One local missing person case ended in tragedy after a body was found at the bottom of Decker Canyon in Malibu last Thursday. Officials have not confirmed the identification of the remains, though a vehicle found in the canyon was linked back to a month-old missing person case.
On Monday evening, Mayor Rick Mullen—a Malibu fire captain—discussed the fatality before City Council.
“Some hikers were down in the ravine below Decker Canyon and came across a car with a body in it. The body was of somebody who had been missing since Jan. 26.”
The Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff’s Station posted an at-risk missing person bulletin on Feb. 9 to their social media. The person in question, 54-year-old David McHale, was last seen at 8 a.m. on Jan. 26 at his home in Calabasas.
The LA County Medical Examiner-Coroner was unable to confirm the identity by the time The Malibu Times went to print.
Emergency personnel from the Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff’s Station, Malibu Search and Rescue (SAR) and Los Angeles Fire Department responded to a call received Thursday, Feb. 22, “sometime after two in the afternoon,” regarding a vehicle and deceased individual, according to Sgt. Wright at the Lost Hills Station. The incident was reported by a hiker, who initially spotted the vehicle.
In an emailed statement to The Malibu Times, the 25-year-old hiker, Hunter Forrest Smith, said he and his girlfriend made the gruesome discovery.
“I knew we might find an old wreck scrambling down Decker Canyon, some animal bones, things discarded and long forgotten, but I could not have expected to come upon the scene I did,” he said. “Once my girlfriend and I spotted the first car—a Ford Escape planted vertically at the bottom of the canyon, just a few miles north of PCH, we kept seeing more.”
The two found four more cars, which were unable to be spotted from the road, before approaching the final wreck. His girlfriend smelled something akin to “a dead animal.”
“ … I came right up to the front of the car, oblivious at first, of the body facing me in the driver’s seat only a few feet away,” Forrest detailed.
The shock propelled the two to get out of the canyon and notify the police.
Malibu SAR and the fire department later went over the side—a distance of about “300 feet over,” or one-and-a-half miles above Pacific Coast Highway—to the vehicle, after a hiker suspected a body was located inside.
In a phone call with The Malibu Times, Sgt. Wright confirmed “There was, in fact, a deceased individual in there.”
The body was brought up and the coroner conducted an investigation. The City of Malibu sent out a traffic advisory alert as of 5:40 p.m. regarding lane closures due to a “car over the side.”
Upon testing the license plate, the sheriff’s department traced the vehicle “back to a missing person that we’ve been looking for for a month.”
The incident is currently being investigated by the missing persons unit in LASD homicide investigations.
As to how long the body had been there, Sgt. Wright estimated that “it had been a while”—up to several weeks.
Cars going “over the side” in Malibu’s winding canyons is a common occurrence. Back in February 2006, a Ferrari famously was halved when it went over the side of Decker. More recently, in 2015 a woman was rescued after her vehicle went over the side of Latigo Canyon Road and she was trapped inside for two days. Later that year, a Tesla went over the side of Malibu Canyon Road and ignited a fire that killed the sole occupant of the vehicle.
Empty vehicles found at the bottom of Malibu’s canyons are not unusual. According to statements made by Malibu Search and Rescue in 2015, about one-third of vehicles found in Malibu’s canyons are empty, pushed off the road as a way to discard them.
Judy Abel contributed to this report.