The leafy, meandering trails of Ernest E. Debs Regional Park are normally bustling with early-morning hikers, joggers and dog walkers.
But on Thursday, less than a day after the bodies of a young woman and a teenage girl were discovered in bushes on a hillside, an eerie stillness fell over the picturesque park.
FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this article spelled the first name of victim Gabriela Jennifer Calzada as Gabriella.
The grim discovery shattered the serenity many find in the rolling hills in Montecito Heights, said Rosalia Lopez, 46, who visits nearly every day.
“It takes away the tranquillity of the place,” she said. “You have to be more alert now.”
A woman walking her dog discovered the bodies Wednesday afternoon, and a day later the circumstances surrounding the deaths remained mostly a mystery. Regulars were left shocked and frightened to go to a park they once turned to for serenity.
It was unclear how long the bodies had been at the park before they were discovered.
Smith said that the two had suffered blunt-force trauma, but the LAPD was waiting for coroner’s officials to determine the cause of death. Detectives were trying to determine where they were killed, Smith said, but believe their bodies were in the park for a “short period of time.”
The bodies were found fully clothed near a trail, about 300 yards from the street, and there did not appear to be any signs of sexual assault, officials said.
“We’re looking for anyone who may have seen, heard, thought anything was odd,” Baeza said.
Last year, Los Angeles police detectives beefed up patrols and released a sketch of a man believed to have attacked three women at the park. The man, believed to be 20 to 25 years old and who often was seen riding a bicycle, was said to be growing increasingly bold in his attacks.
According to police, he groped a woman who was walking alone Jan. 13, 2014. Six months later, on June 25, he approached a woman and asked to use her cellphone, then exposed himself as he got closer.
Then on July 20, 2014, the man, who had reportedly been jogging, approached a 38-year-old hairdresser walking her dog on a trail. This time, the man was armed with a knife. He grabbed the woman’s shoulder and punched her face, causing her to fall to the ground. Police said the attacker stood over her for a few seconds before running away.
Just past the main entrance to the park off Monterey Road, up the winding road leading to a parking lot and along another meandering path, police worked late into the night at a picnic area, searching for evidence, said Bob Bermudez, a regular at the park who lives in one of the nearby hillside homes.
The picnic area, shaded by large tree branches, was littered with trash and covered in graffiti Thursday afternoon. Above a picnic table, yellow police tape was tied to a tree branch.
The area is popular with gang members, who are known to fire their guns there from time to time, Bermudez said.
“These things happen, even in the best of neighborhoods,” Bermudez said.
Lopez, the frequent visitor, said this week’s incident has only deepened her worry about her safety at the park. She and other women have discussed how unsafe they feel now.
A 53-year-old woman, who declined to give her name because she feared for her safety, said she and a group of friends were working out at the park about 11 a.m. Wednesday when they came across two young women who appearded to be in their 20s on a trail.
She didn’t know whether they were the same two whose bodies were later found. As she and her friends continued, they passed a man who was wearing a cap and carrying a backpack. The man quickly turned his cap forward and looked away from them as he passed. Then he blasted rock music.
She said she was startled by the music and told her friends, “Hurry up, let’s walk faster.”
The woman said she and her friends have been working out at the park for several years, but now that may change.
“We are never coming back here again because we are scared,” she said.
Times staff writers Veronica Rocha and Richard Winton contributed to this report.