A 71-year-old woman became the first person in recorded California history to be killed by a black bear last fall. Following an investigation and interviews with people who know her, we now know the bear had been hanging around in the vicinity and stalking the woman's home for a while.

Wildlife experts are fairly baffled by the case of Patrice Miller, as the Chronicle reports. The 71-year-old woman lived by herself in a rental home in the tiny Sierra Nevada town of Downieville. Sheriff's deputies arriving at Miller's home for a welfare check in November — an apparently gruesome scene involving bloody bear paw prints, and the woman's body mangled, partly eaten, and dragged through the house — believed that the woman had died first and was then mauled by an opportunistic bear breaking in.

A subsequent autopsy, however, which wasn't publicized until this month, found that the bear had killed Miller in her bedroom. Investigators believe the bear entered the home through a kitchen window.

"It appeared that the bear had probably been there several days and had been feeding on the remains," says Sierra County Sheriff Mike Fisher, speaking to KCRA.

The bear then looted hat it could find in the home, and left a pile of bear scat as well, before it left.

“We’re in new territory," says Captain Patrick Foy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Law Enforcement Division, speaking to the Chronicle about the unprecedented nature of this case.

Miller was familiar with the bear in the months before it killed her, reportedly nicknaming it "Big Bastard," and she had even reportedly had to physically hit the bear once to keep it out of her house.

"Every time I’d see her, something would be brought up about the bear trying to get into the house,” says Miller's friend, Cassie Koch, speaking to the Chronicle. “At first, it was like, 'Oh, this pesky bear.' But then she seemed scared about it."

Koch was the one to call for the welfare check after she had not heard from Miller.

This chilling story led to a standoff between the Sheriff's Office and the Department of Fish and Wildlife about euthanizing the bear, which later became trapped on another homeowner's property. Ultimately, the bear believed to have killed Miller was euthanized, as KCRA reports.

This was before the autopsy had even determined that the bear had mauled the woman to death. Later, though, DNA confirmed that this was in fact the bear that had killed Miller.

Downieville has apparently become bear central in recent years, just one of a number of locations where black bears have become more accustomed to humans, and have taken to scavenging for meals in trash cans and cars. And, as the Chronicle notes, Miller's home was a prime target, with a vegetable garden growing out front and garbage that wasn't always diligently locked up in a bear box or other device.

Sonya Meline, the owner of the Carriage House Inn in Downieville, tells KCRA that she's used to bears being around, and taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists. "No matter how many times we'd tell the guests, ‘Don't leave food in your cars. Lock your car doors at night,’ the visitors, they don't always listen," Meline says. "They'll leave a snack bar or something, and the bears will find it."

Meline also says she noticed one particular bear that had been aggressively going door to door in town last year. "It was not a normal bear," Meline said.

That bear, as KCRA reports, may have been a different one than the one euthanized, as there was another bear breaking into homes, and a school, after the first bear was euthanized in November. The second bear was euthanized as well, and Fisher said that reports of bear activity went way down in the area following the death of the second bear.

"I don't want every black bear that steps foot into my community to be euthanized,” Sheriff Fisher tells KCRA. "My primary concern is the public safety of my local citizens and my visitors that come to our communities.”

Previously: NorCal Woman's Death Caused By Bear Mauling

Photo: Max Seeling