The family of a Sacramento mother whose body was found eaten by a mountain lion near Auburn in December says she had been communicating with a convicted rapist in the days before she inexplicably wandered, barefoot, into the thorny, rugged American River Canyon.
But Placer County sheriff’s officials say there’s nothing to suggest that the sex offender had anything to do with her death. Detectives say they found no evidence she was murdered or that someone had hurt Yinshan “Michelle” Wong before she died. Investigators say the cougar scavenged the corpse after she likely succumbed to hypothermia.
After she went missing on Dec. 3, Wong’s family told detectives that she’d recently been texting with Christopher E. Lawyer, whom she’d met at a Sacramento grocery store, said Wong’s brother-in-law, Ricardo DeCarlo. After the pair met, they exchanged phone numbers and had texted back and forth for a time. Wong did not initially know Lawyer had been convicted of rape in Colorado, DeCarlo said.
When Wong’s family told detectives about the text exchanges, they “went to his house within minutes,” said Dena Erwin, a spokeswoman for the Placer County Sheriff’s Office.
“He has an ankle monitor as part of his parole, and detectives contacted the parole agent,” Erwin said. “He checked the man’s whereabouts, and he was at work that night, and nowhere near Wong. His work records confirmed that he was at work that night, too.”
Lawyer, 42, isn’t listed as a sex offender on California’s Megan’s Law website. He moved to Carmichael recently from Colorado under an interstate parolee transfer, said Mark Fairbairn, a spokesman for Colorado’s Department of Corrections.
In an emailed statement, the California Attorney General’s Office, which manages the Megan’s Law website, didn’t address why Lawyer isn’t listed as an offender in California. Instead, the agency replied with a list of reasons why a sex offender might not show up on the site, including that they’d died, they didn’t qualify or that their criminal history was under review.
It’s not clear where Lawyer lives in Carmichael. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Lawyer was sentenced to prison in 2001 for kidnapping a Boulder, Colo., woman who was delivering newspapers at an apartment complex the year before, according to the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper.
Lawyer forced her into her vehicle and taped her eyes and mouth shut, the paper reported. Lawyer drove the woman to another location and raped her for more than an hour at gunpoint. Detectives said he tried to make casual conversation afterward with the victim, according to the newspaper.
The day before the rape, Lawyer forced his way into a home and attempted to rape a different woman. That woman was injured, but managed to escape, according to the paper.
He was sentenced to 12 years to life in prison.
When he was released from prison in 2016, the Boulder Daily Camera wrote several stories about how corrections officials were having a tough time finding a place for Lawyer to live because Boulder residents didn’t want to live next to someone state officials deemed a “sexually violent predator.”
He was arrested and sent back to prison for 180 days in December 2016 after he allegedly violated his parole by possessing books that his parole agent had deemed to contain violent pornography. He had also failed to take a scheduled drug test, according to the Daily Camera. In 2017, out of prison again, Lawyer once again struggled to find a place to live amid community protests. For a time, he lived in the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.
With Lawyer cleared as a suspect in her death, Wong’s family members said they are no closer to understanding why she made the fatal decision to push into the canyon she had never visited before.
Initially, they were worried that perhaps she fled into the chaparral that damp, drizzly morning because she was being chased.
“We’re still kind of wrestling with the fact she even went out there,” said DeCarlo, her brother-in-law. “We’re trying to understand the motivation of what she did and why.”
The sheriff’s office said Wong, 33, a Sacramento mother of three young children who last worked as a teacher’s aide, was spotted on a security camera pushing a shopping cart in a Sacramento Safeway store about midnight on Dec. 3.
Three hours later, she drove off a narrow dirt road and down a steep hill between a cluster of houses at the edge of the canyon outside Auburn. She got out of the car, took her purse, containing her cellphone and keys, and set it on the ground.
Wearing only a thin dress, 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. She never knocked on a door at any of the dozens of homes that ring the edge of the canyon.
It took dozens of searchers on foot and on horseback three days before they found her body a mile away from her car in the thick brush. The cougar had separated the head from the body, and large portions of her corpse had been consumed, according to Wong’s autopsy report.
Aside from some bruising and scratches, all of her wounds appeared to be caused by the cat after she’d died, the report says.
She had no drugs in her system. There were so signs she’d been sexually assaulted.
Placer County forensic pathologist Dr. Gregory Reiber listed Wong’s death as “probable hypothermia and environmental exposure.” Independent experts who reviewed the autopsy report for The Sacramento Bee said “undetermined” could have just as easily been listed as Wong’s cause of death, given the mangled condition of her body and a lack of an obvious cause of death.
Investigators and her family members say Wong recently had been struggling with mental health issues.
Wong and her husband, Santino Zamora, 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 sister-in-law, who went by “Michelle,” had become increasingly paranoid and delusional and was exhibiting odd “OCD-ish” behavior in the days before she disappeared. He said Zamora told him Wong had been sending odd text messages to people saying that someone was out to hurt her, but there was never any proof anyone was.
Detectives found nothing on her phone to suggest that she was meeting someone or that she was fearful in the hours before she disappeared, said Erwin, the Placer County sheriff’s spokeswoman.
After learning from The Bee that Lawyer, the Colorado sex offender, had been cleared as a suspect, DeCarlo said he hoped the news might bring some level of peace to Zamora and his children.
“Hopefully,” he said, “that will give him a little bit of closure there.”