Authorities confirmed Friday that a mountain lion killed 35-year-old cyclist Mark Reynolds, whose body was found shortly after another cougar attack along a popular trail in the rugged Orange County foothills.
It is the sixth fatal mauling of a human by a mountain lion in California and the first since 1994.
Deputies said Thursday night that they shot and killed the 110-pound mountain lion responsible for the attacks, but on Friday they weren’t taking any chances. For now, they will shoot to kill any mountain lion they encounter near the trail, Orange County sheriff’s spokesman Jim Amormino said.
Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, will remain closed indefinitely.
By Friday morning, investigators believed they knew how the attack unfolded. About noon Thursday, the chain broke on Reynolds’ bike, putting the Foothill Ranch cyclist near a stalking mountain lion. Authorities said Friday that when Reynolds crouched to fix his bike, he assumed a posture that probably spurred the lion to attack.
The lion dragged him off the trail, and Reynolds’ body went undetected until late Thursday afternoon, authorities said.
Thursday afternoon, the cougar, protective of its now partially buried prey, mauled another passing biker. Anne Hjelle, 30, of south Orange County was rescued by her riding companion and other trail bikers as she was being dragged by the head into the brush. She remains hospitalized in serious condition.
With the help of trackers in helicopters using infrared scopes, two Orange County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed an apparently healthy, 110-pound, 2-year-old male mountain lion late Thursday. Its paw prints matched those near the scene of the attacks, officials said.
Later Thursday night, a 70-pound female lion was killed by a car about four miles away, but officials do not believe that animal was involved in the attacks.
Wildlife experts estimate that there are 4,000 to 6,000 adult mountain lions in California, including about half a dozen in the Whiting Ranch park area. Attacks, though, are rare. Reynolds is the first fatality in Orange County.
“Often [cougars] are reclusive and don’t want to be seen,” said Doug Updike, a senior wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. “It’s very abnormal behavior. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning” than attacked by a mountain lion.
Since 1890, there have been 21 attacks in California -- 19 of them occurring since 1986.
He pointed out, though, that Reynolds was alone when he was attacked -- as are nearly all victims of cougar maulings. And he was probably crouching -- a posture, Updike said, that can convey weakness to a stalking cat.
Mountain lion experts say that while the animals generally stay away from humans, they are more likely to attack small prey, such as a person in a crouched position. To a cougar, the difference between a person bent over fixing a bicycle and a small animal may be indistinguishable. And when they do attack, their tendency is to snatch an object and pull it toward them -- like a cat snagging a toy.
Tests on the animal that was killed may reveal additional clues explaining its aggressiveness.
Wildlife experts say that increased development in wild areas has made such incidents inevitable. “You have more people living and recreating in lion habitat,” Updike said.
Among them are mountain bikers like Reynolds and Hjelle, who take to the trails as a way to test themselves. Reynolds’ co-workers at the Anaheim office of OMS Sports, a Kentucky-based marketing firm that represents extreme sports athletes, described the account executive as an outgoing, competitive cyclist and motocross racer.
“I can’t begin to tell you the amount of grief and pain our company and clients are suffering right now,” said company President Fred Bramblett. “I’m numb. This is so unreal. Mark was a very loyal, very hard-working employee here at OMS Sports and will be sorely missed by all of those he came across. Such a tragic, tragic event.”
A family friend, Ruth Gaddie, said Reynolds’ parents in St. Joseph, Mo., are “taking comfort knowing that he died doing what he loved most.”
But, she added, “The fact of how he was killed is very disturbing to [them]. They’re in shock.”
Cycling, Gaddie said, was the love of Reynolds’ life.
He did it in his spare time, on vacations, at races and -- by extension -- for a living. He was such an avid biker that he left Colorado a couple of years ago and moved to Southern California so that he could ride year-round, though his friends say even bad weather in Colorado Springs didn’t keep him off his bike.
Reynolds’ former boss, Chris Carmichael, recalled spotting bike tracks in about six inches of snow. “I remember thinking, ‘What guy is riding his bike on this day?’ ” said Carmichael, who coaches five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. “At the bottom of the canyon I looked up, and it was Mark. He was just a die-hard.”
The Missouri native was committed to cycling and was in great physical shape after losing about 40 pounds. But his friends said cycling was not the only thing that defined him. He was friendly and generous, with a knack for making people feel better.
“If you were getting a little stressed, he’d just give you a goofy look and say, ‘You need a hug,’ ” said friend and former co-worker Kevin Dessart. “And then he’d give you a hug just to throw you off and get you out of your funk.... A real good guy.”
The last several Christmases he bought bikes and gave them to poor children. It was something he did quietly, without seeking attention or asking for a lot of help.
But it was the passion for biking that drew him, again and again, to the trails in south Orange County. And, though they did not know each other, it is a passion he shared with Hjelle, who frequently rode the same trails at Whiting Ranch.
She was riding Thursday with members of the Trail Angels, a Christian women’s mountain biking group based at Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest. When Hjelle joined three years ago, she quickly stood out as one of the group’s strongest riders, earning the nickname “top sprocket.”
“She doesn’t go out there to prove anything to anyone,” said Jacke Van Woerkom, 41, of Lake Forest. “She’s out there because she loves riding with a passion.”
She may not be out to prove anything, but her friend and frequent riding partner, Debi Nicholls -- the woman who saved her life -- said Hjelle possesses a competitive streak.
“She is really hard-core, but doesn’t have the stomach for racing,” Nicholls said. “She just preferred to ride hard and kick every man’s butt in Orange County, which she can. She’s humble, but if there is a guy in front of her, she won’t let him stay there.”
Hjelle, a fitness trainer and former Marine, met her husband while mountain biking. She would often call him from her cell phone when she reached a summit.
After the attack Thursday, she was conscious and coherent -- asking friends to call her husband.
She underwent a lengthy surgery Friday at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo to help repair deep cuts to her face.
Nicholls said she visited Hjelle several times and does not know how long her friend will remain in the hospital. In an interview at her home in the Orange County foothill community of Rancho Cielo, she recounted the attack.
She said Hjelle was screaming, “I’m going to die! I’m going to die!” But Nicholls held on tight to Hjelle’s left leg and told her, “I am not going to let you die!”
Nicholls threw her bicycle at the lion to distract it, but “he didn’t even flinch. He was so focused on her.”
Friends from the Trail Angels gathered at the hospital, bringing two bouquets of white lilies and purple tulips, an angel statue bearing a Scripture passage and a waist-high get-well card signed by dozens of the group’s members.
One rode her bike across it, leaving a track of dirt. Some chose to show their support by joining an already-scheduled ride Friday morning.
“Going on that ride was the best thing we could’ve done,” said Jody Marcon, 39, of Dana Point. “Get together, cry a little and ride. We prayed big time for everybody.”
In the Portola Hills neighborhood next to Whiting Ranch, residents said they were stunned. The wilderness park is one of the area’s draws. Jill Wasserman, 24, who lives less than a mile from where the attacks occurred, rides horses along the trails and has seen mountain lion tracks.
“I think it will scare some people off and make them think twice about riding alone,” Wasserman said. “I’m riding a 1,000-pound horse, thinking I’m not going to get hurt. But I won’t ride by myself anymore after this.”
Scott Pool, 34, moved to the area from Lake Forest to get away from the traffic and noise.
“This is a nice neighborhood to raise a family,” he said, “but my legs are shaking just thinking about what happened last night.”
Times staff writers Claire Luna, David McKibben, Jennifer Mena and Mai Tran contributed to this report.