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)

A brutal death on Camano Island, and a family’s questions

Police are looking for Jacob Gonzales, who might have killed his girlfriend, Katherine Cunningham.

CAMANO ISLAND — By the time a neighbor uncovered a woman’s headless body on Camano Island, her boyfriend may have had a 16-day running start in a race against police.

Until now, Island County Sheriff Mark Brown had not revealed that Jacob Gonzales is suspected of stealing his girlfriend’s Honda Civic and fleeing to his home state of California in mid-February. Detectives are unsure when exactly he left the area, the sheriff said. Gonzales remains at large, a person of interest in the murder.

The Honda was abandoned a few miles north of Yreka on a freezing day, Feb. 16. It was near the 3,067-foot crest of a sloped stretch of I-5 called Anderson Grade, according to the California Highway Patrol.

The neighbor discovered Katherine Cunningham dead on the afternoon of March 3, on a parcel of wooded land off Tamarack Lane. She had been beheaded, wrapped in a sleeping bag and left in a Red Flyer wagon. She was 26.

The wagon sat at the end of a 70-foot trail of a dozen empty nylon sandbags. The bags led to a foxhole stocked with guns and ammo. A lack of blood near the body suggested Cunningham was killed elsewhere and hidden in the bag, according to search warrants. Court records do not say if a second crime scene has been located. Bloody rags were scattered on the property.

A neighbor described Gonzales, 33, as a “bunker nut” who wanted to live “off the grid,” charging papers say. Police received many possible sightings. All are unconfirmed.

In the meantime, Cunningham’s family has been asking the same question over and over about the killing.

“Why?”

Another photo of Jacob Gonzales, 33, without facial hair. He is suspected of stealing his girlfriend’s car two weeks before she was found murdered on Camano Island. He was still at large this week, with a nationwide $1 million warrant out for his arrest.

Another photo of Jacob Gonzales, 33, without facial hair. He is suspected of stealing his girlfriend’s car two weeks before she was found murdered on Camano Island. He was still at large this week, with a nationwide $1 million warrant out for his arrest.

Cunningham’s sister, Emma, 22, fears the family may never get answers, even if Gonzales is found. But she wants to keep him in the news, so he can be recognized and captured.

“It makes me uncomfortable, because we don’t really know where he is,” Emma Cunningham said. “It’s an odd feeling, going out and not knowing if you’re going to see him or run into him.”

Gonzales has a $1 million warrant out for his arrest. He is charged with car theft and unlawful possession of five guns. He has not been officially named a murder suspect.

The Island County sheriff asks anyone with tips to dial 911, no matter if they’re in Washington or across the country. That way local law enforcement can respond as swiftly as possible.

Big sister

Katherine Cunningham grew up in Merced County, California. She was nurturing — a dog person who loved the family Dalmatians, Maci, Purdie and Dottie. As an adult, she cared for the elderly. She and Emma grew up together.

“Fishing, camping, going on shopping trips,” Emma said. “She was older than me, so she was kind of my person I looked up to.”

Katherine ran cross-country at Buhach Colony High School in Atwater, a few miles west of Merced. She joined the Air Force Reserve at age 20 in February 2012. She lived on base for one of her three years in the service. She was a personnel specialist, a role akin to human resources. She left the military Feb. 10, 2015.

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

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

Charging papers show Gonzales and Cunningham signed a lease to store property on Camano Island on Feb. 24, 2015. There’s no record that they intended to live there, but it appeared they stayed in a 15-foot trailer.

The move seemed sudden to Emma. She doesn’t know what drew them to Washington. She didn’t know Gonzales well, but she didn’t care for him.

“I’ve always thought he was different,” Emma said. “That was my personal opinion. I never got good vibes from him. I didn’t like being around him.”

Gonzales dated Katherine on and off for years. He grew up in Merced County and served in the reserves at Travis Air Force Base, too, from spring 2011 to 2014.

He had a few run-ins with the law.

He was convicted in California of auto theft a decade ago. He was arrested for shooting a gun in a grossly negligent manner at his home in Los Banos in 2012, according to the local newspaper. A SWAT team responded to the gunfire, then thought he was shooting at them.

He was given a 13-day sentence in May 2014, within days of leaving the reserves.

He’s not allowed to have guns. When Katherine was found dead, Emma was suspicious right away.

“I was shocked by the news,” she said. “But I was not shocked that he was a person of interest.”

Emma never saw signs of domestic abuse. She last talked with her sister around Christmas. She was working as a nurse’s aide at a senior center in Stanwood. She seemed happy. She planned to go back to school.

Emma called again in February. Her sister didn’t pick up.

National manhunt

On March 3, a neighbor on Camano Island went to explore the 10-acre plot off Tamarack Lane. He’d been thinking of buying it. Down in a ravine, he and his friends saw things that didn’t look right: tarps, sandbags, a red wagon with a sleeping bag on it.

They nudged the bag and felt something heavy. They looked inside. They called police around 2 p.m.

Emma said she is grateful for the people who found her sister.

Katherine Cunningham (left) and Jacob Gonzales.

Katherine Cunningham (left) and Jacob Gonzales.

Detectives took over the scene for days, searching a half-mile around the body. They saw a trench, 6 feet deep and 4 feet wide, in a hillside above the wagon. It had been reinforced with wood. A ladder led deep enough that deputies couldn’t see the bottom. They brought in a robotic camera to ensure it was safe.

From the bunker, they seized a Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle with a scope; another Mosin-Nagant rifle with a pistol grip; a Savage-brand .22-caliber rifle; a camouflage H&R pump shotgun and more than 1,000 rounds of ammo. Each gun was loaded, with rounds in the chambers.

On a trail to the motorhome, detectives saw duct tape and stuffing from a sleeping bag. In the trailer, they searched a man’s hiking boot and pulled out a 9 mm pistol.

Police found a laptop and the cellphones of Gonzales and Cunningham. Activity on the electronics stopped Feb. 15.

Katherine’s 1999 Honda was parked outside, with a power inverter that may have been the only source of electricity. She had a silver 1998 Honda, too. That car was gone.

Taking the fastest route, it’s a nine-hour nonstop drive from Camano Island to Yreka. Anderson Grade is 6 miles north of the city, near westbound Highway 96. A volunteer fire department reported that forest rangers saw a man who looked like Gonzales asking about mushroom picking March 13 in Happy Camp, a small town 70 miles west in the Klamath National Forest.

“There is no confirmation at this time whether the man was actually Gonzales or merely a similar looking individual,” the fire department posted. Another report the same day suggested he’d been in Los Banos.

Gonzales’ family told police they hadn’t heard from him in the month before the killing.

The car was brought back to Washington to be searched. Federal authorities are helping, the Island County sheriff said.

Gonzales had military training and survivalist tendencies.

“I don’t want to speculate about his ability to disappear — suffice to say that we haven’t apprehended him so far,” Brown said. “We’re certainly looking.”

Gonzales is 5-foot-9, about 150 pounds, with black hair. Photos on social media show him in a leather jacket with a Christian cross, wings and writing that says, “Jesus has my back.” He has unusually bright, blue-green eyes, Emma Cunningham said.

Katherine’s sister has a plea for Gonzales.

“Just come forward,” Emma said. “Turn yourself in to the local police. Katherine deserves justice.”

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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