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)

Grief and gratitude after Camano murder suspect found dead

Katherine Cunningham’s family released a statement after the body of Jacob Gonzales was identified.

CAMANO ISLAND — The family of Katherine Cunningham knew there would probably never be answers for why she was brutally killed.

This week they learned — “with mixed emotions” — that a body found in a California river has been identified as the boyfriend long suspected in her death, her mother said in a statement released Friday.

One of those emotions was gratitude to those who supported the Cunninghams this past year.

Katherine Cunningham, 26, grew up in Merced County, California, and served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. She was beheaded on a 10-acre parcel of wooded land off Tamarack Lane last year. A neighbor found her body March 3, 2018, near a foxhole stockpiled with loaded guns.

“We miss her daily and feel the emptiness knowing she is gone,” wrote her mother, Jenifer Cunningham. “We will remember Katherine for the goodness and kindness in her heart.”

Katherine’s Honda Civic was abandoned along a highway north of Yreka, California. The suspect, boyfriend Jacob Gonzales, 33, was identified this week as a man found dead in a river in April 2018, under a bridge in Yuba City — over 200 miles south of the car.

“Although we have been waiting for this news, we have mixed emotions about his body being found,” her mother wrote. “We knew in all probability we would never have the answers to what happened in February 2018 and why my daughter Katherine is dead, but the finding of Jacob’s body now leaves it unknowing.”

Last year California authorities released photos of tattoos from an unidentified body found in the Feather River. Someone recognized a drawing of a “Sheepdog” as an arm tattoo on Gonzales. It’s a common military metaphor for a protector.

Gonzales, a longtime resident of Los Banos, California, served in the Air Force Reserve, too, from 2011 to 2014.

The pair moved to Washington in 2015.

The Island County Sheriff’s Office confirmed this week that Gonzales’ DNA matched a John Doe found in the river. Earlier, his DNA was found on a samurai sword in the abandoned Honda, according to murder charges filed against Gonzales.

By the time the charges were filed last June, Gonzales had been dead at least two months.

Island County detective Ed Wallace said the sheriff’s office will continue to investigate the killing as if the case were going to trial.

Reporter Zachariah Bryan contributed to this story.

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

Here is the full statement from Cunningham’s family:

Katherine is a wonderful person (whose life) was unexpectedly taken from us in February 2018. Katherine had so much life to live and was working hard doing what she loved. Unfortunately, she ended up in (Camano) Island, Washington and away from her family in California where tragedy struck. We miss her daily and feel the emptiness knowing she is gone. We will remember Katherine for the goodness and kindness in her heart.

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. We forwarded the possible ID on their John Doe in November 2018 and were sure this was the body of Jacob Gonzales. Since November, we have been waiting for the DNA match of the John Doe to Jacob. For all our followers we wanted to share this information but knew we could not until a positive ID came from (the Sutter County Sheriff’s Office).

On April 16, 2019, Detective Ed Wallace of the Island County Sheriff’s Office did confirm that Sutter County Sheriff’s Office got a match on the DNA. The John Doe body is Jacob Gonzales, the suspect in Katherine’s murder was finally found!

Although we have been waiting for this news, we have mixed emotions about his body being found. We knew in all probability we would never have the answers to what happened in February 2018 and why my daughter Katherine is dead, but the finding of Jacobs body now leaves it unknowing.

There have been many, many people keeping Katherine’s story alive locally and as far as the United Kingdom and beyond. We cannot thank you enough for all the prayers, support, and friendships that have developed with this tragedy. A huge hug and thank you to my special group of friends that gathered around to “get things done” when we needed it the most and to Josephine Wentzel for her support reminding me that God is in control!

Thank you to Island County Sheriff’s Office, the US marshals Office, Sutter County Sheriff’s Office, Merced Area Crime Stoppers, and the Los Banos Police Department. Thank you to the news media throughout the United States and overseas; Joey Horta CBS 47, Nathalie Granda ABC 30, Stanwood Camano News, The Washington Post, Rachel Rosenbaum Appeal- Democrat, Ashleigh Banfield Crime & Justice HLN, and countless others.

A special thank you to Mills & Mills Funeral Home in (Tumwater), Washington and to John Barrass for taking good care of Katherine and bringing her home. Thank you to Ray Wenham of Stratford Evans Funeral Home in Merced, CA for accommodating all our special needs. We have a grateful heart for the citizens of Camano Island for your kindness in remembering Katherine.

I pray for all the families that have dealt with a death in their family such as ours. Keep fighting for Justice for your loved one. Find a network and keep FIGHTING!

With sincere gratitude and appreciation,

—The Cunningham family, Justice4Katherine

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