Tattoo links body found in river to woman beheaded a year earlier
The canine had been inked in black and white, with wild eyes and jagged teeth that gave it the look of a snarling wolf.
“Sheepdog,” a banner below said in block letters.
The cryptic tattoo was one of the only clues police had to work with. On April 7, 2018, a fisherman near Yuba City, California, had spotted a corpse floating in the Feather River, just north of a heavily trafficked bridge near downtown. The body had been in the water so long that it was no longer recognizable, officials would later say, and they initially mistook the slim, dark-haired man for a woman because he had been dressed in female clothing and was carrying no identification. There were no signs of foul play, and authorities would later determine that the man had died from drowning. But close to a month later, they still hadn’t been able to identify their John Doe.
Police visited tattoo shops, thinking that someone might remember the fierce-looking sheepdog or the elaborate calligraphy that spelled out “Faith.” After coming up empty-handed, they distributed photographs of both tattoos to the press, hoping someone would recognize them.
Eventually, someone did. On Tuesday, officials announced that DNA testing had confirmed that the waterlogged body belonged to Jacob Gonzales. The 33-year-old had been the subject of a multistate manhunt since March 2018, when his girlfriend, Katherine Cunningham, 26, was found decapitated near a weapon-filled bunker on a densely wooded island north of Seattle, more than a 13-hour drive from where Gonzales’s body would eventually wash up.
According to court records, the couple had been living on an undeveloped 10-acre plot of land on Camano Island, where many wealthy Seattleites maintain second homes nestled amid the towering pine trees overlooking Skagit Bay. On March 3, 2018, a neighbor interested in purchasing the land had wandered with friends down a ravine, where they spotted a red wagon, holding what looked like a sleeping bag wrapped in a tarp.
As soon as they saw what was inside, they contacted the police.
Deputies from the Island County Sheriff’s Office quickly concluded that the young woman in the sleeping bag had been dead for days and that her head had been cut off with a saw or machete. A dozen empty sandbags formed a 70-foot trail, leading from the wagon to what at first looked like a large hole in the ground. It turned out to be a six-foot-deep underground bunker – “the type used by survivalists,” police wrote in their affidavit – that had been dug into a hillside. Bolstered with wood, it had a ladder that reached all the way down to the bottom of the pit. There, police found a cache of loaded guns and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition. Inside the trailer that also sat on the property, they found a loaded 9mm pistol hidden in a man’s hiking boot.
Cunningham, a former cross-country runner who grew up in central California’s Merced County, had joined the Air Force Reserve at the age of 20 in 2012, according to the Everett Daily Herald. That was where she met Gonzales, who had also grown up in Merced County and had joined the reserves a year before she did. The two dated on and off for years, Emma Cunningham, Katherine’s sister, told the paper. In 2015, a year after Gonzales had left the reserves, Katherine left, too, and they abruptly moved to Camano Island. The move puzzled Emma, who had no idea what could have drawn them to Washington state. Though she never saw signs of abuse, she didn’t get the right feeling from Gonzales, either.
“I never got good vibes from him,” she told the Daily Herald. “I didn’t like being around him.”
Four days after the gruesome discovery, authorities announced that Gonzales was a person of interest in the murder, and asked people to look out for his green Mitsubishi Montero. He was likely armed, they warned: A friend had told police that Gonzales had been trying to live “off the grid” and was a “bunker nut” who thought the government was going to take his guns, according to records obtained by the Stanwood Camano News. Neighbors on the island reported they hadn’t seen him for a week, and that Cunningham hadn’t been around for several weeks beforehand. Neither had used their shared laptop or either of their cellphones since Feb. 15, 2018, investigators found, meaning that they had gone off the grid more than two weeks before a neighbor spotted the wagon.
Gonzales had run into legal problems in California, records showed. After being convicted on car theft charges in 2005, he had been banned from owning guns, according to the Stanwood Camano News. In 2014, just days after leaving the reserves, he served a 13-day sentence for firearm charges that stemmed from a 2012 incident where a SWAT team that came to his home after hearing reports of gunshots thought that he was shooting at them. Still, the cops thought that he was likely headed back there. Leads began trickling in, but none panned out.
Nine days into the investigation, a call came in that seemed to confirm the officers’ hunch. A California Highway Patrol officer had spotted Cunningham’s silver 1998 Honda on Feb. 16, 2018, more than two weeks before deputies found her body. It had been abandoned on Interstate 5, at the summit of a mountain pass near Yreka, Calif. According to court records, the patrol officer who towed it away noticed a samurai sword had been wrapped in a blanket and stuffed in the trunk.
Police later concluded that Gonzales had stolen Cunningham’s car and fled to California, using his military training and survivalist skills to disappear. He was still at large four months later, when prosecutors announced that he would be facing murder charges. The lab results had come back, showing that the dried blood on the blade of the samurai sword belonged to the deceased 26-year-old. On the sword’s hilt, forensic technicians had found DNA that was matched to Gonzales.
The evidence might have pointed to a suspect, but the man himself was nowhere to be found. People in various parts of California claimed to have seen him, but none of the sightings led anywhere. Officials speculated that Gonzales could have shaved his head and changed his facial hair, allowing him to go undetected. The search that had started in early spring dragged on through the summer and into the fall, with no arrests.
Then, in November, detectives got a tip about the John Doe who had been fished out of the river. Island County Sheriff’s Office Detective Ed Wallace told the Daily Herald that it came from someone who moved to Washington state from Sutter County in California, where the body had washed up. That person saw pictures of Gonzales’s tattoos on social media and noted that the sheepdog was a symbol that members of the military use because it represents protecting people. The letters “AF,” a common abbreviation for the Air Force, had been inked inside the dog’s ear. While police haven’t said exactly where the tipster spotted Gonzales’s distinctive tattoo, Cunningham’s family members had posted a photo of it on Justice 4 Katherine, a Facebook page they maintain.
Though detectives were fairly certain that they had found the missing suspect, they waited to make any announcements until a DNA test had come back from the lab. On Tuesday, Island County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that it was a match.
Still, many questions remain, among them the suspect’s possible motives and how he ended up drowning in a river hundreds of miles away from where the Honda had been found on the side of the road.
“My hope was to interrogate him and provide answers to Katherine’s family,” Wallace told the Redding Record Searchlight. “He cheated the family of answers.”