Atwater beheading: Body found in river confirmed to be suspect in girlfriend's murder

MERCED COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) -- The search for a North Valley man accused of beheading his girlfriend is over.

State Department of Justice investigators confirmed a body found in a Sutter County river is Jacob Gonzales from Los Banos.

Investigators had been looking for Gonzales since last year after they say he killed Katherine Cunningham on Camano Island in Washington state.

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Island County authorities say several agencies were involved in the search for the suspect - from the US Marshals to local agencies like Los Banos Police and the Merced County Sheriff's office.

Cunningham's sister says the family is just trying to process everything.

They're now able to grieve, but after more than a year of waiting, they may never get an answer as to why he murdered Cunningham.

A tattoo of a canine with the word 'sheepdog' written underneath, and another of the word 'faith'- these two clues helped authorities link the body in the river with Gonzales. Authorities say it looks like there was no foul play in his death.

"There is information to believe he was (hitchhiking) down our way, and so it sounds like he was traveling out of the area of the state of Washington. Again, the autopsy doesn't show any foul play," says Sutter County Sheriff Brandon Barnes.

Department of Justice officials confirmed his ID on Tuesday.

Authorities say a fisherman found Gonzales's body near Yuba City in April of 2018, about two months after Cunningham was found decapitated in a weapon-filled bunker in Washington.

That June, the suspect was facing new charges after Island County investigators found DNA on a samurai sword that matched Gonzales' DNA.

"We received hundreds of tips on this. We received tips from New York, all over the country - people trying to help us find him," says Ed Wallace, Island County Sheriff's detective.

Sutter County sheriff's officials shared pictures of the victim's tattoos in hopes of identifying their John Doe and soon received a call.

"It was about November of 2018 when we actually had gotten a call from the state of Washington, identifying herself as the sister of Katherine Cunningham," says Sutter County sheriff Brandon Barnes.

RELATED: Authorities find body of the suspect wanted for beheading an Atwater woman

Sheriff's deputies quickly contacted the DOJ in November since Gonzales' body was badly decomposed.

Cunningham's sister they're still processing the news, saying this is "not the outcome we were hoping for, but it's some closure. We can finally grieve now."

Though investigators say the suspect is off the streets, they were hoping to find Gonzales alive and get some answers.

"We may never be able to tell Katherine's family why it's happening now. He cheated them of this answer by doing this. We wanted him alive so we could question him," says Wallace.

The Cunningham family kept the memory of the 26-year-old from Atwater alive, and investigators say it was their perseverance that helped in making the connection between the two departments.

Island County officials say they're going to continue collecting all their evidence as if it were to go to trial.

As for the Gonzales cause of death, Sutter County officials say the autopsy shows that Gonzales drowned.
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