache, they find nothing unusual. Perhaps, Bauer says over lunch at a café after the dig, Aujay’s body was placed in the hole and then burned using an accelerant. To be sure, he was preparing to send soil samples to a laboratory as I returned to Los Angeles. Within a couple of weeks Bauer had his results: The soil tested negative for human remains. Yet he is all but convinced that Aujay was buried in the Idaho woods. Researching forensic anthropology, he learned that a corpse can emit gases with a chemical odor in certain stages of decay, and when Bauer revisited the site in September, he found a larger adjacent depression that had been cleared of fallen logs and brush. “I think we were just in the wrong spot,” he says.
As with the various informants who’d spoken to Hager and task force members, Bauer also believes Aujay was killed by a deputy—just not Engels. Informants were confused by the rumors that had been spawned from the misconduct in the department, Bauer says. He grew suspicious of this other deputy after the man, who had been a buddy of Aujay’s and worked for Bauer at the LASD before retiring, befriended him in the mid-2000s. Through numerous discussions they had about Aujay, Bauer came to believe that this retired deputy and a former cop from a different L.A. law enforcement agency had planted Aujay’s truck in the Punchbowl, accidentally leaving the gun in plain sight, and likely beelined it to this spot in Idaho, which was near a property that the accomplice used to own. Bauer did not want to publicly name the two men.
Bauer may be onto something, but without finding Aujay, dead or alive, or eliciting a confession—it’s just a theory. His ideas are compelling, even when the competing theories shadow his words. The problem is, nobody knows for sure, which may well be driving Bauer as much as his sense of duty. For instance, as to whether Aujay carried his gun into the wilderness or it disappeared mysteriously, he surmises that “somebody probably stole the gun or souvenired it” from the truck. And the chat Aujay had with the class on its group outing? The schoolteacher had described Aujay’s hair as being shoulder length, even though he had a buzz cut. Bauer believes the runner was misidentified, while Sauer, the search leader, posits that Aujay was wearing a hat with flaps in the back to prevent sunburn.
Bauer used to think Aujay’s death had been a crime of passion. There was some hearsay about deputies engaging in partner swapping, sex parties, and BDSM sexual acts. He heard a rumor that his main suspect claimed to be wife swapping with Aujay and the accomplice. Debra insists she wasn’t involved, and there’s no evidence Aujay was, either. What really raised Bauer’s suspicions was that the man spoke of killing Bosco. “I was flabbergasted,” Bauer says. When, years later, Bauer would confront him about Bosco again, he was told that he was doing the department a favor because the dog was dangerous. Over time Bauer arrived at the idea—this is pure speculation—that the two lawmen may have been involved in the meth scene and killed Aujay for uncovering their illegal enterprise. Bauer insists that during one exchange with the former deputy, he demanded to know what had happened to Aujay. “I know where he is,” was the alleged reply, but according to Bauer, the man refused to elaborate.
When I call the former deputy, he says Bauer’s charges against him are “hogwash,” adding, “he thinks I know stuff, but I don’t know anything.” He slams the department for what he calls a “chickenshit search that didn’t amount to anything” and doesn’t deny being involved in Bosco’s death. “That dog needed to be done away with,” he says, because Bosco had bitten other deputies and was dangerous now that he didn’t have his handler. “There were some things I did that nobody needed to know about and I had to do for the interest of the public,” he says. While Bauer clearly recalls the man telling him that he shot Bosco himself, the retired deputy maintains that he instructed the owner of the kennel housing the dog to destroy him: “I could never shoot a dog in the head, but I could ask someone else to do that, sure.” Bauer says he moved from Montana partly to dodge the man and his friend. He thinks the ex-deputy is likely a sociopath, and that his sidekick is highly volatile. None of the handful of people I speak with about Bauer, however, have anything to say about him except that he’s a decent—and determined—guy.
Last year Bauer wrote to John L. Scott, the interim sheriff, raising concerns about the department. When the captain of Internal Affairs called him, Bauer aired his theory; the captain vouched for the integrity of Bauer’s main suspect, he says, accusing Bauer of jumping to conclusions and then only seeking facts to support them. Bauer is still outraged. He could understand some skepticism, but he expected the sheriff’s department would take him seriously, given his background. This wasn’t the first time he felt rebuffed by the department over Aujay. Three years ago he spent half a day going over his evidence with deputies. “I expected a phone call from the captain of homicide a week later saying, ‘You know, we looked at your stuff and you might have something. Thanks for bringing this up. I’ll keep you posted on what we find out,’ ” he tells me. He heard nothing, but it wasn’t a total surprise. Bauer says he retired early, at 53, because of the corruption that flourished under Sheriff Baca, who wound up resigning in 2014 amid a barrage of federal indictments of staff who helped hide an informant from the FBI. That’s what led to Bauer’s second attempt, which wasn’t any more satisfying. Scott wrote him back that Aujay’s case “is disturbing to us all” and expressed confidence that the investigation had been thorough, noting that homicide detective Bob Kenney “continues to actively follow up on leads.”
Bauer was perplexed: If the department was sticking with the suicide theory, why was there an open homicide case? And if it was vigorously investigating, why hadn’t he heard about it from any of the dozens of people he has stayed in contact with in the course of his work? Debra, for one, says she has not been contacted by members of the sheriff’s department since 2001, when she was interviewed by Joe Holmes. Now that many of the players involved in the original investigations are retired and a new sheriff, Jim McDonnell, is in charge, Bauer and several others who knew Aujay have raised the question of whether the department would or should reevaluate the case. Aujay is still classified as a missing person with a possible suicide, according to homicide detective Larry Brandenburg. When I called Kenney in September to inquire about the status of the Aujay investigation, he replied, “I have no comment about that case at all.” Sheriff McDonnell also declined to be interviewed for this article.
The man serving as second in command to McDonnell is Neal Tyler, a 40-year department veteran and the former commander of the Antelope Valley region. Tyler was briefed on the Internal Affairs inquiry of Darren Hager, whose task force confidential informants had fingered Engels for murder, and he personally fired him.
Hager won the wrongful termination trial, but there would be a three-year appeal process before he received a check for a little more than $3 million. That was last December. He had teared up on the stand when asked how it felt to be stripped of his badge and gun. “Not good,” he said. “I’d lost everything that I’d worked for—my career in law enforcement.” I visited Hager at his home after the trial. Sporting a black horseshoe mustache and a cowboy hat, he told me he’d been unable to receive credentials from the department to show he’s in good standing and had also been denied the concealed-carry gun permit that goes along with them. Apprehensive about his security, he had moved out of the Antelope Valley, venturing back only once a year to visit his accountant. “I’m afraid of being pulled over by the wrong deputy,” he said.
Debra Aujay recently had a dream that she was in a white room. A door opened, and when she peered through, she saw a drop-off. “There was nothing; it was blank,” she tells me. The dream, she says, encapsulates what it’s like to have a loved one disappear—a void that doesn’t ever fill back up. “I think he took his life, but you know, I could be very wrong,” she says. “It’s just an assumption. Even the sheriff’s department is assuming it.” The suicide theory continues to give pause to Brandenburg, who is currently a cold case homicide detective. “Do I think it’s a possibility? Yes,” he told me. “But without finding the body, I’d never be 100 percent convinced of it myself. That’s always been a problem for me. When someone commits suicide, it’s rare not to find their body.”
Despite the flaws he’d seen in the initial investigation and the stonewalling his captain demonstrated, Brandenburg gives him the benefit of the doubt. “If there was evidence Aujay was murdered, I don’t think he would have covered it up,” Brandenburg says of the captain. “But he didn’t like the idea of me looking into a deputy based on rumors from a bunch of tweakers. He didn’t think there was probable cause.” (“Tweakers” is slang for meth users.) Brandenburg chalks up the dispute to issues of seniority and rank—at the time he was just three years into his homicide job. The attitude he was up against was, “We don’t think you know what you’re talking about. This is what happened, and we’re content with it,” he said. “But I just wasn’t satisfied.” Even though he was a relative newcomer to homicide, he’d been a detective for a decade, and he had already received approval for his warrant from an assistant district attorney. He’s confident the warrant was a necessary step to either verify Engels’s illegal activities or to exonerate him. “I’ve got as much duty to clear his name as to find out if he’s doing something bad,” Brandenburg says. “If not, he deserves to have his name cleared. He busted a lot of meth labs.”
For Rathbun, the fact that nothing has emerged in 17 years strengthens his suspicion that Aujay, his former partner, was murdered. “I don’t like to put it on my friends and associates who are homicide investigators, but once you come to a conclusion that it was a suicide and that seems reasonable to you at the time, it’s not going to be a whole lot of fun later on if you say, ‘We screwed this up pretty bad. It wasn’t a suicide. In fact, this is terribly embarrassing, but it looks like it was a murder,’ ” he says.
So Bauer keeps looking. As certain as he is that his Idaho theory will lead to resolution—and vindication—there are a few spots he wants to inspect in the Antelope Valley. In early August he drives there to meet again with Paul Dostie and his cadaver dog, Buster. They plan to check a site Dostie is investigating related to the Manson Family, and Bauer wants to walk four parcels of land he believes his suspects had access to back in 1998—one of which is supposed to be near where the gunshot was reportedly heard that day. He wants to rule them out as clandestine grave sites for Aujay, and over the course of two days scouring the desert, he grows only more skeptical that Aujay’s remains are here. The wide-open spaces don’t provide much privacy.
Then, as he and Dostie decide to check out what looks like a dumping ground for trash, Buster goes berserk. He finds a scent and follows it for a quarter of a mile before sitting down and barking. A corpse, his body language says. There’s a small mound of discolored soil over the site. Bauer is reluctant to call the sheriff’s department, which has jurisdiction here, because, well, they’re the reason he’s even looking for a dead body, so he returns with a shovel a few weeks later by himself. Digging reveals nothing, but indefatigable as ever, Bauer tells me he’ll come back in the fall with the dog and Dostie, who is confident there’s a body, to make sure he’s digging in the right location. If necessary, they’ll call the authorities. The hard-packed soil tends to result in shallow graves, Bauer says, which can be easily exposed by animals and natural forces. “I figure I’m not going to dig up Jon there,” he says. “In 17 years his body would have turned up some other way.”
Judging from his lack of enthusiasm, it’s clear that this is a scenario where he wants to scratch a dead lead off his list. To me, it’s difficult to see how a cadaver dog signaling a body in an area that Aujay used to inhabit could be any less of a lead than the dog signaling a body on property where he’d never been. But to Bauer, for whom a sense of duty to a fallen colleague has merged with his anger at the department to which he was once dedicated, solving the case of Jon Aujay may only be a matter of time. He’s been at it for ten years so far, and he has no intention of stopping, regardless of whether the department gets involved. He just needs to find the right clue.
Claire Martin writes a business column for The New York Times and is a former editor at Outside and Men’s Journal.
This feature appears in the November 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine.