As shocking as news that a man had been shot during an apparent attempted robbery in the Talladega National Forest Sunday was, what the investigation into that crime uncovered was even more alarming.
According to Clay County Sheriff Jim Studdard, investigators from several agencies helped in a search that located an encampment in the Talladega National Forest, where the two women now charged with murder in the incident apparently stayed — and where authorities were confronted by a 5-year-old with a shotgun.
It began at about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, when 911 notified the sheriff's office of a shooting on National Forest Service Road 600-3 near Cheaha Mountain. Clay County Rescue Squad and Shinbone Valley Volunteer Fire Department were dispatched, along with sheriff's deputies and Lineville police.
They found 20-year-old Mikayla Paulus performing CPR on her longtime boyfriend, Adam Simjee, who had been shot. The couple, students at the University of Central Florida, made an impulsive trip to Cheaha before returning to school, Paulus told al.com.
First responders found another woman, suffering several gunshot wounds to the torso, on the ground nearby. The woman, identified as Yasmine Hider, was taken from the scene and flown from a landing zone for treatment, and remains hospitalized under the observation of the sheriff's office.
Simjee, 22, died from the injuries he sustained, Studdard said, after Hider pulled a gun on him in an attempted robbery, and the two exchanged shots.
Investigators learned there had been another woman at the scene, who fled on foot. Over the next several hours, Studdard said, investigators got information that there "may be" a group of people "living off the grid" somewhere in the national forest.
From what they heard, they considered the group to be "armed and potentially violent," the sheriff said.
Alabama Department of Corrections tracking dogs were brought in, along with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency's Aviation unit, for a search, with help from Lineville, Ashland and Heflin police, the Cleburne County Sheriff's Office and forestry and park rangers.
The alleged crime
Investigators developed the story of what they believe happened on Sunday: The college students were driving down the forest road when they were flagged down by Hider, investigators were told; she asked them for help to get her car started.
"Adam being the person he is, stopped to help them," according to information on a GoFundMe page set up to help Simjee's family. "He and Mikayla tried to help the woman and even reached out to family for tips to help get the car started. When nothing else could be done, they offered to get help from the ranger station.
"This is when she pulled a gun and asked for banking information," the page, organized by Pilar Renteria Pilar Renteria, detailed.
After pulling the gun, she began walking the couple in the woods, according to Studdard.
Simjee had a concealed weapon, the sheriff said. He pulled the gun and the two exchanged shots.
Studdard said Paulus, traumatized by what happened, realized there was a second woman, later identified as Krystal Diane Pinkins, standing in the woods watching. The injured woman, Hider, called out to the second woman for help and after a brief conversation, that woman fled into the woods, and Paulus was able to get her cellphone and call for help.
The tracking team led law enforcement to a group of tents set up in the national forest, about a mile from Cheaha State Park's boundaries.
Studdard said as officers approached what they described as a "base camp," they saw a woman standing near the tents, and as they ordered her to the ground, a child ran from the woods holding a loaded shotgun.
They told the child — age 5 — to put down the shotgun, but he continued, going to the woman, before laying the gun down.
Authorities determined the child was Pinkins' son.
Pinkins initially was arrested on a charge of endangering the welfare of a child; the Department of Human Resources was notified and took custody of the child.
Studdard said it didn't appear that anyone else was using the camp at the time. It was located about a half-mile from the site of the robbery.
Pinkins now has been charged with one count of murder, two counts of kidnapping and two counts of robbery; the sheriff said, and she remains in the Clay County Detention Center.
Warrants were obtained against Hider, charging her with one count of murder, two counts of kidnapping and two counts of robbery.
It is legal to camp in the Talladega National Forest, according to what forest service officials told the sheriff, but only for 21 days at a time.
The camp discovered in the forest has been turned over to National Forest Enforcement Officers, the sheriff said, and they've ensured it will be dismantled.
Matt Benefield of Pinhoti Trail Alliance watching developments in the case closely. While the Pinhoti Trail does not cross the roadway where the couple was driving when they were flagged down, he and many others who enjoy the national forest, the state park and the trail are familiar with the area where it occurred, and where the reported encampment was found.
Benefield said he's contacted Paulus, who has gone through a tremendous ordeal and suffered a tremendous loss. He said according to Paulus, Simjee was shot while protecting her.
"Mikayla will never be the same," he said.
After being "ambushed" by someone that the couple had stopped to help, Benefield said, and trying to do CPR to save the man she hoped to spend her life with, she had to wait 30 minutes for help to reach them alongside the woman who shot him.
For those who use the trails in the area, and spend time in the parks, it may be disconcerting that people were camping there, he said, apparently well beyond the permitted time.
However, Benefield believes the young couple was targeted. "Usually, no one would approach a hiker. You wouldn't know what a hiker might have," he said. "We don't usually carry a lot of money."
Benefield, who now lives in Madison County, said he believes forest service personnel and possibly state park personnel had to have known the campers had been there, probably longer than they were permitted to camp.
If the forest service is giving out maps guiding people to attractions in the area, he said, there should be greater attention given to what's going on in the forest.
Contact Gadsden Times reporter Donna Thornton at 256-393-3284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: Talladega National Forest shooting leads to discovery of camp, child