Emma Cunningham (left) with her sister, Katherine. They grew up together in Merced County, California. (Cunningham family)

Emma Cunningham (left) with her sister, Katherine. They grew up together in Merced County, California. (Cunningham family)

Body identified as suspect in Camano Island killing

By Zachariah Bryan

zbryan@heraldnet.com

Authorities have used lab results to confirm a body found in a California river more than a year ago is the suspect in a Camano Island homicide.

The John Doe was actually Jacob Gonzales, the Island County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday.

Detectives believe Gonzales killed 26-year-old Katherine Cunningham and escaped in her Honda Civic in February 2018.

By the time a neighbor found her beheaded body on March 3, 2018, Gonzales was gone.

The Honda was abandoned in northern California a few miles north of Yreka, near the Oregon border.

Gonzales was described by a neighbor as a “bunker nut” who wanted to live off the grid, according to court papers.

He had seemingly disappeared. He was 33 at the time.

He was charged with murder in June after his DNA was found on the hilt of a samurai sword that reportedly was used to kill Cunningham. A $1-million warrant was issued for his arrest.

Island County detective Ed Wallace said the sheriff’s office followed up on upwards of 120 tips, as recently as in the past week.

Most of those were possible sightings of Gonzales, including one in Grand Central Station in New York City. Wallace said every tip was reviewed, though none were confirmed.

Many of the tips he credited to a Facebook page created by Cunningham’s family, called Justice 4 Katherine.

Katherine Cunningham (left) and Jacob Gonzales.

Katherine Cunningham (left) and Jacob Gonzales.

“Katherine’s family has been amazing keeping this stuff alive,” Wallace said.

“We appreciate their efforts keeping this in the forefronts of people’s minds.”

It turned out that Gonzales was already dead.

On April 7, 2018, a fisherman found his body below a bridge in the Feather River near Yuba City, California — more than 200 miles from where the car was found. The body was decayed, as if it had been in the water for some time. He drowned, according to the Sutter County Sheriff’s Office.

It’s unknown if he took his own life or if his death was accidental.

At the time, he was considered a John Doe. Authorities first reported that the body was female, as Gonzales had apparently been wearing women’s clothing, according to the Appeal-Democrat newspaper.

The sheriff’s office shared photos of his tattoos, hoping someone would recognize them.

Months later, someone did. In November, a person who had moved to Washington and previously lived in Sutter County reached out to law enforcement. The tattoos appeared similar to Gonzales’ tattoos, which the tipster saw elsewhere on social media.

One on his arm stood out. It was of a sheepdog, a common symbol military members reference for protecting people, along with the initials “AF” for Air Force. Gonzales was in the Air Force Reserve.

Wallace said detectives believed that they found their suspect at that point. But law enforcement agencies waited until a laboratory DNA test confirmed it was him Tuesday before officially announcing it.

Now, the Island County Sheriff’s Office will work to determine that no one else was involved, Wallace said.

“Right now, as far as we’re concerned, we’re continuing this investigation as if we’re going to trial on it,” he said.

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