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At peak of career, veteran screenwriter vanishes in the desert

July 13, 1997

CARPINTERIA, Calif. (AP) _ So excited he couldn’t wait to get home and start work, screenwriter Gary DeVore called his wife several times by cellular phone as he drove through the night across the Mojave Desert.

DeVore was returning from New Mexico, where he’d been bouncing ideas off his old friend, actress Marsha Mason. He told his wife he had made a major creative breakthrough on a script for a movie he was about to direct, a remake of the 1949 Robert Mitchum movie ``The Big Steal.″

The last call Wendy Oates DeVore got from him was after midnight on June 28. He was about three hours away, but he never reached their beachfront home.

``This has been sheer terror,″ a tearful Mrs. DeVore told a reporter in her living room as waves crashed in the distance. ``You are terrified that you can’t get to him in time. You’re so frightened that he needs you and he’s sure you’re coming. He had to believe I was going to find him.″

She has turned to private detectives, air and ground searchers, bloodhounds, even psychics.

Family and friends believe the 55-year-old DeVore fell victim to foul play. They don’t think he dozed off and crashed _ his new, white Ford Explorer would be visible.

They rule out the possibility he’s abandoned his wife of 1 1/2 years.

``He was crazy about her. He was goo-goo eyes,″ said friend Andee Howard, who has been keeping vigil with Mrs. DeVore at the house here in Santa Barbara County, 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles. ``They were still like on their honeymoon. He would never do that to her.″

And although he had legal problems, they discount suicide.

``Gary’s not the kind of guy who would go and off himself,″ said publicist Michael Sands, another friend. ``He’s this tough, macho guy. He’s like the Marlboro man.″

DeVore vanished 11 days after the disappearance of another California writer, playwright Gregory Howells, whose last apparent traces are a putter and iron left with his golf cart on the 13th green of a Carmel Valley course. His car was in the parking lot, with his wallet inside.

Police using dog teams and a helicopter scoured brush-covered hills and a river near the golf course without finding a clue.

In Howells’ case, however, his actress-wife of 10 years, Sherry Glaser, has said he may have staged his disappearance, that he may have abandoned her and her two children. There was still no word on Howells as of Sunday, said his mother-in-law, Shelly Glaser.

Nobody believes DeVore could do such a thing. Although not well-known to the public, he is well-regarded in Hollywood.

His credits include the Christopher Walken film ``Dogs of War″ and the Gregory Hines-Billy Crystal action picture ``Running Scared.″

His latest project was his biggest: RKO’s remake of ``The Big Steal.″ For help, DeVore turned to Ms. Mason, his friend of a decade, and drove to her home in Santa Fe, N.M., on June 23.

``There were problems he was having and wanted to use Marsha to help him,″ said Mrs. DeVore, 50. ``He also needed some reassurance because he was taking the reins of a movie for the first time.″

DeVore called his wife on Thursday, June 26, saying he was coming home because he’d ``broken the back″ of the story, allowing the entire script to fall together.

He left Santa Fe on Friday, and by 10:20 p.m. he had reached Fenner, Calif., 35 miles west of Needles on Interstate 40, where a credit card receipt shows he bought gas.

Using his cellular phone, he called home several times in the next two hours.

The last call, records show, was made at 12:28 a.m. Saturday from somewhere around Rosamond, in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, about a three-hour drive from Carpinteria. From there, he could have picked several routes home through a variety of terrain, from suburbs to rugged mountains.

DeVore had been on the road for 11 hours across New Mexico, Arizona and California. But he liked driving, and before turning to screenwriting had been an experienced truck driver.

``He said he wasn’t tired,″ Mrs. DeVore said. ``He was so excited he said he might even do some work when he got back.″

Mrs. DeVore stayed up, watching old movies on TV. At 9 a.m., more than five hours after he should have gotten home, she ``started going crazy″ and called the California Highway Patrol.

Detectives asked about her husband’s emotional state, if he had money problems, whether their marriages was on the rocks.

They asked about a complicated 1994 tax battle between DeVore and ex-wife Maria Cole, the widow of Nat King Cole, and her children, including singer Natalie Cole. DeVore had been ordered to pay almost $2 million but Mrs. DeVore said the ruling has been on appeal for years and there was no looming requirement for him to come up with money.

``This thing drove him crazy, but it’s been driving him crazy for the last four years,″ she said.

Although Mrs. DeVore suspects a carjacking, she knows an accident was possible.

``I’m full of this feeling that I failed to perform,″ she said. ``I feel I may have contributed to his suffering. If I had gotten to him in time, maybe _ I don’t know. Your mind does so many things. It takes you to places you don’t want to go.″

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