Crime spoils serenity of hitchhikers' haven

SUN JOURNAL

Coast: A pair of unsolved killings sends ripples along a north Pacific route where drifters can still find a ride.

September 05, 2004|By Eric Slater | Eric Slater,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JENNER, Calif. - "Psst."

Darkness was coming, and with it coils of mist. The only sounds had been of heavy surf and the clacking together of water-smoothed stones, but now came the sharp call from a drifter settling in for the night in the cove, where overnight camping is prohibited.

"Psst. Hey. You a cop? A ranger? I already talked to you guys. I wasn't even down here when it happened."

For decades, the coastal route running north from San Francisco to the Canadian border has been among the last stretches of welcoming road for the nation's wanderers, a series of highways and byways where raising a thumb will still get you a ride, eventually, often from people who live along the way and perhaps once did some hitchhiking themselves.

But since two young river guides from a Christian camp were shot in their sleeping bags on a remote, no-camping beach here last month, the long-standing your-business-is-your-business ethos has wavered, and the serene atmosphere has turned tense.

Helicopters with night-vision and thermal-imaging equipment buzz the cliffs and beaches. Park rangers knock down the driftwood-and-kelp huts transients use. Rides, hitchhikers say, are harder to come by.

And still, no one has figured out who killed Lindsay Cutshall, 22, and her fiance, Jason Allen, 26, or why. The killer did not molest the couple or steal anything, police say. And very little evidence was left behind.

"I'm going to head back north," said the bearded man on the Sonoma County beach, who, like several other transients, offered only a first name, Mike. "Used to be nobody bothered you, and you don't bother nobody back. I like that. There's just a bad vibe now, bad karma."

North of the Golden Gate Bridge, past the hilltop homes of Sausalito, State Highway 1 becomes the main artery of Pacific Coast transient traffic. Atop jagged basalt cliffs, through dense tangles of eucalyptus, redwoods and coastal ferns, the highway - which merges with U.S. 101 farther north - wends its way along one of the least-developed coastlines in the United States. The route marked the northern migration of San Francisco's hippie culture in the late 1960s and early '70s, and along much of the way the purest ideals of the times have endured.

The restrooms at the Stewart's Point Store don't require a key, even though many who use them don't buy anything and some ask for a freebie. The most prominent bit of graffiti in the restroom reads: "A closed mouth don't get fed."

Many locals pick up the occasional hitchhiker, pass along a dollar bill or hand out plastic sheeting when the rains come.

As hitchhiking has dwindled over the past decades, however, and the price of a campsite has gone from free or pocket change to as much as $30 a night - with reservations made on the Internet months ahead - a shift has taken place, residents say.

"You don't see much of the adventurers anymore, people making their way up from San Francisco or wherever just for fun," said Rick Manaro, who works at the Ocean Cove Store and Campground and has lived in the area 15 miles north of Jenner for nearly a quarter-century. "Lost souls now, most of them."

North of Jenner, near the line between Sonoma and Mendocino counties, a skinny man with wide, blue-green eyes huddled in a crack in the beach cliffs and stared at the ocean.

"Satan is trying to kill me. I'm Jesus," he said without taking his eyes from the sea. Then he started growling, a low, warning kind of sound, then yipping.

In writer Denis Johnson's 1998 novel Already Dead: A California Gothic, the North Coast is a place for several characters to ponder and hone their madness. The fog, forests and other natural wonders of the region shift from things of beauty to symbols of malevolence.

The killings have lent a similar feel of late.

At the Timber Cove Inn, Mel and Caroline Wagner, visiting from Urbana, Ill., decided to lock their hotel room door after all, and for good measure block it with Caroline's wheelchair.

Others who had planned on camping out at nearby parks got themselves rooms at the inn.

At a recent community meeting in Jenner, residents wanted to know whether authorities had questioned road crews, stopped this car or that. One man complained that all the out-of-town reporters who came to cover the murders made it difficult to carry out a task that Sonoma County Sheriff Bill Cogbill had asked residents to perform: reporting lingering strangers.

Two weeks have passed since the couple was found dead. People up and down the coast waited anxiously when the Sheriff's Department sought a man they thought had been in the area around the time of the killings. But after Nicholas Scarseth, 21, of Wisconsin heard that he was wanted for questioning, he showed up at a police station, answered questions, passed a polygraph test and received bus fare from detectives for his trouble.

As afternoon was turning to evening one day recently and the fog was building offshore, a man stood with an old backpack on the side of Highway 1 about 26 miles south of Jenner. He held up a thumb and a piece of cardboard on which he'd scrawled, "North."

He said his name was Randy Tomlinson. He was 58, and had been on the road for most of the last 15 years. "I was going to stop around Jenner because I heard it's pretty nice around there," he said. "But now, if I can get a ride that keeps on going, I'm going to keep on going."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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