Gavin Smith (film studio executive)
|A blond man with sunglasses around his neck, smiling
Picture distributed by LA County Sheriff's Department to help find Smith
|Born||December 10, 1954
San Fernando Valley, California
|Disappeared||May 1, 2012 (aged 57)
Oak Park, California
|Status||Declared legally dead
May 1, 2014 (aged 59)
|Body discovered||Palmdale, California;
October 26, 2014
|Alma mater||UCLA, Hawaii|
|Occupation||Executive at 20th Century Fox|
|Known for||Member of 1975 NCAA champion men's basketball team; single-season scoring record at Hawaii|
Gavin Smith (born December 10, 1954; disappeared May 1, 2012; declared legally dead May 1, 2014; body recovered October 26, 2014) was an American film studio executive, formerly a regional manager of distribution for 20th Century Fox. Prior to his 18 years in that position he played basketball at UCLA, where he was part of the 1975 team that won that year's NCAA championship, the last for legendary coach John Wooden. He later played at Hawaii, where he set the school's still-standing single-season scoring record of 23.4 points per game. He had a small role as a bartender in Cobb, the 1994 biopic of baseball legend Ty Cobb.
On the night of May 1, 2012, Smith left a friend's house in Oak Park, California, where he had been staying due to reported marital difficulties. It does not appear he planned to be away long. When he failed to pick up one of his sons for school the next morning, his family reported him missing. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been investigating. Two years later, with Smith still missing and no evidence of his presence anywhere past the night of his disappearance, he was retroactively declared legally dead. On October 26, 2014, over two years after his disappearance, hikers found the remains of Gavin Smith near Palmdale in the Antelope Valley.
In January 2015, John Lenzie Creech, a convicted drug dealer who had begun an eight-year prison sentence on that charge shortly after Smith disappeared, was arrested again and charged with the murder. His wife had reportedly been romantically involved with Smith. Creech's attorney said the death was a "tragic accident."
Early life and education
A native of the San Fernando Valley, the 6-foot-6-inch (198 cm) Smith was a star player on the Van Nuys High School boys' basketball team in the early 1970s. He was named a second-team All-American by Parade magazine as a senior in 1973. He went on to attend the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and play there for coach John Wooden. In his sophomore year he was a forward on the 1975 team which won that year's NCAA championship, Wooden's tenth and last.
He did not play in UCLA's 92–85 title-game defeat of Kentucky. The next season was his best at UCLA, as he appeared in all but two games, averaging 5.9 points per game (ppg). In the 1976 Final Four, he appeared twice. Against Indiana, the eventual champs, he scored six points, adding eight points and four rebounds in the third-place game victory over Rutgers. After the season, he transferred to Hawaii for a season and finished his playing career there, setting the school's single-season scoring record of 23.4 ppg, a mark that still stands despite the subsequent introduction of the three-point field goal.
At Hawaii, he was known for complementing his then long hair with a bandana and bringing his dog to practice. Former Rainbow Warriors coach Riley Wallace, who coached against Smith at that time, remembers him as a formidable opponent. "He frustrated me as a coach," Wallace recalls. "He could score from anywhere on the floor ... [he was] probably one of the best shooters in the history of Hawaii."
Eventually he began a career in the film industry, at first in front of the camera. He made his acting debut playing a bodyguard in a televised adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Glitz. The following year, he had a small role in Greg Mottola's debut short, "Swingin' in the Painter's Room."
After playing a bartender in the 1994 film Cobb, a biopic of baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, he went into the business side of the industry as an executive. He took a job in 20th Century Fox's distribution department, making sure that films got to the theaters they were scheduled to appear in. While he was not involved with the creative aspect of the business, he has been credited with helping films such as Titanic, Avatar and the rereleases of the original Star Wars trilogy succeed.
By 2012 he was Fox's regional branch manager for theaters in the Dallas and Oklahoma City areas, working out of the company's Calabasas offices. He had settled in the West Hills area of the Valley with his wife, Lisa, and three sons. One, Evan, had followed in his father's athletic footsteps, playing basketball for UCLA's crosstown rival, the University of Southern California. According to friends, he had talked about returning to acting when he retired from Fox, as he expected to do in a few years.
Regarding the Smiths' financial problems, they had bought their house when the market was booming and prices were high. As a result of the Great Recession, its market value had dropped to less than the money they still owed on the mortgage, leaving them with negative equity. They were trying to sell the house.
Smith attended CinemaCon, the annual convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners in Las Vegas. Upon his return to the Los Angeles area, he went not to his West Hills home but, due to recent problems in his marriage, that of a female colleague and family friend who lived on Kellwood Court in nearby Oak Park. The Smith family says the overnight stay at Gavin's friend's home was planned. Recent marital difficulties had led Evan Smith to criticize his father for "leaving the family" in a tweet (since deleted) two weeks earlier. He reportedly stopped speaking to Gavin as well. Evan later denied his parents were separating, saying "they were just going through normal stuff couples go through."
According to the friend Gavin was staying with, the two were up watching television until sometime after 9 p.m. When the friend went to bed, Smith told her he would be following shortly. Instead, around 10 p.m., he apparently got into his black 2000 Mercedes-Benz E420 with California license plate 6EKT044 and left. One report claims that someone else on the street actually saw the car leave. Lisa Smith, who had been busy attending to her ill mother, says she spoke with him during the day to arrange for him to pick up one of their other sons for school on the morning of May 2.
The Smiths say it was unlike Gavin to leave the house in the late evening without plans to do so or at least giving notice if the trip was unplanned. Their family friend reported that when he last saw Smith he was wearing purple workout pants that he had borrowed from Evan, with the intent of wearing them to bed. This choice of clothing, they believe, makes it unlikely that his sudden departure was expected, or that he was going anywhere where he expected to be seen. Further, he left his cellphone charger, a shaving kit and other personal belongings at the Oak Park house, so it is likely that he expected to return.
In May 2014, two years after Smith was last seen, law enforcement officials declared Gavin Smith dead and a judge issued a death certificate. His date of death was declared to have been the night he disappeared. "I think the idea of a person that goes missing out of nowhere is intriguing and tragic," said a spokesman for the LACSD.
When Smith did not show up the next morning to pick up his son, or at work, both his family and coworkers reported him missing. Among the personal belongings that he did take with him when he left the Oak Park house were his cell phone and credit cards. Neither had been used since his disappearance. They could not identify anyone who might have had a reason to harm him, but believed that his fate or whereabouts were known. "We know someone knows something. There's no doubt that someone knows something," Smith's wife said. They believed his clothing and general appearance would not go unnoticed or unremembered.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LACSD) was leading the investigation. They had suggested that they had pings from Smith's cell phone after 10 p.m. the night he disappeared, although they did not make the specifics public. "He was bouncing around the Valley or, at least, his phone was," said LACSD Sgt. John O'Brien. "We are talking about after bars close." On May 8, a male body was found in the Angeles National Forest near the Angeles Crest Highway above La Cañada Flintridge, but it was not Smith's.
The Smiths and their friends had been looking in ravines in the area or other places where his car might have gone off the road, without success. A volunteer search of remote areas planned for the weekend of May 19–20 was called off due to the lack of "a specific area of defined interest" in which to search. Flyers were distributed and the LACSD had a special hotline number which, it said, received "lots of tips". The family had put up a blog dedicated to the search and was offering a $20,000 reward. Evan Smith had been using his Twitter feed to spread the word on the search as well.
A possible sighting of Smith subsequent to the disappearance was reported at the end of the month. David Brill of Madison, Wisconsin, who had been traveling to Southern California on business around the time Smith disappeared, told a TV station in his hometown that he had seen Smith with a woman at a restaurant in Morro Bay on May 7. The next morning he read the story online and identified Smith as the man. The waitress who served the man also believed him to be Smith, and said that he paid in cash and told her that he and his companion would be staying in town for a couple of days and then continuing north up the Pacific coast. The restaurant claimed to have a security camera tape but would not release it to the media.
On June 8, police, accompanied by a SWAT team, executed a search warrant at a Canoga Park home belonging to a couple identified as John and Chandrika Creech, in connection with the case. After five hours, they emerged with several boxes and a computer, and towed away a black Audi sport-utility vehicle. Although searches like this are unusual in a missing-persons case, and homicide detectives were reportedly among the investigators present, the LACSD emphasized that it was still a missing-persons case and no evidence of foul play had yet been discovered. A lawyer for the Creeches who spoke with reporters at the scene said it was the second search of the house in the past month, but refused to comment further. Later, it was reported that more than 20 search warrants had been issued so far and police had seized cellphones and other files from the Creech house.
Two weeks later, more details about why the Creeches' house might have been searched were reported. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Dave Dolson said Gavin Smith met Chandrika Creech while they were both in drug rehab, and that they were in a romantic relationship. After it had started in 2008, she had broken it off at the request of her husband John Creech, a convicted drug dealer who was facing new charges at the time of the search, had reportedly had no contact with Smith other than an email exchange in 2008.
Smith's family and friends spent the second weekend of July passing out fliers and putting up posters in Sylmar, the city's northernmost neighborhood. According to them, the detectives investigating Smith's disappearance said his last cellphone ping had come from the area. "The police have led us specifically to this area," she said to reporters.
Since the search of the Creeches, the LACSD had not made any more public moves related to the case. John Creech pleaded guilty to the drug charges and was sentenced to eight years in prison in September 2012. America's Most Wanted did a segment on the case in October.
Earlier that month, before the segment aired, Lisa Smith spoke at length about her life with Gavin in an interview with Britain's The Daily Mail. She said her husband had not only renewed his old affair with Chandrika Creech, but had begun a new one recently with a younger woman she identified as "Melanie", whom he'd met, like Creech, while being treated for prescription drug addiction. It had been the discovery of the latter affair that led her to throw him out of the house several weeks before his disappearance. She had not intended for the separation to be permanent, but, she said, "I couldn't cope with him cheating and I wanted to make it clear that he could never do that again.'
He had been living at his office until a coworker found out and let him live at her house, the one he had returned to and left the night of his disappearance. Lisa had found out that Gavin, a profligate spender, had been taking money from his pension plan and had spent most of his $30,000 bonus from Fox for the previous year on possibly setting Melanie and her children up with a place to live. Since Fox had stopped paying his salary two months after his disappearance, Lisa said, she was having difficulty paying the mortgage. In August they cleaned out his office and sent anything that the police did not need for their investigation to the Smiths' house.
His sister Tara Addeo, and John Creech's lawyer, told The Hollywood Reporter that the LACSD's search of the Creech residence had not yielded anything of use. She had nevertheless come to believe that he had become the victim of a crime. "I know that Gavin would not hurt himself, and I have a hard time believing that Gavin would ever walk away from his sons," she said. "The only other alternative is that there would have been foul play." A month later Lisa Smith told the Reporter that she had reached a similar conclusion. "I just don't picture him walking in and saying, 'I'm sorry; I just needed a breather.' I'm prepared for the worst."
On January 23, 2013, a vehicle seized at an unrelated Granada Hills drug bust turned out to belong to Creech. It led investigators to Gavin's missing Mercedes, found a month later at a Simi Valley storage facility, also connected with Creech, whom police continued to describe as a person of interest.
In March 2013, a sheriff's statement said detectives were now investigating the case as a homicide, although Gavin's body had not been found. Officials also revealed that they believed they had identified the motive in the alleged crime. However, citing the ongoing investigation, they declined to elaborate on the possible motive or any other details of the case.
Discovery of body
On October 26, 2014, Smith's body was found in Palmdale, California. A group of hikers found a shallow grave containing a skull, some bones, and clothing in a rural area between Palmdale and Acton just outside the Angeles National Forest. Authorities announced the body's discovery 11 days later, after it had been positively identified as Smith.
The cause of death was not initially known, as the county coroner's office was working to establish it. Investigators said it might take some time to do so, if indeed they could. "It could be months, if ever, worst-case scenario," said a spokesman for the coroner. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Times quoted anonymous sources as saying that investigators believe that Smith was killed at the direction of one person, by others with experience in violent crime.
At a press conference held the day the body's discovery was announced, investigators shared more information. Their theory was that Smith was killed in his car shortly after he disappeared. Based on that evidence, they had "confidently labeled Smith's death a homicide" after finding the car in 2013. They believed the cause of death would prove to be blunt force trauma; although they could not yet rule out gunshot wounds they did not believe that there would be any.
In January 2015, a little over three months after Smith's body was discovered, John Creech, two years into his eight-year sentence, was arrested and charged with his murder. The arraignment was postponed for a month. Creech's attorney called Smith's death a "tragic accident" and that his client was innocent of the murder charge. "There may have been a fight but I can tell you there was no criminal intent," said Alex Kessel.
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