Murders put town's residents on edge
People have begun locking their doors and stopped sleeping outdoors since the murders of two camp counselors.
JENNER, Calif. (AP) -- Murder clues aren't easy to find along California's remote northern coast, frustrating the dozens of detectives trying to solve the slayings of two Christian camp counselors on an isolated beach.
Consider this: The killer, or killers, could have slipped away by land or sea.
The slayings could have happened in the dead of night, under the cover of fog or even in the day, with the culprit blending in among the many transients who ride the roller coaster-like Pacific Coast highway that hangs on oceanside cliffs, plunges to rocky beaches and climbs through towering redwood forests.
Lindsay Cutshall, 22, of Fresno in east-central Ohio, and Jason Allen, 26, of Zeeland, Mich., were shot in the head at close range while lying in sleeping bags under the stars on a driftwood-littered beach that lies far below a steep hillside, hidden from the view of passing cars.
Loggers, hippies, Yuppies, fishermen, retirees, surfers, wealthy weekenders, artists, marijuana growers and ranchers live here, mostly in places hidden from the road, all finding something in common in the sparsely populated terrain.
"This particular area is quite rugged and offers its own difficulties in terms of scene processing," Lt. Dave Edmonds said Thursday at what the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department said would be its last daily news conference on the case. "Just being in communication out there is difficult."
The killings have the typically laid-back coast on edge and townsfolk in Jenner, an outpost perched above the mouth of the Russian River, viewing their tiny community in a new light.
"We thought we were in a cocoon here, isolated and insulated from the rest of the world," said John Chyle, a retired airline pilot. "Then this happened in our back yard."
With 350 tips to follow up on, investigators said they were optimistic for a break in the case but had yet to find any motive for the shootings and were prepared for a long investigation.
No weapon had been found, there were no signs of robbery and there was no evidence of any other violence. A dozen officers returned to the scene Wednesday, more than a week after the killings, digging and sifting sand where the victims were shot at close range.
During a community meeting that night to calm jittery nerves and provide some answers, the sheriff and his top brass said they were keeping their minds open to any evidence or theories but were keeping details secret.
Asked if the couple might have picked up a hitchhiker, Edmonds went a bit further.
"That would be consistent with the type of people they were," said Edmonds, who likened the couple to evangelical missionaries. "They were friendly people willing to help."
The two worked at a Christian camp in the Sierra foothills all summer, leading teens and college students on rafting and hiking trips. They got away to the coast for the weekend and were expected back at the camp for its final days before returning home to Ohio to marry next month.
The raw beauty of the Pacific Coast has always been a temporary getaway for city folk and inland dwellers seeking the serenity of the sea. Grassy hills tumble to the shore, ending abruptly at craggy cliffs above wild beaches. Seals, sea lions and migrating whales can be seen in the nippy, rough waters.
For those who live here, it's become a permanent getaway.
Billy White came west from Indiana to play with a Santa Rosa rock band 18 years ago, then quickly moved out to the coast. He works as a printer of wine labels and doesn't mind struggling to get by.
"Living here makes you wealthy enough," he said. "A lot of us look at it that way."
Residents talk about the spiritual energy that comes from the mix of salt and fresh water where the river meets the Pacific. The Jenner Inn's guide for guests trumpets the "magical vortex of peace and tranquility." A peace flag waves a greeting above the inn, which has converted old logger cabins into guest cottages.
With the killings in the news, innkeepers have had more vacancies. The gas station has fewer cars at the pumps, and residents say they're locking their doors.
Rich Pearson, who came here from Detroit nearly 25 years ago and lives out of his 1968 Dodge van, said the killings have tainted his image of the place.
Before his drunken-driving arrests prompted officers to order him not to drive, he would park on the bluffs and open his van doors toward the ocean, sleeping in "the best room in the town."
But the killings have soured him on that lifestyle, he says, and his life is in limbo and his van is parked behind the brown trailer that serves as the post office for Jenner's 170 residents.
"I don't want to camp out here anymore," he said. "The moment's gone."