The two young men were sitting on the tailgate of their truck, surveying the beauty of California's Yosemite National Park and planning a hiking trip through the popular recreation area. As they talked, one man happened to glance toward Glacier Point, a 7,200-foot rock buttress that towers 3,200 feet over the valley floor.
"He saw an object fall from the point," Park Ranger James Loach said yesterday. "He couldn't tell what the object was. But he clearly saw a man standing in the area on the point from where the object had fallen. The next time he looked, he saw the man falling through the air."
Within two hours last Saturday morning, park rangers were searching the granite face of Glacier Point from a helicopter. They spotted the body of a man on a ledge about 1,600 feet below the point. While trying to retrieve the man's body, rangers found the body of a woman on a ledge about 600 feet below the point.
Stormy weather delayed the removal of the bodies until Monday morning, when rangers identified the man as Richard Russel Mughir, 33, of Silver Spring, and the woman as Sonia Janet Goldstein, 33, of Rockville. A briefcase and a purse found near the bodies were used to help identify the bodies.
Both Mughir and Goldstein were unemployed, rangers said they have determined. The couple had been together in the Yosemite area since early August, staying in motels in the nearby tourist town of El Portal, rangers said.
Many other details of the case remain a mystery.
Investigators said yesterday that the woman appeared to have been stabbed, that "several pools of blood" had been found in the area on the point from where the couple fell, and that the blade of a knife had been recovered from an area near where one of the bodies was found.
"But we have no conclusions yet on what happened," Loach said. "We don't know if it was a suicide, a murder, a double suicide or what."
Loach said the bodies, which "suffered massive injuries" in the fall from the point, were taken to San Francisco where autopsies were to be performed. The knife blade is being examined at a federal laboratory in Fresno, Loach said.
Meantime, rangers have notified the families, who Loach said are from the Washington area. He declined to give additional detail.
Each year about 3 million people visit Yosemite National Park, a 1,190-square-mile area that offers rafting, swimming, climbing, hiking and camping activities. Rangers estimate that about 12 deaths occur each year from accidental causes, such as drowning, and natural causes, such as heart attacks.
At least one other person has died in a fall from Glacier Point, an area of about a half square mile that offers several observation points. Five years ago, a woman committed suicide by jumping from the point.
To get to Glacier Point, Mughir and Goldstein hitched a ride with an acquaintance from El Portal, according to Loach. It would have taken them 45 minutes to an hour to make the trip, local residents said.
One place the couple stayed while in El Portal was Faith's Haven, a 13-unit motel managed by Jane Brantley. In a telephone interview late yesterday, Brantley said she remembered the couple because "he had carrot-red hair" and because "he used more than one name."
Brantley said that the man had registered at her motel on Sunday, Aug. 11 for a $30 room. He used the name McGaughan, but later, when she asked him to sign something else, he spelled the name McGauhan.
The next morning, on Monday, Aug. 12, the man took a bus to a nearby town to check on lost traveler's checks, Brantley said. The woman with Mughir waited on the patio at the motel until he returned that evening, Brantley said.
"She had books and lunch in a bag and she sat and read," Brantley said. "When he got back, they went to another motel."