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O.C. Man Shoots Cougar in Yard; Officials Hunt, Kill It

Times Staff Writer

A Rancho Santa Margarita homeowner shot a mountain lion that had wandered into his backyard from nearby Cleveland National Forest on Tuesday, five miles from where a cougar killed a mountain biker two years ago. About 90 minutes later, authorities killed the 90-pound male cougar in a nearby ravine.

Bill Hill, a former Stanton police officer, said his wife spotted the cougar about 7 a.m. “I was taking out the trash when my wife let out a bloodcurdling scream from the house,” said Hill, 52.

Hill said he retrieved a 9-millimeter pistol from his car and entered his backyard through a side gate. He saw the cougar hunch down on a slope 30 feet away, with a 5-foot-high iron fence and a swimming pool between them. He feared the animal was going to attack, and he fired two shots.

“I thought I could be in trouble with the lion that close to me, especially when he went from standing up to hunching down,” he said.

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Hill said he also was worried about the cougar roaming through the neighborhood and past a school bus stop.

The wounded animal escaped through a hole in Hill’s wooden fence and ran across Robinson Ranch Road, leaving a bloody trail. Hill said he tried to follow the cougar in his car while shouting warnings to neighbors.

Orange County Sheriff’s Department officials, who had been called by Hill’s wife, said their helicopter found the cougar within minutes near a storm drain in the ravine, barely moving. Six deputies and two game wardens from the state Department of Fish and Game surrounded the area, about a quarter-mile from Hill’s Cimmaron Lane house.

The Sheriff’s Department alerted Robinson Elementary administrators at 7:45 a.m. to keep students inside. As students arrived, staff escorted them to their classrooms. The mountain lion was killed about half a mile from the school.

“We tried to exude a calmness about us,” said Don Snyder, the principal. “We were told the incident took place some distance away, so there wasn’t really a lot of panic.”

Jim Amormino, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said deputies and the game wardens killed the cougar about 8:30 a.m.

“Nobody likes killing a mountain lion because they are a protected species,” he said. “But the wounded lion was in close proximity to a school, and the ravine was surrounded by three communities. Shooting the animal is a last resort, but the main concern is the safety of the community.”

Fish and Game officials said they didn’t intend to confront the mountain lion in the canyon. But with the helicopter running out of fuel, they were worried about losing track of the animal.

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“The mountain lion was fairly stationary,” said Dan Sforza, a Fish and Game official. “If I had my druthers, I would have let the lion bleed out rather than going in there.”

Fish and Game and the Sheriff’s Department officials will investigate the shooting. Hill, who left the Stanton force in 1988, said he had been working as a private investigator and said he had a permit for his gun.

“We don’t want people to be out there taking matters into their own hands,” Sforza said. “If you feel threatened, I would prefer for you to go in the house and call 911.”

He said that judging from the length of the mountain lion’s teeth, the animal was 2 to 3 years old and not fully grown. A mature cougar weighs 110 to 150 pounds, he said.

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Debbie Vielma, who lives two doors from Hill, said she was getting her sixth-grade son ready for school when she heard two gunshots.

“It’s scary to know that a lion was in the neighborhood, especially as kids were starting to go to school,” she said. “I’m just glad it ended the way it did.”

In January 2004, Mark Reynolds, 35, of Foothill Ranch was mauled by a mountain lion while he crouched to fix his bicycle in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. Hours later, the cougar attacked Anne Hjelle, who was biking on the same trail at dusk. She suffered deep lacerations on the face and neck but survived.

Reynolds’ death was the first by a mountain lion in Orange County history and the first in California since 1994. Wildlife experts say there are 4,000 to 6,000 cougars in the state. Before the maulings of Reynolds and Hjelle, there had been 10 recorded attacks on humans in the state since 1890, resulting in five deaths.

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Sforza said he wasn’t surprised to hear that a mountain lion was in the Robinson Ranch neighborhood of Rancho Santa Margarita, which until recent years was open space. “This is pretty much their territory,” he said. “Any place there’s open space and deer, there’s going to be mountain lions.”


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