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Attack on Tourists Stuns Idyllwild : Crime: Quiet mountain town laments assault that killed German woman. Her wounded husband is expected to survive.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As police struggled Tuesday to find clues in the killing of a German tourist who was gunned down at a highway turnout near here 24 hours earlier, residents of this close-knit mountain community tried to make sense of the brutal act and its effect on their bucolic home.

As a cold rain pelted them, three women placed a vase of wildflowers at the asphalt mountain turnout, lamenting a crime that left a German woman dead and her husband critically wounded.

“We’ve always felt that we lived in a sanctuary, and now we feel like we’ve been raped,” said Michele Marsh, positioning the vase of mountain lilacs, manzanita blooms and a lone iris.

“Crime is a cancer. It’s been down there, in the city, and now it’s spreading up here,” she said. “Maybe people in L.A. are desensitized to it. But we’re not.”

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Alongside the flowers was a hand-printed sign, posted in the ground earlier by others. It was defiantly addressed to the unknown killer:

“We Are Not Afraid of You. May Justice Be Done.”

Around noon Monday, a 64-year-old man and his 62-year-old wife, who arrived in Southern California on Friday from the western German town of Emmerlich to visit their daughter in Los Angeles, were shot in apparent execution style as they stood at the popular Indian Vista Point lookout, on the mountain highway north of Idyllwild.

Monday’s day trip was suggested by their daughter, investigators said: a leisurely drive up California 243 from Banning to Idyllwild. It is a winding, two-lane road affording sweeping views of the Coachella Valley beyond Palm Springs to the east and of the San Jacinto Valley to the west.

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The couple would have driven past Lake Fulmor, a popular fishing spot enshrouded in pines, before they pulled over half a mile later at Indian Vista Point. They walked past a signboard that read, “Welcome to San Bernardino National Forest,” and strolled 50 yards along an asphalt path that ended beneath a striking coulter pine. Below them were the communities of Hemet and San Jacinto.

No one except the husband knows exactly what happened next. The woman was shot several times, the head wound apparently killing her instantly. The man was shot in the back and then twice in the left cheek, shattering his jaw and blowing a hole in his windpipe.

The fact that the man survived and was able to struggle to his car to get help half a mile away was a source of amazement to the trauma surgeons who treated him at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs. Unable to speak and facing weeks of hospitalization, he is able to provide clues only by writing notes in German.

Homicide investigators in the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department hope to learn more as soon as he is well enough to be questioned. At a news conference Tuesday, deputies shed little light on the events surrounding the shooting.

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They would not say if the couple were ambushed or robbed, how many assailants there might have been or what kind of gun was used.

“We have no idea who the suspects are,” said Deputy Mark Lohman. “We have no description. It is hard to stereotype the mentality of a criminal, but this was cold and callous, unique to our area. We have a case that seems very cold-blooded.”

Lohman said there was no reason to believe the couple had been targeted as foreign tourists; their car had no identification decals indicating it was a rental vehicle.

Authorities have not released the names of the couple, saying they fear for the man’s safety when he is released from the hospital in several weeks because he is the only witness to his wife’s murder.

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Dr. Frank Ercoli, who operated on the man for several hours Monday, said he remains in critical condition and is on life-support equipment, but is expected to survive. He faces follow-up surgeries to reconstruct his face, Ercoli said.

The local townsfolk hope he will soon learn that the people here are pulling for him. On Tuesday morning, plans by a small group of residents to prepare a get-well banner swelled as several hundred residents signed their good wishes on it. “Get well. Our thoughts are with you. Your friends in Idyllwild,” it reads in German, translated by a local woman, Meta Krosch.

“The nurses said they’d put it on the wall in his room so he’ll see it,” said Marsh, who brought the wildflowers.

Krosch and her friends were bitter and scared as they thought about the shooting. Violence is not a total stranger in these mountains; in December, a Los Angeles man killed his estranged wife and their 13-year-old daughter at their cabin in nearby Pine Cove, then took off into the hills and killed himself.

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But that was domestic violence. Monday’s killing was different, the three women who brought flowers to the shooting site said. This was random, and that was the scary part.

“We don’t know that it won’t happen again,” said Jane Stonehill. “Our freedom is being taken from us. We hike these mountains, and we don’t know if we can anymore.”

Marsh said: “We’ve never felt fear before. People seek these mountains for their solitude. And now we feel threatened.”

Indeed, crime is not part of the daily vocabulary in this community of 4,000 people. It’s quiet up here, where there is a multitude of weekend cabins but no skiing, no fast-food joints, not even a restaurant that stays open past 9. Some folks boast that they don’t know where their house keys are because they’ve never been needed.

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“We’ve been an island in the sky, and now it has been invaded,” said Stephanie Chase, who has lived in Idyllwild for 40 years.

Others aren’t resigned to changing times or the realities of city life creeping up toward their refuge.

At Jan’s Red Kettle Restaurant, the morning buzz over hot coffee and flapjacks was about the shooting--and about the flood of television vans with satellite transmission dishes that cruised past the town circle.

“This is a town where the streets fold up at 7 or 8, and where big news is a car crash,” said Jan Boss, who runs the popular coffee shop. “My son came running up to me and said, ‘Boy, there are television people all over the town!’ ”

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“We feel Idyllwild is a positive place in a pretty negative world, and I don’t think that’s going to change because of what happened. This is a real peaceful place, and I’m sure it’s going to stay that way.”


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