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Beheaded woman’s car was stolen and dumped. Sword inside exposed her killer, cops say

Merced County woman’s family asks for help to find her killer

Family of a slain Atwater woman pleaded Wednesday with Merced County residents to keep an eye out for the man wanted as a "person of interest" related to her death last month. They spoke on Wednesday, March 25, 2018.
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Family of a slain Atwater woman pleaded Wednesday with Merced County residents to keep an eye out for the man wanted as a "person of interest" related to her death last month. They spoke on Wednesday, March 25, 2018.

A man was walking with friends on a 10-acre parcel of land in Camano Island, Washington — scouting for property to buy — when he spotted a sleeping bag nestled in a ravine.

The sleeping bag was wrapped in a tarp and positioned in front of a red wagon, according to court records. Pushing on the bundle made it clear the sleeping bag was hiding something heavy, so one of the walkers decided to use his foot to peel back the top of the bag.

That’s when they saw the body.

The woman was obviously dead, court records said: Her head, from the lower jaw up, was missing. She was later identified as Katherine Cunningham, 26, and she had been dead for at least several days by the time the walkers found her March 3, the coroner said. The cause of death was decapitation, and deputies suspected Cunningham had been specifically targeted in the killing.

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Jacob Gonzales, 33 Island County Sheriff's Office

“This was not a random act,” the sheriff’s office said.

Authorities quickly focused on a single person of interest in the case: Jacob Gonzales, Cunningham’s 33-year-old boyfriend, who had disappeared in the aftermath of Cunningham’s murder — and who had likely taken Cunningham’s missing Honda Civic with him, the sheriff’s office said. Deputies said he may have headed to Los Banos in Merced County, California, where he and Cunningham are from.

“We just want to get the story out again because nothing's happening out here,” her mother, Jenifer Cunningham, told the Merced Sun-Star. “If he is around here, we want people to report him to their local authority.”

But a break came in the case on March 12, when Washington authorities learned the missing Honda was found on Feb. 16, abandoned near Yreka, California. Inside the vehicle there was a medical card with Cunningham’s picture on it. In the trunk, authorities found a bloody samurai sword in a sheath and wrapped in a blanket, according to the sheriff’s office.

DNA test results that came back this week revealed blood from the blade was a match with Cunningham. DNA on the sword’s hilt matched Gonzales. Both Gonzales and Cunningham had DNA on the steering wheel of the car, court records said.

Gonzales is on the run, and there is a $1 million reward for his arrest, according to the sheriff’s office. He is believed to be in California. Gonzales faces charges of second-degree domestic violence murder now that authorities have DNA evidence from the sword. He also faces weapons and vehicle theft charges, authorities said.

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Anyone who sees Gonzales is encouraged to reach out to local law enforcement, the sheriff’s office said. He’s described as a 5-foot-9-inch, 150-pound Hispanic man with black hair and hazel eyes. He may be armed, deputies said.

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Emma Cunningham shows a photo of her sister, 26-year-old Katherine Cunningham, as family members speak about her in Merced, Calif., on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. Katherine Cunningham was found dead on March 3, 2018, on Camano Island in northwest Washington. Authorities are searching for a man named Jacob Gonzales, 34, who authorities say is a person of interest in Cunningham's death. Andrew Kuhn akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Beginning in February 2015, Gonzales and Cunningham had jointly leased the property where Cunningham’s body was found, authorities learned. Though the land owner said the lease was intended to allow the two to store property on the site, the owner told authorities “he was aware that they have been living in a travel trailer at the location for several months,” court records said.

When authorities were investigating at the crime scene, they noticed that a trail of empty sandbags led like bread crumbs from Cunningham’s body to a man-made hole carved into the hillside about 70 feet away, court records said. It was six feet deep and four feet around, with wood reinforcing it for structural integrity. A ladder went into the makeshift bunker, which police described as “the type used by survivalists.”

Inside it, officers found a trove of firearms — including a semi-automatic rifle, two bolt action rifles, ammunition and accessories, court records said. Gonzales faces five counts for unlawful possession of a firearm because of the weapons stash.

Then deputies searched the travel trailer on the property, which the pair used as a residence. Gonzales and Cunningham’s phones, found at the scene, had last been used Feb. 15, court records said. That’s around the date of the suspected murder.

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Before moving to Washington, Gonzales and Cunningham were members of the U.S. Air Force reserves in California. But Gonzales left the service after he was charged with firing a weapon in his yard, triggering a standoff with a SWAT team in Los Banos, according to the Los Banos Enterprise.

“I was shocked and stunned at what happened to my sister,” Cunningham’s 22-year-old sister Emma said in a phone interview with the Merced Sun-Star. “But I was not surprised he was the person of interest.”

Gonzales’ friend told authorities Gonzales is a “bunker nut” who was attempting to live “off the grid,” the Stanwood Camano News reports. He was also worried the government would seize his weapons, the friend said.

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