Gary Devore was driving home through the Mojave Desert having just finished a film script. Devore was a successful Hollywood screenwriter, script doctor and producer, known for films like Raw Deal, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Dogs of War, starring Christopher Walken. But this script wasn't like those films. It was full of allegations against the US government involving drugs and bank robbery, all set against one of the 20th century's most controversial wars, the invasion of Panama.
Devore never made it home that night. He disappeared, lost to the desert in the dead of night as he drove home with his just-finished script. He was found dead one year later, but the script, along with both his hands, was missing.
This, at least, is how Dr Matthew Alford, a British academic and expert regarding the links between Hollywood and politics, tells it. Alford believes Devore's disappearance is the "greatest spy story never told", and he has gone to extraordinary lengths to tell it.
Devore disappeared in 1997 and, despite an extensive search, no trace of him was found for a year. He was eventually discovered by an amateur detective who said he had "a hunch". It seemed he had hit the barriers on the California Aqueduct and flipped into the water below. Unsurprisingly, the case became popular with conspiracy theorists, with many people speculating Devore may have been murdered by anyone from Russian drug gangs to the CIA.
In addition to Devore having no hands, numerous things about the official report are suspicious. His laptop containing the script – The Big Steal – and his gun were missing. Furthermore, the aqueduct was searched extensively during the initial disappearance with no success and it showed no signs of impact. For the official account to work, Devore would have had to have driven three miles against traffic without being seen. Finally, Devore's lights weren't on, so the drive would have been in complete darkness. According to Hollywood Private Investigator Donald Crutchfield, who worked for the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, "Evel Knievel on his best night couldn't do that."
This all seems unbelievable, and that's exactly what made Dr Alford spend almost ten years investigating whether someone, or some organisation, killed Devore. "It's very difficult to actually prove something happened, like a murder," he explained. "But you can prove that something didn't happen, like an impossible accident. How can you possibly turn around on a motorway and drive three miles against traffic with your lights off? If those facts are accurate, and a range of experts say that is not possible, then I would go as far as to say you've proven the first state-sponsored killing in the United States. It follows on deductively that it has to therefore be murder and it has to be a cover up and there's no one else who can do that."
Alford's investigation into Devore's death has resulted in an award-winning documentary, directed by William Westaway and released in 2014, and a book, released this April, both entitled The Writer With No Hands. An updated version of the film intended for wider release will be released in 2017. Just to add a little more mystery, when the initial website for the documentary was launched, it was immediately taken down and whoever did it removed all traces of the attack from the code.
The Writer With No Hands reveals numerous previously unknown facts about the case. The hand bones recovered from the river were incomplete. The official report stated there were 23, when actually there were just three. These did not include Gary's deformed left little finger, which would have been an obvious identifier, and it was impossible to extract DNA from them because they were "too old".
Alford's film suggests that men claiming to be government agents entered Gary's house and removed more information about the script in the days following his disappearance, and there is no record of the final phone call Gary made to his wife, in which he claimed, "I'm pumping pure adrenaline here." Multiple witnesses also reported an unmarked black helicopter taking pictures of the vehicle as it was retrieved in 1998. Alford discovered this was neither a police helicopter nor from a nearby air force base.
Alford presented his findings to the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department and requested their file on Devore, which was 600 pages long and marked "confidential". However, because of his new information, they said they may need to reopen the criminal investigation and therefore could not release the file. Alford's evidence seemed to show there was, at best, an honest but blatant error regarding the hand bones, but he felt the Sheriff's Department was always unwilling to engage with him. "The police pretended to take it extremely seriously, but did not take it at all seriously. The police should have long ago reinvestigated and evaluated what went wrong in their handling of this," he told me.
Alford also learned that Devore had a working relationship with the CIA. Devore's ex-wife and widow recalled phone calls from people pertaining to be with government services, and remembered him working on documents with Cyrillic writing that he would not explain. It was in fact his widow, Wendy, who first revealed details of the script, telling CNN:
"He had been very disturbed over some of the things that he had been finding in his research. He was researching the United States invasion of Panama, because he was setting the actual story that he was writing against this; and the overthrow of Noriega and the enormous amounts of money laundering in the Panamanian banks, also our own government's money laundering."
Alford found out that Devore worked at Tonopah Air Force Base (Area 52), and uncovered evidence of his travelling to South America with the military. Devore knew Chase Brandon, the face of the CIA's Hollywood office in the 1980s. Brandon is Tommy Lee Jones' cousin, and met Devore when Devore was Jones' best man in 1981. Devore's publicist, Michael Sands, claimed to work with the CIA, and award-winning AP journalist Linda Deutsch described him as "very tied into the military".
These links between politics, the military and Hollywood were assumed to have been weakened. In 1975 it was revealed the CIA had infiltrated almost all aspects of the news and entertainment media as part of Operation Mockingbird, and it had been assumed that since then this had been curtailed. However evidence discovered in recent years by Alford and other academics like Tricia Jenkins has revealed just how prevalent government influence in Hollywood is.
Alford says he has been surprised by how much have been discovered. "This nexus of entertainment and politics is so close," he explained. "When I began researching how films represent American foreign policy for my PhD I thought I was putting together two completely disparate things. But actually it has become so apparent that the worlds of entertainment and politics are very closely intertwined and so much closer than we ever believed."
If Devore was working for the government, then over the years his ideology changed. Numerous friends recounted how he became more sceptical of US power and Alford believes it was because of his time with the military. "He was almost an embodiment of the entertainment media, of fiction, flippancy and comedy," Alford said of Devore, who was known for having a Hollywood lifestyle, dating Janet Jackson and befriending the likes of Schwarzenegger and Kurt Russell. "For him to suddenly turn and face the reality of what the world of politics at the brutal end of the spear is like, he was not the kind of man who was going to react conventionally. Gary was an artist, he would not have been able to cope in the ways a soldier could."
This was very apparent in his final script for The Big Steal. Set during the invasion of Panama, the film promised to reveal the real reason for the war. The script was full of scepticism, containing lines like, "It sounds like the Pentagon planned the bank robbery and the war is just a diversion," and "you think we'd really invade Panama just to grab Noriega?" British director and friend of Devore John Irvin told Alford, "Gary might have found a particular tape," and Alford is certain the stealing of secrets was the third act reveal. In particular, Alford focuses on claims made in British newspaper, the Correspondent, in 1989, that Noriega had run a honeytrap for US officials. Dr Alford suggests that Devore's film may have presented the invasion as nothing more than a diversion that would allow the US into Panama to steal back incriminating photos of senior US officials that Noriega could have used as blackmail.
It's at this point you have to consider whether this is a conspiracy theory that has gone way too far. One review, in POV magazine, questioned whether the subject of the film is really Devore or Alford himself.
[Alford's] so involved that he fails to realize when Westaway makes him the subject of the documentary. While Gary [Devore]'s death raises essential questions about the propaganda machine, the figurative disappearance of Matthew [Alford] reveals the perils of all-consuming intellectualism. Only Hollywood escapism makes one believe that one can catch a fish that isn't even there.
Alford does pepper The Writer With No Hands with details of how researching Devore impacted him. At times, the deeper Alford got into tying the threads of the Devore case together, the more his own life unravelled. Alford was one of the perfect people to investigate Devore, an expert in the politics of Hollywood from a background in academia who had the opportunity to devote himself to the case, and even he saw his personal life stretched to the limit by the research.
Alford will also be the first to admit that "passionate interest" could simply be the professional way of saying "obsession". The extent to which he devoted himself to Devore was not healthy and the threat of him becoming a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist remains constant throughout the book. When we got deep into some discussions he would catch himself and stop, saying "I'm talking as though it's 2011, 2012 again."
He described how far he'd been willing to go. "We got footage of me driving down a motorway at night and I turn off the headlights to see what would happen. I immediately scream and turn the lights back on. You really can't see a thing, it's worse than pitch black. Will [the director] said 'okay, we've got that shot', and because I was so into the thing at the time I was like 'no, let's do it again', and I immediately did it and panicked again."
The complete Devore story may never come out, and even Alford isn't admitting just how much he knows. He left certain names out of the book and refused to answer certain questions during our chat (such as, 'Do you think you spoke to anyone who knows exactly what happened?'). However when you speak to Alford, you sense he'll always be a bit disappointed he didn't find a smoking gun.
"This whole thing was such a house of cards," he said as we finished our discussion. "Anything could have tipped it."
"And who knows," he added with perfect conspiratorial tone. "Maybe it did."
More on VICE: