A bike rider was attacked by a mountain lion as she rode through a popular Orange County wilderness park Thursday, and the body of a man, who may have been killed by the same animal, was found nearby.
If confirmed, the death would be the first killing of a human by a mountain lion in California since 1994.
Hours later, sheriff's deputies shot to death a mountain lion spotted near where the man's body had been found. They said they were not certain they had killed the animal responsible for the attacks.
Witnesses to the attack on the woman said the mountain lion clamped its jaws around her head and dragged her off the trail before she was rescued by other riders.
"I have never seen anything like this -- it was a tug of war between the mountain lion trying to drag her down the ravine by her face" and another cyclist "who had her by the legs," said Mike Castellano, 41, of Dana Point.
Capt. Stephen Miller, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority, who was called to the scene at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, said, "It's not unusual to have mountain lion sightings," but this kind of attack "is absolutely incredible."
The woman, who was attacked about 4 p.m., was identified by friends as Anne Hjelle, 30, of Santa Ana. She was taken to Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo with cuts.
Hospital officials said she was in serious condition.
Authorities did not release the name of the dead man, whose body was found near where Hjelle had been attacked. It was not immediately clear when and how he had been killed -- by the mountain lion or something else.
A witness to the attack on Hjelle, Nils Magnuson, 33, of Long Beach, said he had stopped to investigate an abandoned bike alongside the trail. Moments later, he said, he heard a scream from one of two women riding ahead of him.
When he reached the scene, he saw Hjelle's head in the mountain lion's mouth. "All I could see was her body," he said. "I couldn't see her head at all."
The lion had pulled Hjelle off her bike and dragged her into the brush. Debi Nicholls, Hjelle's riding companion, held on to her legs and screamed. Magnuson and Castellano rushed to help, throwing rocks at the cougar.
"There was a lot of blood," Castellano said. "I jumped down the ravine ... grabbed a couple of rocks. I was maybe 10 feet from the lion."
Nicholls said she saw the lion after hearing "a weird scream" from Hjelle. The lion was gripping her head in his jaws -- "He stayed right on her," she said.
Nichols said she grabbed Hjelle's leg and hung on as the lion dragged them 30 feet down the hillside. "I kept screaming, hoping someone would hear me," she said. And amid the trauma of the moment, she struggled to reassure her companion: "I told her there was no way I was letting go," Nicholls said.
The body of the dead man was discovered by a sheriff's helicopter farther up the trail, shortly after the attack on Hjelle.
"He was not with the group," Miller said, "and had possibly been there anywhere from a multitude of hours to a multitude of days. He appears to have been killed by the same mountain lion."
Wildlife experts, however, said that it was unclear whether the man had been killed by the lion. They said it was possible that the lion had come upon the body, then attacked Hjelle to protect what it considered its food.
Late Thursday, a healthy 2-year-old, 110-pound male lion was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies, said Steve Edinger, assistant chief in charge of five counties for the Department of Fish and Game. The animal was spotted 50 yards from the man's body -- which, as is common with mountain lion prey, had been partially buried.
Authorities continued to search in the area, in case the mountain lion responsible for the attacks was still alive.
If it is confirmed that the man was killed by a big cat, authorities said, it would be the first such death in Orange County.
Cougar attacks on humans are rare. Wildlife experts say that the animals tend to be timid, elusive and frightened by humans and that they attack only when sick or famished.
Mountain lions are no strangers in Orange County's canyons and wilderness parks. In 1986, two high-profile attacks at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park fueled a debate over lifting a moratorium on mountain lion hunting.
In March of that year, 5-year-old Laura Small was hiking in the park with her parents and 9-year-old brother. The family had paused beside a shallow stream next to a nature trail when Laura's mother saw a cat grab her by the head and drag her into the bushes. A stranger hit the animal with a stick, forcing it to drop the girl. Laura's head and face were severely injured, and she remains blind in one eye and partially paralyzed.
Seven months later, Justin Mellon, 6, was attacked while hiking with his family.
The park was closed to children for more than 10 years after the attacks.