DUNCAN MCMILLAN, INTERVIEWER: What was going through your mind that night in the tent with Sandy?
CLEO RAY: I could look up and see the sky and stars. Those stars were the brightest ever. I could hear a breeze rustling through the pines above us. The sound of an owl hooting. I had the feeling of being surrounded by pure nature, pure peace. Sandy had fallen asleep with his arm around me. My physical body could not have felt safer next to his.
But you asked about my mind, didn’t you?
FRED HITE, COUNTY SHERIFF: We arrived at the Kim home in Juniper Ridge and found three cars parked in the driveway. One belonged to the suspect. We split up to cover the back and side entrances. I knocked at the front door and identified myself. No answer. I knocked again. “County sheriff, open up!” No answer.
We had an arrest warrant and reason to believe our suspect was inside, but I hesitated to break in. The house was owned by a wealthy L.A. couple who were probably well connected with the media and represent-ed by a big law firm.
A voice from next door called out: “No one’s home! They all left to go camping!”
CLEO RAY: The sounds from outside the tent changed from peaceful to threatening. Or the sounds didn’t change, the way I was hearing them changed. It sounded like footsteps approaching, people sneaking through the trees into our campsite.
I was afraid to fall asleep because I thought I’d scream out from a nightmare and everyone would hear me. I did doze off. I was instantly back at the moment the canoe turned over, plunging under the water, panicking that I couldn’t breathe, fighting my way to the surface.
As my head came out of the water, I woke up in the tent drenched with sweat. Sandy was sleeping peacefully. It was pitch-dark. I listened for sounds, and the campsite was quiet again.
FRED HITE, COUNTY SHERIFF: I called the D.A. to tell him no one was at the house and that a neighbor saw them leaving early in the morning on foot with hiking backpacks. She didn’t know what trail they were hiking out on but could tell they were camping overnight because of the amount of gear they were carrying.
OWEN MASON, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I called the Kim home, also in Brentwood, not far from Samson Griffith, and explained the circumstances to Mr. Kim. I told him we had the authority to enter his Mammoth home and search for information about where the group was headed, but I decided to call him first. He told me David had mentioned he might take his friends hiking, and his father was sure if they were camping overnight, they’d be headed north toward June Lake. That was the trail their family always took on camping trips.
Mr. Kim said he’d been trying to reach David and his calls were going straight to voice mail. He suggested the group might have intentionally turned off their phones to unplug from the internet.
CLEO RAY: I was bouncing back and forth from paranoia to gratitude for every moment I got to press myself against Sandy.
ERIN NEWCOMB, CHIEF DEPUTY: We decided to bunk down at the Mammoth sheriff’s station and head out on the June Lake trail at sunup. Six more deputies from Mono were joining us and a search and rescue H-40 helicopter was being deployed to give air support. The operation was now fourteen peace officers strong, with a mission to apprehend a single female fitness instructor, probably unarmed and all of a hundred and twenty pounds.
We also got approval to use the department’s ATVs to track down the hikers. Yeah!
OWEN MASON, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I drove up to the sheriff’s station, where we spent most of the time planning the search. Again, we weren’t concerned about the suspect herself, but she was with eight other people, one of them her boyfriend. How were they going to react? Were any of them armed? Because of their reach in social media, we didn’t want to give them any reason to accuse our people of misconduct. That led to the decision to have the ground team wear body cams.
JAKE CROWE, INYO REGISTER: I was tipped off a manhunt would be launching out of Mammoth at daybreak for a suspect in the Serene Lake killing—the Information Office had changed the description from drowning to killing. I drove up to the sheriff’s station after midnight and parked across the street. The lights were on inside, and I could see figures moving behind the blinds.
CLEO RAY: I kept touching the ring Sandy gave me and holding it against my heart. Then I got this panicked feeling they didn’t let prisoners wear rings in jail, and I started obsessing over not having my phone to google that.
FRED HITE, COUNTY SHERIFF: Second week of July, lots of people are up here vacationing. With other groups of young people on the trails and in campgrounds, the operation had a fair amount of risk.
DAVID KIM: We were finishing breakfast when Cleo came out of the tent barely hiding her smile. Nobody missed the new ring on her finger. I was surprised. I looked at Sandy like, “Dude, really?”
SANDY FINCH: I was all in. I mean, that’s the truth.
CLEO RAY: David was jealous because of all the attention Sandy was giving me. Not in a gay way. In a bro way.
DAVID KIM: The girls were saying how awesome it was. They were being polite. Knowing what we know now, I don’t think they would have been so polite.
SANDY FINCH: We got up late, and while I was finishing my coffee, Cleo broke down our tent and packed up our gear. How’s that for a camping partner? I remember thinking, Could this girl be any more perfect?
DAVID KIM: We headed out for another lake in the backcountry. We’d brought swimsuits. Cleo hadn’t brought hers. It was like she’d packed for a different trip.
OWEN MASON, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: We met the helicopter and pilots at the landing field across the road. We looked at the map and made a plan to coordinate the search between air and ground.
FRED HITE, COUNTY SHERIFF: Usually the highway patrol folks are brought in for search and rescues. The mission was shifted to a SWAT enforcement detail, and the protocols changed accordingly.
JAKE CROWE, INYO REGISTER: I waited for the right moment and approached the D.A. and the sheriff. Now, understand, there’s not a lot of love lost between the D.A.’s office and the local news media.
OWEN MASON, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I bend over backward to keep my door open to the media. But it’s the old story: give an inch, they want a mile.
JAKE CROWE, INYO REGISTER: I promised I wouldn’t report anything until the search operation was completed. I wanted an inside view so my reporting would be the most informed it could be.
FRED HITE, COUNTY SHERIFF: Easy for reporters to make promises, but keeping them? The compromise was to let Mr. Crowe into the command center, but he had to surrender his mobile devices. That was fair.
OWEN MASON, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Our relationship with the news media on this case started out peaceably. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long.
ERIN NEWCOMB, CHIEF DEPUTY: The downside of using ATVs and air support is the noise. The person we were searching for would hear us before she’d see us. That would give her a chance to run. And we knew she’d run once already.
It was no joyride in the backcountry. We had to constantly work around other hikers on the trails and that slowed us down. Plus, we had a reporter observing the operation in real time from the command center. The pressure was on.
CLEO RAY: We were so wrapped up in each other, we kind of fell behind the group. The conversation was the deepest we’d ever had. It was about the things we most wanted out of life, how we saw our futures, our values.
Values. Sandy’s were trust, honesty, and integrity. I won’t tell you what mine were.
SANDY FINCH: We talked about having a big family, four kids because we didn’t want one feeling like a middle child. We saw ourselves having two places, one in town, one in the country. We even said when we got back to Mammoth, we’d check places for sale. That’s how in the moment we were.
CLEO RAY: We’d stop and make out, hike for a bit, then stop and make out again. At one point we thought we’d lost the others. We ran the trail until we caught up with them. Sandy’s very fit. We’d do trail runs together in the Palisades a couple times a week.
After a night of making love and getting engaged to be engaged, we were feeling so connected. It was that perfect communion between two people.
He would tell you the same thing.
SANDY FINCH: No denying it. It felt really good.
CLEO RAY: I was on the brink of saying, “What if you found out something about me that sounded horrible? Would you give me a chance to explain and promise to believe me? Because you have to know I would never lie to you.”
Never lie to you. Contradiction? But it was true. I ended up not saying anything because I thought it would only make it more confusing for him.
I’m so sorry, babe.
OWEN MASON, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Early on the morning of our search operation, a story pops up in Sierra High, the local news publication for Mammoth and Mono County.
Headline: DROWNING VICTIM’S FEMALE COMPANION HUNTED BY INYO SHERIFF.
JAKE CROWE, INYO REGISTER: That did not come from me. Sierra High is our competition, so why would I give them that? Besides, the sheriff had my cell phone. The only way I could have gotten a message out was by smoke signal. To this day, I don’t know how they came up with that.
DUNCAN MCMILLAN: The first news story to go viral. “Bishop, California, July eleventh. The body of 21-year-old Rebecca Alden, a resident of Encino in Los Angeles County, was found in Serene Lake on the afternoon of Thursday, July ninth. She had been seen in the presence of another woman, who has been identified as Cleo Ray, 25, also of Los Angeles County. Ms. Ray is believed to have been in the rental canoe with Ms. Alden when it left the dock, but she was missing from the scene when the canoe was found overturned in an isolated cove. A warrant has been issued by the Superior Court in Independence, and a law enforcement operation is currently under way to find Ms. Ray and arrest her on suspicion of murder. The suspect is reportedly hiking the backcountry near Mammoth Lakes with a group of friends. As more information becomes available, you’ll find it here on the Eastern Sierra’s number one independent source for news, from Lone Pine to Coleville along the 395 corridor.”