Nine days before 20th Century Fox film executive Gavin Smith disappeared, he met his close friends for coffee, a twice-a-week date he’d kept for the last five years. Over their caffeine fixes, the group of middle-aged professionals—sometimes as many as 20—bonded over parenting and their love of sports and the outdoors.
Smith, 57, was someone they all looked up to—and not just because of his statuesque 6-foot-6, muscular frame or his ranking as a former college basketball star. The father of three had a close and enviable relationship with his sons, and his friends longed to be like him.
“The bond we had was fatherhood. And you know what else? Self-improvement: ‘How could I have done a better job in that situation?’” says Dr. Gordon Van Tassell, who went to Van Nuys High School with Smith. “We were all committed in that way to finding out how to be better men and fathers. For many years, that’s been the focus of our discussions.”
On April 22, the last time his buddies saw him, Smith was looking forward to a work trip to Las Vegas the next day. But weighing on him was an argument he had had with his eldest son, Evan, over problems Smith was having with his wife, Lisa. On April 14, Evan tweeted that his father had decided to leave the family.
“Evan stopped talking to his dad,” Van Tassell says. “He was pissed at him and didn’t want to talk to him, and that really hurt Gavin’s feelings. That was really painful. Now, was he heart-broken enough to drive off a cliff? No way. He was hurt; he was concerned. All of the things we feel when our kids are mad at us. But I know that Gavin really wanted to be with his family and he always had hope that it would work out.”
It’s been three weeks since Smith disappeared, and Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department detectives admit they still don’t have “any really great theories or clues in the case.” Smith’s 2000 black Mercedes has not been located, and he hasn’t used his credit cards or cell phone, or withdrawn money from his bank accounts.
“If he is alive, we want to find him,” says Chief of Detectives Bill McSweeney. “He is still missing and we don’t have any hot clues. We don’t have any great direction. We really just don’t know. A guy with an interesting life, and we don’t know if it will ever explain his disappearance. It is a big sad family situation.” Smith’s family has stopped talking to the media and has hired a publicist who acknowledges that “there were certainly family issues,” but he declines to discuss them.
Smith’s friends knew his marriage had been on the rocks for four or five years. Speaking to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, Smith’s friends say his wife had become very religious, which caused a rift in their relationship. But while she turned to religion for comfort, his friends acknowledge he turned to other women. “A lot of couples survive that and move through that,” Van Tassell says. “We weren’t sure if it was going to happen. I know he wanted to reconcile and fix things with his wife. But understand this: Gavin was a chick magnet. They were everywhere for him. But it wasn’t like there was an ocean of them either. It was a couple and it was only out of the darkest frustration. Maybe just looking for relief or tenderness or something. It wasn’t like he was a sex machine.”
Adding to the family’s stress was the fact that they were underwater on their mortgage and had been trying to sell their house. But friends say they doubt those financial problems would lead Smith to either abandon his family or commit suicide. “He’s a pretty frugal guy,” Van Tassell says. “He always had a steady job, Lisa didn’t work, and they bought a house at the top of the market and it was upside down. I don’t think it was more than that.”
Smith’s friends and colleagues say he was his usual “gregarious” and “upbeat” self in the last days they spent with him. “I didn’t notice anything,” says Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox Studios president of domestic distribution. “He was completely fine and normal.” A larger-than-life personality who loved to joke and tell stories, Smith was a draw wherever he went, his friends say. Before working at Fox, he dabbled in acting, playing tiny roles in the movies, Swingin’ in the Painter’s Room, Cobb, and Glitz. Lately, he’d been talking about returning to acting after retirement.
In the days before he disappeared, Smith stayed at a female colleague’s house in the swanky suburb of Oak Park, 15 miles away. On April 30 and May 1, he worked at the movie studio’s Calabasas office, where he served as a branch manager in charge of distribution in the Oklahoma City and Dallas markets.
“Gavin had a lot of resources, and it would be shocking to me if he harmed himself in some way or prevented himself in some way from being able to interact with those kids,” says his friend Gordon Van Tassell.
Smith left the house where he was staying on the night of May 1 without leaving any word or taking his belongings, and has not been seen or heard from since. Police have not disclosed where Smith drove the night he disappeared, but “he stayed in the Valley,” Sgt. John O’Brien says. “He was bouncing around the Valley or, at least, his phone was. We are talking about after bars close.”
After his disappearance, police mounted a massive search of the rugged canyons and hills in the area where Smith lived and worked, and family and friends have passed out fliers and created a website. In some theaters in Los Angeles, a missing person’s poster has been shown before the previews. Police have received hundreds of calls about Smith’s whereabouts, with reports of sightings in Canada, Hawaii, and Mexico. But “it was obviously not him,” O’Brien says. The search for the missing executive has extended to California’s beaches, where the family spent a lot of time.
Smith’s devotion to his sons is an aspect of his life about which friends, colleagues and neighbors all agree. They surfed together, watched sports together, and Smith often bragged about 21-year-old Evan, who is playing basketball at the University of Southern California. Smith played on UCLA’s 1975 national basketball championship team under coach John Wooden.
“He loved his boys,” Van Tassell says. “I always fell a little short in my relationship with my son when I compared myself with Gavin. He was always in there with his boys a little deeper, a little more emotionally and physically. I envied that. We always held up Gavin on a pedestal in terms of his ability to be a dad.”
In fact, when Smith failed to pick up his youngest son for school on the morning of May 2, his wife immediately knew something was wrong.
“Stuff goes wrong and people short-circuit, for sure,” Van Tassell says. “But Gavin had a lot of resources, and it would be shocking to me if he harmed himself in some way or prevented himself in some way from being able to interact with those kids. It would have to be a traumatic brain injury or some horrible thing that would keep him out of his kids’ lives.”
Detectives say that although Smith “was very attached to his kids” and they don’t think he would leave them, they have looked into whether he had a secret bank account, cell phone, or a new life insurance policy. None of it has panned out. “You don’t have to be a cop to know that the longer he is missing, the worse the possibility,” McSweeney says. “It is very worrisome….the things that we know don’t take us strongly to any theory.”
Smith’s friends and family agree with the police that time is not on their side. “I feel certain he’s not alive,” says Van Tassell, who met the rest of his friends for coffee last week. “Missing Gavin, we each had old text messages from him on our phones that we read aloud to each other. Most were ridiculous or fun or inspirational, but were consistently there—two, three times a week from him. Dozens, probably hundreds. And then, May 1st, there were none.”