A 110-pound mountain lion that authorities believe killed one cyclist and mauled another was shot dead in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park late Thursday.
The death of the unidentified man, said to be in his 20s, is the first such fatality in Orange County history.
Deputies and a Department of Fish and Game ranger killed the cat with at least two shots after finding it 10 feet away from the man's body, which the animal had partially covered with dirt.
Although forensic tests must be done to determine whether the felled cat was responsible for the attacks, the shooting ended a terrifying night of heroism and bloodshed on a popular biking trail just a mile south of Santiago Canyon Road.
The surviving victim, Anne Hjelle, was saved by a friend who held onto her legs while the cougar bit down on her head and pulled in a fierce tug-of-war. A group of men pummeled the beast with rocks, finally forcing it to flee without its prey.
Breathless and bloody, bicyclist Deborah Nichols literally wrestled the lion to save Hjelle, kicking its flanks, screaming at it and refusing to let go of her friend.
"I just kept holding onto her," said a distraught Nichols.
The only hint of the danger that awaited Hjelle and Nichols on Thursday afternoon along a narrow, muddy trail down to Cactus Ridge was a fallen bicycle.
It was about 4:15 p.m. The women had just passed the bike on the way down the trail, witnesses said, when a cougar bolted out of the brush, grabbing Hjelle by the left side of her face.
Nichols said she chased after the big cat as it dragged her friend 100 yards into a ravine.
"I just kept screaming, just screaming," Nichols said. She finally caught up with the lion.
Farther up the trail, a group of bikers heard the calls for help, beginning with a shriek of surprise and elevating into screams.
Diego Lopez, Dwayne Jenkins, Mike Castellano and Nils Magnuson ran into the shrubs, throwing softball-sized rocks and yelling at the lion.
"I hit him square in the face, he let go and took off," said Lopez, 35, of Aliso Viejo.
"It was a big one; I'm freaked," Magnuson said.
The men carried Hjelle, a former Tustin Marine and an instructor at 24-Hour Fitness, out of the ditch and onto the trail as she murmured for someone to call her husband.
"She kept saying, 'This is unbelievable,'" said Castellano, 41, of Dana Point.
Another biker, Jeremy Collins, 32, of Huntington Beach, was disconnected twice while calling 911, but finally got through after hiking to another part of the hill.
Hjelle, 30, was airlifted to Mission Hospital, where men and women in biking shorts and tops streamed throughout the evening to visit her and join a prayer circle in her room. A hospital official said she was in serious condition.
Rescue workers summoned to help Hjelle made a gruesome discovery. Peering from a helicopter, they saw the body of a man. A closer look revealed that the injuries were consistent with an attack from a mountain lion.
"He may have been here for six hours or it could have been a day or two," said Capt. Steve Miller of the Orange County Fire Authority.
There had not been a fatal mountain lion attack in California since 1994 near Sacramento. And before that attack, it had been 90 years.
In Orange County, the lions have recently been seen at a popular equestrian center, and one woman reported in recent days that a big cat killed her pet goat. In 1986, two children were mauled at Caspers Wilderness Park in separate incidents.
Mike Boeck, director of the Silverado Modjeska Recreation and Parks District and a resident of Silverado Canyon, says there have been more serious mountain lion attacks in Orange County than anywhere else in the nation, States, given the size of the area.
He said that the cats fleeing areas devastated by the recent forest fires and roaming in unfamiliar territory may have lead to recent sightings and Thursday's attacks.
"They're here, but they're hungry. They're like out of towners and they still have to eat," he said.
On Thursday night, after the man's body was found, animal experts were armed not only with guns but with the knowledge that cougars often return for their prey. So they staked out the area near the body, said Steve Edinger, assistant chief for California Department of Fish and Game.
Playing their flashlights off the brush, deputies saw the red reflection of the cat's eyes, Edinger said. The lion, 1 1/2 years old, was shot down within 10 minutes.
Edinger said the cat's paws will be matched against the prints left around the man's body and the site of the second attack. DNA evidence will also be compared against that found on the man's body as well as on Hjelle. Also, a necropsy will be conducted within 48 hours, Edinger said.
Until then, trackers and their dogs will continue to scour the wilderness park.
Friends and relatives of Hjelle said she had more than just a good friend to pull her to safety.
She was riding Thursday with fellow members of the Trail Angels, a group of Christian women, most of them from Saddleback Community Church. Before riding, they pray.
"I just believe that Anne is protected," said Donna Wagner, a Trail Angel from Rancho Santa Margarita.
Hjelle's mother, Sally, of Savage, Minn., learned of the attack about 7 p.m. in a telephone call from her son-in-law, James Poindexter.
"I don't understand this, but I do understand God is good," she said through tears. "I know he's got her right in the palm of his hand."
MOUNTAIN LION SAFETY TIPS
-Do not hike alone; go in groups with adults supervising children.
-Do not run; that might stimulate a lion's instinct to chase.
-Instead, stand and face the animal, make eye contact.
-Pick up young children, without bending or turning from the lion if possible.
-Do not crouch down or bend over; you might appear like ordinary four-legged prey to the lion instead of a human.
-Do all you can to appear larger; raise your arms, open your jacket, throw stones, branches.
-Fight back if attacked. Mountains lions have been repelled with rocks, sticks, garden tools and bare hands.
-Remove dense and low-lying vegetation that provide good hiding places for mountain lions.
-Install motion-sensitive outdoor lighting.
-Keep pets from roaming, and don't feed pets outside.
Source: Calif. Dept. of Fish and Game. Compiled by News Researcher Michael Doss
CONTRIBUTING TO THIS REPORT
-Staff writers: Pat Brennan, Jim Finkle, Rita Freeman, Greg Hardesty, Jennifer Muir, Ann Pepper, Jim Radcliffe, Bill Rams, Tony Saavedra