Q&A: The Deputy Who Disappeared

Writer Claire Martin speaks with executive editor Matthew Segal about her November issue longread on Jon Aujay, who has been missing since 1998

In the November issue, Claire Martin writes about the June, 1998 disappearance of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputy Jon Aujay, who disappeared after going for a run in the Antelope Valley. The department decided that he most likely killed himself, while some friends and former colleagues think he either ran away to a new life or was murdered. Martin writes about the case, and some of its aftermath, in “The Deputy Who Disappeared,” which is in the November issue of Los Angeles. Executive editor Matthew Segal recently spoke with Martin about the feature.

This story been almost four years in the making and took you to places, mentally and geographically, that you couldn’t have anticipated. How did you learn about Jon Aujay?
In the fall of 2011, I learned about a trial that had just begun in downtown L.A. A former sheriff’s deputy was suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for wrongful termination. I’d heard a few details about the case—that it involved meth cartels in the Antelope Valley, a DEA joint task force dubbed Operation Silent Thunder, and the mysterious disappearance and possible murder of Aujay by a fellow deputy. I was surprised I’d never read anything about the case before, and when I did some quick Web research, nothing much turned up. I decided to drive downtown and listen to a day’s worth of testimony. I ended up returning every day for a couple of weeks, until the closing arguments.

The testimony from the various agents, deputies, and sheriff’s officials proved to be jaw-dropping at times. Aside from the murder allegations, there were details of misconduct among deputies, some of whom were accused of getting too cozy with the meth manufacturers of the area. How bad did things get for the sheriff’s department in the Antelope Valley?
Things were bad enough that the DEA was called in to dismantle the meth rings as rumors circulated that sheriff’s deputies were befriending drug dealers and leaking information to them in advance of busts. The allegations against deputies ranged from fraternizing with cartel members, to warning them of investigations, to operating meth labs with them, to murder.

This is where Aujay’s story comes in. As you you’d heard when you started attending the trial, one theory being pursued by a couple of LASD investigators was that a fellow deputy, someone with alleged ties to the meth world, had killed him. There’s a theory from a former LASD captain—Aujay’s last boss—that he was killed by a deputy, but not the deputy who was being investigated. And there were vague suspicions within the department that whatever the case, Aujay’s stern demeanor could have provoked his murder. Workplace politics can be tricky, but it’s remarkable that more than one officer or former officer thought that his coworkers would be capable of murder—of fratricide.
That’s right. The LASD quickly ruled that Aujay had likely committed suicide, but tipsters and confidential informants told the department they’d heard he may actually have been murdered by the operators of a meth lab, which included a fellow deputy. Separate investigations by a sheriff’s homicide detective and the Operation Silent Thunder drug task force turned up similar intel. So did the FBI. Years later, Aujay’s former boss, Mike Bauer, began to suspect that a different deputy, someone who’s now retired, had murdered Aujay. Bauer had worked under three sheriffs during his career and told me he’d watched the LASD’s checks and balances for handling internal corruption collapse under Baca.

Sheriff Lee Baca.
Right. Other people I spoke with described an environment under Baca in which deputies weren’t held accountable for their unethical or illegal actions.

As a freelancer, you write on everything from environmental issues to the Prototype column for The New York Times to the occasional murder story. So is it safe to call you a generalist?
Absolutely. I was a magazine editor for ten years, first at Outside and then at Men’s Journal, both of which cover outdoor adventure and the environment. When I switched to freelance writing, I branched out a bit, and I eventually started covering the occasional crime story, including Whitey Bulger’s arrest and the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others in Tucson. Before becoming a journalist, I had worked briefly as a paralegal at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, where I helped assistant district attorneys prepare for trials, including for drug and murder cases. So those stories took me to somewhat familiar territory. Writing about Jon Aujay’s disappearance combined all of that experience. Here was a guy who vanished in the mountains while training for one of the country’s toughest ultra-marathons, and the mystery of his disappearance provided a glimpse into L.A.’s meth underworld and raised questions about how the sheriff’s department was policing itself.

As such, it required interviews with sheriff’s department staffers past and present. Law enforcement officers have tendency to be uninterested in speaking to the press. Was that your experience?
When I first started reporting this story, Sheriff Baca was still in power, and I had a hard time getting people to talk to me. My focus then was on Darren Hager’s firing and his wrongful termination trial.

The trial that brought you to the story in the first place.
Yes. The two sides had been embroiled in litigation for years, and the financial stakes were high. The jury had awarded Hager $4.5 million (after the appeals process, he got $2.5 million, plus interest). So there was a reluctance to speak publicly about the case. But when I shifted my attention to Jon Aujay, that seemed to be an easier point of entry. He was an enigmatic figure, and I wanted to find out who he was as a deputy, friend, and family member. That line of inquiry quickly led to discussions about what may have happened to him. Baca had left the department by then, and I think enough time had passed since Aujay’s disappearance that people were more comfortable talking about his case.

How you did you get Debra Aujay, Jon’s wife, to consent to a conversation after she initially put you off?
During our first meeting this summer, Debra told me she had received a letter I sent her a few years earlier. She said she never responded because she was wary of the media. I think she also wanted to put Jon’s disappearance behind her. When I explained that I wanted her help in understanding who Jon was, she began to open up. Around the same time, she learned that Mike Bauer, Jon’s former boss, had launched his own unofficial investigation into Jon’s disappearance. Suddenly there was someone trying to solve the case, and I think that gave her more of a reason to share her insights and memories.

She’s living out of a car now. She told you that obsessive compulsive disorder has prevented her from working. We know her marriage to Jon was on the rocks before he disappeared, but she still seems very attached to him. How do you reconcile the two?
She said Jon had talked of leaving her. The question of whether he deserted the marriage and his life in the Antelope Valley to live somewhere else or he left by killing himself seemed to be one she was still struggling with. She told me she believed he had committed suicide, but she also recounted a time she was convinced she saw him driving down the freeway in a white truck like the one he used to own. I don’t think she has spent the last 17 years pining after him, but his disappearance was a defining moment in her life, and I did get the impression it was traumatic for her, as it was for their daughter, Chloe, who was five years old at the time. When there are so many unanswered questions, it can be difficult to move on.

In fact, that’s an underlying theme in the story—the wreckage left in the wake of someone who’s disappeared. It’s difficult enough when you lose a friend or spouse or brother unexpectedly, but in this case, people can only guess what happened to him. And each answer brings with it a whole set of variables to chew on—guilt, suspicion, grief. How about anger—did you pick up on any?
When I first met with Debra, she was angry at Jon for leaving her and Chloe, but over the course of our interviews last summer, her attitude shifted. She agreed to show me her old photo albums, and as she did, she began to reminisce about happier times. Some of Jon’s other family members and former colleagues were indignant about the department; they thought it had abandoned Jon and his family by calling off the search after a week. Many people I talked to flat-out didn’t believe the department’s conclusion that it was likely a suicide, and they were outraged at the suggestion that Jon would have intentionally left Chloe behind. Some felt the department had not fully investigated leads that pointed to the possibility of murder.

About how many interviews did you conduct for the story?
A couple dozen.

And how many pages of legal documents?
Too many to count.

Lots of traveling, too, with all the notes that come with it. For writers out there, what’s your technique in terms of keeping track of everything that you have and keeping it at the ready for when you begin writing?
I wrote this story in stages, and that helped me stay organized because I had to try to master the different elements of my reporting one at a time. This was the most complex, sprawling article I’ve written; there were many different people and groups to learn about, from the Vagos motorcycle gang, which was involved in the Antelope Valley meth trade, to the LASD deputies and executives of the late 1990s and early 2000s, to DEA joint task forces and how they’re conducted. I don’t typically rely on outlines, but for this story I bought one of those giant dry-erase boards, and during my reporting I sketched out rough outlines and noted the themes I wanted to touch on. Once I started writing, I kept a stack of notecards describing the main elements of the story, and I organized them in the order I thought the narrative should flow. But of course, things changed a lot while I was writing, and I’d shuffle the cards around as I worked my way through.

Mike Bauer, the retired officer conducting his own investigation—how did he find out about you?
One of Jon’s family members had told me there was someone else looking into Jon’s disappearance—a former deputy. But he didn’t give me a name or any other details. Soon I began receiving messages from a person using the pseudonym Harry Feer. It was at a juncture in my reporting when several other sources had said that they feared for their lives, and one had warned that I should be careful in terms of my own safety. So receiving an e-mail from this Harry Feer was chilling. I didn’t know what to make of him and his theories, which were different the ones I’d been looking into. He quizzed me on certain details of Jon’s disappearance to see if he could trust me. It was at least a month before he revealed that he’d been Jon’s last boss and that his name was Mike Bauer. We slowly built a rapport over the next few months.

Has the story changed you in any way?
It has probably made me more comfortable with ambiguity in storytelling. At certain points, not having the answer to what happened to Jon Aujay felt like a liability in terms of crafting the narrative, but as you and I discussed during the edit process, the outstanding questions didn’t mean there wasn’t a story to tell. Instead it became part of the fabric of the narrative.