It appeared at first that Marcia Harrigan and her 7-year-old daughter had died accidentally -- victims of a pounding surf that swept them into the sea as they hiked near Hearst Castle nearly a week ago.
Now, however, investigators with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department suspect darker causes for the death of the 43-year-old Hermosa Beach real estate agent and her daughter, Gillian.
As coroners prepare to examine the bodies today, a lawyer who represented Harrigan revealed Tuesday that the mother was locked in a bitter custody battle involving her daughter. The attorney, Jeffrey Doeringer, said Harrigan called him the day before she died and told him she was upset about a recent family court order granting custody of her daughter to father Glenn Goldman.
"She was concerned about turning the child over at a hearing the next day," Doeringer said. "Accepting it was very difficult for her; I told her to contact her attorney to see what was going on."
Although Doeringer had represented Harrigan nearly a decade ago in court proceedings involving two older daughters, he was not her lawyer in the battle over Gillian.
Rescue crews removed the bodies from a rocky beach near San Simeon on Thursday morning. The drownings occurred at a narrow, rocky beach about 40 feet below a vista point. At least one witness said there is no access road or trail to the beach from the road above.
Capt. Steve Bitto of the Cambria Fire Department and North Coast Ocean Rescue said the tide was high and 8- to 10-foot waves were rolling in as the bodies were recovered.
"The conditions were extremely hazardous," Bitto said. "It was pummeling the rescuers into the rocky beach."
Sheriff's investigators declined to comment on whether the custody issue figured in their investigation.
Investigators were canvassing Southern California over the weekend, tracing the mother and daughter's last steps, said Rob Bryn, a sheriff's spokesman. "All I can say at this point is we have a team of people working on it."
Harrigan and Goldman had never married, according to court documents, and there were signs their relationship was rocky. They sought temporary restraining orders against each other in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 1998 following an alleged incident at Goldman's Santa Monica apartment.
"He punched me in the back and told me we had to leave," Harrigan wrote in her declaration, adding that Goldman threatened to get "someone to 'whack me.' "
Goldman could not be reached Tuesday, but in his own declaration, he asked the court to issue an order keeping Harrigan away from him and another daughter, who was 4 at the time.
"I am fearful that she will return and become belligerent," Goldman wrote.
Harrigan also had a troubled relationship with her parents, who sued her in the late 1990s for visitation rights involving two older daughters, Danielle and Ariana, by ex-husband Craig Harrigan.
Marcia Harrigan's plight was recounted in a 2000 Los Angeles Times article about grandparents suing for visitation.
"This is a control issue with my mother," Harrigan told a Times reporter about the case. "They make me out to be a terrible mother. I get three or four letters a week from the lawyer saying: 'Do this or do that.' I can't get them out of my life." On Tuesday, Doeringer, Harrigan's old lawyer, said he was shocked when he learned that Harrigan and her daughter had died.
"I was sick when I heard about it," he said. "It struck me as hard as anything that's happened to me in my career. I'm very curious to find out what happened, especially since they died under suspicious circumstances."