Crime

He beheaded a Merced County woman in Washington, deputies say. Now he’s been found dead

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.

The suspect in the beheading of a Merced County woman has been identified, and he’s been dead for at least a year, according to the Island County Sheriff’s Office.

Authorities have been looking for Los Banos resident Jacob Gonzales, 34, who was charged with the brutal killing of 26-year-old Katherine Cunningham, a 2009 Buhach Colony High graduate who also joined the Air Force reserves.

She was found on a 10-acre parcel of land in Camano Island, Washington, on March 3, 2018, near a bunker dug into the hillside, according to Island County Sheriff’s deputies. Her head had been decapitated with a samurai sword.

Authorities said on Tuesday that Gonzales was identified as a body found April 7, 2018, in a river in Yuba City, according to the Sutter County Sheriff’s Office. With no identification, the body was classified as a “John Doe.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how Gonzales died.

The body’s DNA was sent to a lab in November, authorities said in a news release, and identified on Tuesday as belonging to Gonzales.

The woman’s family declined to comment immediately after Gonzales was identified. Cunningham’s family has previously said the two dated “on and off” for at least five years, but their relationship status in Washington was unclear.

Cunningham was a nursing assistant who attended Merced College and was planning to go back to school to be a registered nurse, according to her family.

The Stanwood Camano News previously reported authorities found a handgun in a trailer on the property where Cunningham was found, and they learned from a friend of Gonzales that he was trying to live “off the grid” as a “bunker nut” who thought the government might try to take his guns, according to a number of search warrants and affidavits.

They believe she was killed somewhere else and brought to the hillside, authorities have said. Deputies said Gonzales was the focus of a manhunt for months but was apparently dead about two months after Cunningham was slain.

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