The headless and handless body of a woman was found Wednesday morning by sightseers in a remote area off Ortega Highway, several miles outside San Juan Capistrano.
"It was a gruesome discovery," said Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
He said the couple first thought it was a mannequin when they spotted it about 8 a.m. But when they took a closer look, they called police.
The body was about 150 feet down a cliff below a highway turnout, about 14 miles east of Interstate 5. It is believed to be that of a white woman in her mid-to-late 20s, Amormino said.
"Without hands, of course, it makes identification more difficult," he said.
"Obviously, the suspect who did this didn't want her identified."
The body, clad only in underpants, has no tattoos, scars or other marks to aid in its identification, he said.
Investigators said they believe the woman was killed elsewhere and dumped over the cliff late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The body was visible from the highway.
By Wednesday afternoon, authorities had ruled out the possibility that the body might be that of Laci Peterson, the 27-year-old pregnant woman missing from Modesto since Christmas Eve.
"We do not have any recent reports of missing women in Orange County," said Amormino, adding that it might take "some time until we can determine who the victim is."
About 20 miles of the highway, from Nichols Institute into Riverside County, were shut down for most of the day while coroner's investigators -- who had helped lift the body off the hillside in a gurney -- set up a makeshift morgue on the highway to examine the remains.
About 20 Orange County sheriff's deputies combed a five-mile radius looking for other evidence, including the missing body parts.
Investigators said the search was expected to continue in the San Juan Hot Springs area of Cleveland National Forest.Authorities said that they will attempt to identify the body through DNA.
"Of course, we will be examining any reports of any missing females ... in surrounding counties," Amormino said.