Details of Disappearance
Cavanaugh grew up in Ottawa, Illinois and owned a horse ranch in Elgin, Illinois as an adult. He got into financial trouble and his health broke down, and he was unable to keep up with his ranch, although he continued to work with other people's horses.
In 2004, his nephew, James "Jimmy" DeNoyer, suggested they go into the horse ranching business in Westport, California. DeNoyer had a twenty-acre plot there which he used to grow marijuana. DeNoyer drove to Illinois and picked up his uncle, and Cavanaugh selected 14 horses to stock the ranch.
Cavanaugh and DeNoyer found they didn't like each other, however, and Cavanaugh was unimpressed with his nephew's ranch setup. The horses were being badly treated and many of them died, and Cavanaugh wanted out of the business, but DeNoyer insisted they keep trying and bought more horses. Meanwhile, the two men continued to argue with each other and DeNoyer had full control of all of Cavanaugh's money. A photo of DeNoyer is posted with this case summary.
Just before Christmas in 2004, Cavanaugh was taken to the San Francisco Airport by DeNoyer, allegedly at gunpoint. He was stranded there without money or transportation for three days before a friend picked him up.
Cavanaugh stayed with the friend for a few weeks, then went to Plowshares, a facility for the indigent in Ukiah, California. Other people there heard him say he wanted to go back to DeNoyer's property to get his belongings and his three dogs. This, in March 2005, is the last time anyone saw him. He was reported missing in May.
David Neily, another man connected to DeNoyer, vanished on April 14, 2006. In May 2020, his skeletal remains were found in an isolated area in Branscomb, California. The bones were identified in November 2021. His death is under investigation and it's not clear whether foul play was involved.
In December 2005, Mendocino County Animal Control seized 36 of DeNoyer's quarter horses; it was the largest such intervention in county history. The horses had been severely neglected and were starving and without shelter.
Police arrested the ranch caretaker and also seized four healthy dogs, three of which had belonged to Cavanaugh. The caretaker was subsequently released without charge and the dogs returned to DeNoyer.
DeNoyer said he was unaware of how his horses were being treated and blamed the caretakers he'd hired to look after them. He was indicted on 36 felony counts of cruelty to animals, but at trial the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
DeNoyer is considered a person of interest in both Neily and Cavanaugh's disappearances, but he hasn't been charged in either case. Foul play is suspected.