Yinshan Wong had no apparent reason to head to the American River Canyon in Auburn, California, a town her family said she’d never visited before.
But on Dec. 3, that’s where Wong, a 33-year-old Sacramento mother of three young children, was driving at 3 a.m.
She steered her white sedan off a narrow dirt road and drove down a steep hill between a cluster of houses at the edge of the canyon. She got out of the car, took her purse, containing her cellphone and keys, and set it on the ground.
Wearing a knee-high skirt and a thin, short-sleeved blouse, she stepped over a small ditch filled with running water and walked into the dense poison oak and blackberry bushes. She left her flimsy ballet-style shoes in the thorns nearby.
Her actions on that damp, drizzly morning proved fatal, though it’s still unclear how Wong died. It took dozens of searchers on foot and on horseback three days before they found her body a mile away in the thick brush. By that time, it had been partially consumed by a mountain lion.
Investigators say the big cat found the body after Wong was already dead. There were no signs she had been murdered or that she had killed herself.
An autopsy conducted last Friday proved inconclusive. Toxicology results that could reveal whether Wong had drugs in her system are still weeks away.
Placer County sheriff’s investigators say they still don’t know why Wong walked out into the chaparral. She had been with her family that evening. About three hours before she turned off the road in Auburn, she was spotted on a security camera, pushing a shopping cart inside a Sacramento Safeway grocery store.
Her family members said she may have been delusional and suffering from mental health problems. Maybe that’s why she chose to push deeper into the punishing, thorny brush instead of knocking on any one of the doors at the homes that ring the the edge of the canyon.
Ricardo DeCarlo, the brother of Wong’s husband, Santino Zamora, said Wong and Zamora had known each other about 16 years and had been married about 12 years. DeCarlo said Wong was a kindhearted person, who was rather quiet and an introvert. He said she had a history of depression. Husband and wife both graduated from UC Davis with degrees in psychology, DeCarlo said. Wong worked for about six years as a teacher’s aide. For at least part of that time, she worked with autistic children.
He said Wong and her husband experienced some marital difficulties in the last two years and were separated for a time, but the couple had recently sought to reconcile and were living together with their sons, 8 and 10 years old, and their 6-year-old daughter.
DeCarlo said his brother was working his regular 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at a group home when he received a call from Wong, telling him that he needed to “go watch the kids.”
“He was confused (as to) what she was talking about,” DeCarlo said.
His brother was still at work the next morning when he received a call from a woman who said she had found Wong’s car, along with her purse and cellphone, DeCarlo said.
“It’s possible she may have just decided to call it quits and run off,” DeCarlo said.
The family also speculated that Wong might have gone to meet someone, but DeCarlo said law enforcement officials said they have found no evidence of foul play.
“It’s just so sad. Much of it will remain a mystery,” said Dena Erwin, a spokeswoman for the Placer County Sheriff’s Office.
On Thursday morning, there was still crime scene tape attached to the trees surrounding the site where Wong had ditched her car, though it had since been towed away.
Neighborhood residents said they were saddened by the woman’s death, but they weren’t any more worried about mountain lions than they otherwise would be.
Dan Halbert, who owns a home not far up the canyon from where her body was found, said lions and other predators are a fact of life in the foothills. Several years ago, a lion preyed on his pygmy goats, and bears wander in out of the area, looking for garbage or other easy meals.
“They’ve always been here,” Halbert said.
State wildlife officials say they have no plans to try to trap or kill the cougar that fed on Wong. A forensic pathologist determined it was a cougar by using measurements of the bite marks. Steve Torres, who oversees the state’s wildlife investigations lab in Rancho Cordova, said there’s no evidence to suggest a lion that scavenges on a human corpse becomes more likely to hunt humans. Scavenging is normal for cougars, especially if animals are young, sick or frail.
The reason why state wildlife officials kill cougars after they attack people is because that behavior is incredibly rare, he said.
“It’s done something unusual and different, and we don’t want it to do it again,” Torres said. The fact that the last fatal mountain lion attack in Northern California happened several miles south in the American River Canyon two decades ago also doesn’t factor into their decision, wildlife officials said.
A lion killed Barbara Schoener, 40, in Auburn Lake Trails on April 23, 1994, and fed on her corpse. Wildlife officials shot the lion after a week-long search through the canyon. Schoener was the first person killed by a mountain lion in the state since 1909.
DeCarlo said the family does not object to allowing the lion to live, since it did not actually kill Wong.
A video Zamora posted Thursday on his Facebook page shows Wong watching her children giggle and play at a park. Zamora wrote that it was the last video he took of Wong. It’s not clear when it was taken, but it’s clearly a happy time for the family.
“Hey, Santino,” she tells her husband, laughing, “maybe we create babies so we can watch them do ‘Hoorays.’”
Wong’s memorial service will be held Monday at Chapman Funeral Homes in Arcadia.