Killings shatter placid area in Sierra Nevadas

The Associated Press
Saturday July 28, 2001

STIRLING CITY — Life here is like a thousand towns across the West. The landscape is green and rolling, the days are quiet, and the air smells clean. 

But that’s been shattered here with the deaths of two Butte County sheriff’s deputies and a loner who allegedly stocked his cabin with weapons. 

Motorists enter this county on Skyway Boulevard, a two-lane road through the town of Paradise, 16 miles away, where the motto is “all its name implies it to be.” 

The views reveal ramrod straight pines, a scattering of tourists’ cabins and horseback riders. It has a post office, a community center, a California Department of Forestry fire station, one hotel and a local fire department. It is, in short, a place for getaways and fun, not for murder investigations. 

Residents said they knew there was trouble Thursday night from the sirens, flashing emergency lights and three helicopters landing in their town. 

“It’s a very nice place. People are very nice up here,” said Margaret Metz, who’s called the town of 321 people home since 1994. 

Stirling City is also a town a bit defensive about outsiders pouring in after a murder. People talk, but then just as easily say they don’t want their names used. 

“It’s a freaky thing that happened,” said one, working at the Sierra Pacific Corp. lumber business. “That deal last night was totally unexpected.” 

Nestled among evergreens, mountain lakes and countryside that still produces gold, Stirling City is a century-old lumber town, an old stop on a historic stage coach line. 

The founders laid out the streets in alternate patterns of hardwoods and minerals. Today, the street names run one direction saying Diamond, Quartz, Granite, Lava, Slate, Mica and Gypsum. In the other direction, they run Manzanita, Oak, Pine and Spruce. 

It is a place, perhaps, most famous for decades as the home forest for Diamond-brand matches. 

“It’s a lumber mill town here,” said Hope Kinne. “When I lived here in the 50s the mill owned all the houses. The mill owned the store. You got all your groceries at the store. It closed in 1959. This is a mill town.” 

“The town’s name comes from the Stirling Boiler that powered the old saws,” she said. “In the 40s and 50s, there used to be 1,000 people here. We had a lot of history here.” 

Now it’s home to retirees like Kinne, employees at the local school district, lumber haulers and sand and gravel truck drivers. The big Sierra Nevada country all around it extends six miles up the road to Inskip where Rick Bracklow and two sheriff’s deputies, Larry Estes and Bill Hunter, were found dead late Thursday. The road is mostly used by lumber trucks and people fishing for mountain trout at Philbrook Lake. 

But the surface tranquility masks what some locals call an image of drugs and unemployment. Others note the marijuana farms that grow in the nearby Plumas and Lassen National Forests. 

Sharon Wagner, whose lived all her 34 years here, like her parents and grandparents, said she hears the slurs in Paradise where she commutes to work. 

“We get a bad rap, that we are a bad town, that there’s a lot of drugs,” she said. “But there’s a lot of drugs everywhere. This is a good town.” 

She called the deaths up the hill “devastating. I feel like we’re in the city.” 

The locals say it’s unusual to see so much commotion as there was Friday. 

“There are just people who stay to themselves,” said resident Michael Moore. “We kind of look out for each other. There are some people, though, who just stay to themselves.” 

Just like Bracklow, said Wagner, an acquaintance. 

“He was a quiet guy,” she said. “He came down off the mountain every couple of weeks to get his beer and stuff.”