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Hamlet Nestled in Nature's Beauty Shaken by New Fear

July 26, 1999|CARLA RIVERA and DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EL PORTAL — The grim spectacle seems to have come full circle for this hamlet.

Townsfolk had just begun to get over the shock that their close-knit community was the center of national attention in the disappearance and murder of three tourists.

But those emotions came rushing back Sunday with the arrest of a maintenance man who lived in the very place--Cedar Lodge--where the tourists were last seen. And there was a new emotion: fear, that their tiny enclave of unlocked doors and easy openness may have to forever change.

An old Mariposa County mining town nestled in the Sierra foothills, El Portal is an improbable focus for such horrible tidings. The National Park Service uses a portion of the town, at the western border of Yosemite National Park, as administrative headquarters for Yosemite, and most of its 800 or so residents either work at the park or provide support services.

"It's virtually a company town," said Jerry Rankin, a former journalist who manages a motel in nearby Mariposa and acts as spokesman for Cedar Lodge. "There are two motels, a little country market and a Chevron station. But the town basically exists for one reason: to support Yosemite."

It is a tolerant place, residents say. If people smoke dope, they aren't bothered. If they skinny dip in the rushing mountain water, nobody cares. If they come to this cathedral of Mother Nature to meditate, it's OK.

There is even a gathering spot for the locals who enjoy doing both called the 25-mile-an-hour turn. That's about what it is, a wide, slow turn with a buffer of vegetation that shields a shallow pool on the river from the cars on the highway.

El Portal also is a place where everyone knows everyone else, said Rankin. Although he does not know suspect Cary Stayner, he has talked to people who do. And no one would have associated him with such grisly deeds.

"You just don't expect this type of thing in a rural atmosphere," Rankin said. "Essentially, this is an urban crime that happened in a rural area."

But its very remoteness can be a little forbidding, Rankin admitted.

Earlier this century, El Portal was the site of a railroad used to haul timber and minerals such as barium. Miners also searched for gold in nearby mountains during the mid- to late 19th century.

The last mine was closed in the 1940s, but entrances to mine shafts, some as deep as 2,000 feet, can be seen from California 140. It is rugged terrain with many nooks and crannies, but one that attracts tourists from around the world.

Steve Spelpz, who manages the El Portal general store, said tourism is unlikely to abate.

"A lot of people who live around here have expressed fear; it's very unsettling," said Spelpz. "But we get a lot of people from Germany, Italy, France, and they don't mention anything."

Aaron Ludwig, 16, who was born and raised in El Portal, called it an area with the kind of slow-going lifestyle and lack of distractions that you kind of hate while growing up. It is only when you are older that you begin to appreciate its the raw physical beauty, he said.

It is a friendly place, said Ludwig, and the spiral of events has not quite sunken in.

"Even though there were four murders in the last six months, it still seems like kind of an [isolated] incident," said Ludwig. "It doesn't seem like it would happen again. It doesn't seem real."

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