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Initial Exam Links Slain Lion to Fatal Attack

Times Staff Writer

Wildlife experts are confident the mountain lion killed Thursday was responsible for the fatal attack on an Orange County cyclist and a second attack that seriously wounded a woman. But they are seeking further scientific evidence, such as a DNA match of the victim, they said Saturday.

Substances found in the stomach of the 2-year-old, 110-pound male mountain lion included skin tissue and parts of a lung and liver consistent with that of a human, said Steve Edinger, assistant chief in charge of five counties for the California Department of Fish and Game.

But authorities will send the tissue samples taken at a UC Davis laboratory in San Bernardino to the Orange County coroner’s office for comparison with the victim’s DNA.

Mark Reynolds, 35, of Foothill Ranch, an avid mountain cyclist, was attacked by a mountain lion apparently during a stop to fix a broken bicycle chain while at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. The park will remain closed indefinitely.

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Authorities believe that Reynolds may have been crouching near his bicycle, a posture that probably spurred the lion to attack.

It is the sixth fatal mauling of a human by a mountain lion in California and the first since 1994.

Wildlife experts at the UC Davis laboratory who examined the mountain lion’s stomach contents did not find any plastic from the helmet or fibers from the clothing of Anne Hjelle, 30, the second victim.

Hjelle of south Orange County was rescued from the mountain lion’s jaws by Debi Nicholls, her cycling companion, and other trail riders. She was recovering at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo.

According to a recorded message by James Hjelle, Anne’s husband, she was resting and doing well. Her condition had improved from serious to fair, a hospital spokesman said.

“Her recovery is truly miraculous,” James Hjelle said.

Two deputies killed the mountain lion after the attacks on Reynolds and Hjelle.

Reynolds, whose passion was mountain bike riding, was alone when the attack occurred about noon Thursday, authorities said.

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Hjelle, a fitness trainer and former Marine, was riding with members of the Trail Angels, a Christian women’s mountain biking group based at Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest.

Nicholls and other witnesses said the mountain lion clamped its jaws around her head and dragged her off the trail. Nicholls said she threw her bike at the animal but failed to distract it. She then grabbed Hjelle’s left leg and hung on as the mountain lion began dragging both women down the hillside.

Nicholls told her friend: “I’m not going to let you die!”

The animal kept moving its grip from Hjelle’s face to her helmet and then her neck, Nicholls said.

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She credits the helmet for possibly saving her friend’s life.

The mountain lion eventually released its grip after two other trail riders arrived and started yelling and throwing rocks at it.

After reexamining the rugged park area where the attack occurred, authorities said Nicholls’ actions were nothing less than heroic.

One wildlife expert said trampled brush, scattered rocks and other evidence led him to conclude it had been an “extreme struggle, a battle scene.”

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By fighting and struggling with the animal, Nicholls did the right thing said Doug Updike, a senior wildlife biologist with Fish and Game.

If you come across a mountain lion, don’t run, Updike said.

Updike advised raising your arms to make yourself look big.

If you’re on a bike, put it over your head and talk loudly or yell.

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The secret, he said, is being a forceful presence. And if the mountain lion lunges and bites, punch and kick to fend it off. Throw rocks or hit it with a tree branch.

Let the mountain lion know that you won’t go down like a defenseless deer, he said.

With Whiting Ranch closed, throngs of mountain bike riders deluged other county wilderness parks, including the trails at Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.


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