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Friday, July 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mysterious slayings stir fear in scenic community

Seattle Times staff reporter

At the Green Gables general store in Verlot, some 70 miles northeast of Seattle on the Mountain Loop Highway, about a dozen people regularly gather every morning to go over the news of the day.

On this day, they're talking about killings.

"We ride our horses up there, and we're not going up there until they know what happened," said Cecily Handy, who has lived in the area of Snohomish County since 1999.

"There have been a lot of suicides," added a friend, Lana Stowell, who works at the store, but other killings are a rarity. She hopes the discovery on Tuesday afternoon of the bodies of Mary Cooper, 56, and her daughter Susanna Stodden, 27, won't discourage people from visiting the scenic area.

At Verlot's U.S. Forest Service office, about 75 calls were received Thursday about the deaths, said Diane Boyd, Forest Service information specialist, many of them from the Seattle area.

"People have been calling to ask if it's safe to hike," she said. "How are you supposed to answer that?"

Like other residents, Boyd hopes for an explanation soon as to what led to the slayings. "We're all hoping it's not a random case," she said.

"It's scary," said Handy. "Everybody's afraid up here, until they know whether it was somebody they knew or a stranger."

Much of the anxiety centers on how such a thing could happen here, far from the large cities where killings usually occur.

It's not easy getting from Seattle to where the women died. It requires first a drive to Granite Falls, about 20 miles east of Everett, and then driving about another 20 miles east along the Mountain Loop Highway, where trains a century ago carried people and ore to and from the gold-mining town of Monte Cristo. The rails are gone, but now the area attracts thousands of hikers, campers and other recreation visitors each year.

From the Mountain Loop Highway, it's a winding, six-mile drive that takes half an hour on a one-lane, unpaved, pot-holed forest road to the Pinnacle Lake trailhead. It's another 1.9 miles of hiking to get to the lake, through forests with a familiar Northwest trail feel, stepping over rocks and logs and puddles, passing uprooted trees and other forest scenery.

It was along that trail where the women were found. A young man and woman discovered the bodies, then had to drive back down the winding road and two miles back along the Mountain Loop Highway to reach a telephone at the Gold Basin campground. The area is so remote there's no cellphone service.

Despite its bucolic appearance, residents admit rural living isn't always serene.

Peter Selvig, a 41-year Forest Service employee, recalls three area homicides dating to the 1970s, including one at a campground and another by a recently released prison inmate.

Weapons are an accepted part of life along the Mountain Loop, he added, because hunting is legal.

There's plenty of evidence of gunfire. A sign to Pinnacle Lake is a many-times-perforated reminder of how such signs are a common country target.

Boyd and her husband operate a sheriff's radio station in the Silverton area east of Verlot, where there's no telephone service, and now know about the hidden aspects of country life.

"We always thought it was peaceful and quiet up here," she said, but they've since learned that things like car crashes, drinking and even attempted suicide are not uncommon. But homicides are.

Residents don't expect the deaths to keep visitors away from the mountains.

"It's very quiet here right now because of the cold and rain," said Anne Keller, host at the Gold Basin campground.

"Hopefully, it'll be nice again this weekend," she said. "We have reservations for the weekend. The few people we have here didn't even know about it."

Campers arriving for the weekend acknowledged they did think about the deaths, but decided not to abandon their plans.

"We definitely thought about it, but whoever did it is long gone by now," said Kari McManis, who was arriving from Everett for the weekend with her husband, Tim.

"I'm kind of curious to see how many people pull in tomorrow," she said.

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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