Authorities confirmed April 16 that the body recovered in the Feather River in Yuba City, California, is murder suspect Jacob Gonzales.

Gonzales, 33, was wanted for the brutal beheading murder of Katherine Cunningham, 26, whose body was found March 3, 2018, on a 10-acre wooded parcel on south Camano Island where the two lived. Authorities believe Cunningham was murdered on Feb. 14 or 15.

“Katherine had so much life to live and was working hard doing what she loved,” the victim’s mother, Jenifer Cunningham, wrote to the Stanwood Camano News. “We miss her daily and feel the emptiness. … We will remember Katherine for the goodness and kindness in her heart.”

With no identification, Gonzales' body — clad in woman's clothing and found under a bridge by a boater on April 7, 2018 — was classified as a John Doe and Sutter County Sheriff’s Office requested the public’s help with identification by posting photographs of his tattoos.

In November 2018, tips regarding tattoos led detectives to believe that John Doe was Gonzales, according to an Island County Sheriff's Office news release April 16. Samples were sent to a DNA lab in California for positive identification, which was made Tuesday.

Jenifer Cunningham wrote that the family felt certain the John Doe was Gonzales in November 2018, but had to wait for the DNA match to share the news.

“We would like to thank all the people involved in finding Jacob Gonzales and the keen eye of a Facebook follower that notified us of the John Doe body in Sutter County,” she wrote.

California Highway Patrol found Cunningham's vehicle Feb. 16, disabled and abandoned on Interstate 5 near Yreka, California. On Feb. 19, before Cunningham's body had been discovered, CHP towed it  as an abandoned vehicle and placed it in impound.

Authorities learned of Cunningham's killing on March 3, 2018, when people interested in buying the 10-acre Camano property discovered her remains while walking the site.

Island County Sheriff’s Office warrants show that investigators discovered four firearms, a ballistics vest and ammunition in an earthen bunker near the murder scene. Detectives found a loaded 9mm pistol in a man’s hiking boot when they searched a 15-foot dilapidated travel trailer on the property. Paul Cunningham, the victim’s father, said he was told most of the weapons were old and rusted and not used in the crime, according to the Appeal-Democrat newspaper in Marysville, California.

Island County officials issued an "attempt to locate" Cunningham’s missing vehicle and California Highway Patrol notified Island County Sheriff’s Office that they had the car. Deputies towed the car back to Washington where detectives obtained a search warrant and discovered a Samurai-style sword wrapped in a blanket that appeared to match the type of weapon used to kill Cunningham, according to officials.

DNA testing confirmed blood found on the blade was Cunningham's and DNA on the handle came from Gonzales.

A nationwide $1 million warrant was then issued for the arrest of Gonzales. Meanwhile, California officials published two prominent tattoos from their John Doe: a large dog or wolf with a banner reading “sheepdog” and another reading “faith” in script. Cunningham's family members posted pictures of Gonzales and his tattoos, including a “sheepdog” tattoo on the inside of his left forearm, and Facebook users noted the similar tattoos.

Authorities sought to confirm their John Doe was Gonzales, but the first attempt at using DNA “turned out not to be sufficient, so steps have been taken to obtain a second sample,” Sutter County Sheriff Brandon Barnes wrote in an email to the Appeal-Democrat newspaper.

That second sample confirmed the body as Gonzales, whose cause of death is pending toxicology results, according to authorities, who said there is no evidence of foul play.

“Although we have been waiting for this news, we have mixed emotions about his body being found,” Cunningham wrote. “We knew in all probability we would never have the answers to what happened … but the finding of Jacob’s body now leaves the answer unknown.”

"We would also like to thank Katherine’s family for their patience and their tireless efforts to keep Katherine in the public’s thoughts," Island County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release, in which deputies thanked the Snohomish County Violent Offender Task Force, the US Marshal’s Office, the California Highway Patrol, the Redding Police Department, the Los Banos Police Department, the Merced County Sheriff’s Office and all of the other agencies and citizens that provided information for their help in the investigation.

Jenifer Cunningham also expressed her family’s appreciation to everyone involved.

“There have been many, many people keeping Katherine’s story alive locally and as far as the United Kingdom and beyond,” Cunningham wrote. “We cannot thank you enough for all the prayers, support and friendships that have developed with this tragedy.” 

Contact reporter Evan Caldwell at ecaldwell@scnews.com and follow him on Twitter @Evan_SCN for updates throughout the week and on Instagram @evancaldwell.scn for more photos.

Load comments