Stabbings Shatter Peaceful Campground : Crime: The manager of the Flying B Ranch in Cleveland National Forest dies of knife wounds and his fiancee is critically injured in a mysterious attack.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 49-year-old man who was planning to be married this weekend was stabbed to death at his remote Baker Canyon home Monday, and his fiancee was critically injured by the same assailant, authorities said.

Orange County Sheriff's Department investigators said they had few clues in the killing and declined to release the dead man's name. But neighbors identified him as Rogelio Merloz, the well-liked maintenance manager of the Flying B Ranch, where the attack occurred.

Investigators also withheld details about the 41-year-old fiancee, except to say that she had been stabbed several times and was in critical condition at an undisclosed hospital. Merloz and his fiancee were planning to leave Tuesday for Mexico, where their wedding had been scheduled for this weekend.

The killing, which occurred Monday night, shattered the serenity of the 320-acre ranch--a private gated campground in the Cleveland National Forest.

Residents who occupy the campground's trailer homes say they had never imagined that their rural enclave could be the scene of such violence, but they awakened Tuesday morning to discover that the narrow, dead-end road leading to the ranch had been closed by sheriff's deputies.

"We're walking around in a state of absolute shock," said one resident, who asked not to be identified. "We have no reason to believe that anyone would want to do something like this to such peaceful people."

Sheriff's Lt. Richard J. Olson said deputies received an emergency call at about 9:30 p.m. Monday about "unknown trouble at the ranch," which is located about 3 miles southeast of Irvine Lake.

Upon arriving, deputies discovered that a resident who had just come out of one of the campground's showers found Merloz lying a few feet away, bleeding profusely from multiple stab wounds, Olson said.

Paramedics pronounced Merloz dead on the scene, and deputies later found his wounded fiancee, identified only as "Rosa" by neighbors, about 100 yards away in the couple's trailer. The woman was treated for multiple stab wounds before paramedics took her to a nearby hospital, Olson said.

Investigators have not yet determined a motive for the attacks, but they are searching for Merloz's white 1984 Nissan pickup, which was seen speeding away from the ranch moments after the stabbings, Olson said.

The pickup is easily recognizable because a broken rear window has been replaced with a piece of cardboard or plywood. Several potted plants were in the bed of the truck.

Merloz, who had lived at the ranch for the past 12 years, was well-liked by residents and regular visitors to the quiet campgrounds. News of his death rattled many of those who are part of the park's close-knit set, described by one resident as a "clannish" community, protective of its privacy.

The stabbings had "brought home the point that even in the forest we are not safe from crime," one resident said.

Another resident, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said her husband had chatted with Merloz's fiancee less than an hour before the stabbings, adding that she was excited about getting married.

"We're all terribly, terribly upset about this and praying that Rosa will get better," the resident said. "They were so happy and excited about their future."

The Flying B Ranch belongs to a national network of campgrounds, and visitors pay a small fee to use its facilities. Some stay for lengthy periods of time, and their trailers represent a second home--away from the smog, freeways and hustle of their daily lives.

Residents say they often see mountain lions, mule deer, coyotes, opossums and other wildlife frolicking on the ranch's baseball diamond and drinking water from the swimming pool.

Several residents speculated that robbery was the likely motive for the attacks because Merloz might have been carrying cash with him in preparation for the trip and wedding ceremony.

One woman said residents did not hear any unusual noises coming from Merloz's trailer, leading them to believe that the assailant was probably someone Merloz had given permission to enter the community.

"He was every bit a gentleman who was generous to a fault," she said. "But we're still wondering why he had to die like this."

Officials of the Bright Light Center in Santa Ana, where Merloz was a volunteer, echoed the praise for their friend and colleague. Wilhelm de Nijs, the center's president, said that Merloz was a regular volunteer at the center's Bake Canyon Road campgrounds for impoverished children.

Merloz had volunteered at that campground ever since it opened about seven years ago and helped keep its water lines in good working condition. He would also clear brush and come by at least once a week to see if he could help, de Nijs said.

Merloz was a kind "nobleman," de Nijs said. "Everybody loved him."

Investigators are asking anyone with information about the incident or the pickup truck--with California license plate 3N95646--to call the Sheriff's Department at (714) 647-7000.

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