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Jenner killings' effects felt 10 years on


The Pacific Ocean, silver-flecked by the sun, pulls at the slight curve of Fish Head Beach. It’s been a decade since a devout young couple from the Midwest were murdered on the gray sand just north of Jenner. Most days, a salted wind bites at the steep bluffs they would have had to descend to reach the shore.

Except for the startling beauty, there is no visible memorial to Jason Allen and Lindsay Cutshall, shot dead there in August 2004 as they slept on the beach, their Bible nearby.

The crime stunned the region and captured national attention. It remains unsolved, the killer or killers still unknown.

“The ugly outside world visited us that night,” recalled Thomas Yeates, a 30-year resident of Jenner, a village of some 140 people, with seaside inns and vacation cottages, a state parks visitor center, a post office, and a gas station-deli.

Next week, Cutshall’s parents will return to Jenner to mark the 10th anniversary of the slayings. They plan a quiet ceremony at Goat Rock Beach, including the installation of a sand sculpture, to remember their daughter and her fiancé. It is another moment to live out the religious faith that shaped the couple, and defined their actions, said Lindsay’s father, Chris Cutshall.

“We’re kind of the feet and hands and voice for them,” Cutshall said.

Lindsay Cutshall grew up in Fresno, Ohio, some 2,500 miles east of Jenner. It has a small post office and a few dozen homes scattered at a distance around some railroad tracks on the edge of Ohio’s Amish Country, where narrow roads carry horse-drawn carriages and wind past red barns and fields of hay and corn.

Her father Chris, a pastor, is “broken,” he said. And he would have it no other way.

Cutshall, 59, no longer carries his slain daughter’s well-marked Bible when he preaches, as he did for several years; not every sermon can spring from the passages she highlighted. But Lindsay’s name and death — and Jason’s, too — now inhabit the vernacular of his evangelical Fresno Bible Church.

In a recent sermon, titled “The priority of love,” Cutshall told his rapt parishioners: “Did you know that Kathy and I, we pray for the man who killed our kids?… He’s our enemy, but he’s a person in need.”

Faith in God is virtually inseparable from the lives and deaths of Lindsay Cutshall and Jason Allen, 22 and 26, respectively, when they were killed.

It is inseparable from how memories of them are held by their parents, whose deep religiosity promises them a reunion with their children and embraces even their killer.

For all that, for how they have forged on, for the way the Fresno Bible Church that Lindsay grew up in has thrived since her death, for how, subsequently, disparate people found the same Christ they worship,the Cutshalls and Allens are grateful and awed.

“Yes, it was a horrible tragedy, an evil thing, but God can still take that and use that for good and for his glory,” said Delores Allen, 62, Jason’s mother, seated with her husband, Bob, 67, in the sunroom of their home in Zeeland, Mich.

Outside the house, the lawns are wide and, for the most part, no fences separate them. The town is a flat landscape; the welcome sign at its border celebrates the championships brought home by the high school sports teams.

Jason grew up there, ensconced in the Baptist faith that has sustained his parents.

“We have the assurance that we know where they are and we know we will see them again,” Delores added. “I know that not all parents have that, and that would be unbearable. If I didn’t have that assurance that they are alive, I don’t know if I could deal with that.”

It was one of the North Coast’s most notorious slayings, garnering coast-to-coast media coverage, and it remains so 10 years later: the murder of a fresh-faced, young couple in love.

Lindsay and Jason, who met at a Bible college and planned to spend their lives ministering to Christian youth, were to marry Sept. 11, 2004. But they failed to show up Monday, Aug. 16, at their summer jobs as counselors at Rock-N-Water, a Christian youth adventure camp in California’s El Dorado County.

The couple had departed Friday night for a weekend trip; it is believed they planned it at the last minute after a full day of whitewater rafting with their youthful charges.

“I had just sent out the wedding invitations and I came back that (Monday) morning and got the call from camp: ‘Jason and Lindsay are missing,’”recalled Lindsay’s mother, Kathy Cutshall, 57, speaking after a hearty lunch of pulled pork in the Cutshalls’ cozy mobile home on the church grounds. “My heart dropped. I knew something was wrong.”

The Cutshalls flew out on Tuesday, the Allens on Wednesday. Both couples landed in Reno and drove to Placerville, where they would stay at the home of Craig Lomax, the camp’s owner and director.

The couple were traced through credit card receipts to San Francisco, where Lindsay had bought a miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce at Fisherman’s Wharf on Saturday. Late Wednesday, Aug. 18, their bodies were found on Fish Head Beach, a mile north of Jenner. It was later concluded that they were killed between Saturday night and Sunday morning.

At some point, they had made entries in a sort of visitors’ journal that was kept in a small wooden hutch on the beach.

“The sun is going down in the horizon,” Lindsay wrote. “All I see is the beams shining on the cliff face. And I know that God is awsome (sic). I look around and I see his creation all around me.”

Jason wrote: “As I stir this Mac & Cheese I think to myself what a wonderful life. I’ve just spent two awsome (sic) days with my fiance Lindsay. Can life ever be so perfect. Only with a person who is so great. God gives me this privilege in life and He has given me a wonderful woman to enjoy it.”

They were found in sleeping clothes and separate sleeping bags. Each had been shot once in the head at close range with an uncommon rifle: a Marlin .45-caliber that uses ammunition also suited to handguns.

The crime was confounding, as was the scene.

Nothing, including their camping gear, appeared to have been stolen. Their car, a battered red Ford Tempo parked in a pullout spot on the side of Highway 1 in Jenner, was untouched. The couple had been in Sonoma County for a matter of hours — a photograph in a camera found with them showed they had been at the Golden Gate Bridge earlier Saturday — and knew nobody here. There was no sign of sexual assault. Lindsay was still wearing jewelry including a diamond cross necklace. The couple’s positions in death led investigators to conclude they had been asleep when shot. And the crime scene, in a remote location, had been exposed to the elements for four days.

“We were behind the eight-ball from the start. We had an uphill battle to fight,” said Dave Thompson, a Sonoma County Sheriff’s detective who worked the investigation for two years, from its start.

Investigators plunged in, positive nonetheless. The five-person Violent Crimes Investigation (VCI) unit was among 25 detectives on the case.

“We had just come off a couple of other cases that were solved, the unit was clicking, and we were going to attack this one and hopefully come to the same conclusion,” said Thompson, now 44. “That was our mind frame: ‘We’ve been handed this thing. Let’s get going.’ Everyone was on their game.”

On Thursday, Aug. 19, at 6:30 a.m., a group of men approached Lomax’s house at the camp with terrible news.

Now, the recollections of precisely who was there vary. In Thompson’s memory, it was him, Lomax, an El Dorado Sheriff’s Department chaplain and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Freitas, then head of VCI. Freitas, now Sonoma County Sheriff, wanted Thompson there because of the detective’s deep Christian faith.

“I brought him basically to interpret the Christians for me,” said Freitas.

Chris Cutshall and Bob Allen, sensing what was to come, met them outside.

“It was like, ‘We’re the men of the family. We’re here to take the bad news first,’ ” Thompson said. “We gave it to them. It just confirmed what they had already suspected.”

Then the fathers told the mothers.

“It was almost unreal. They didn’t know anybody. How could they have gotten shot?” Delores said. “And on a beach. Who would have done that?”

“I said to Chris, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” Kathy recalled. “He said, ‘We might not have a choice.’ ”

Detectives began interviewing camp employees, in rooms at opposite ends of the house. The Cutshalls and Allens sat together at the dining table.

They prayed. They wept. They promised they would withstand the devil.

“The four of us made a vow,” Chris said. “That we weren’t going to let Satan have any victories in our lives. That was the vow, that we weren’t going to fall into sin and lose to the devil. He didn’t deserve it and we weren’t going to let it happen.”

Freitas, 51, still shakes his head when he remembers Cutshall’s reaction.

“When I told those two men that their kids were dead, Chris Cutshall was overjoyed,” Freitas said. “I can remember this day vividly still. In my head, I thought, ‘This guy’s crazy or he’s on drugs.’ ”

On the return trip to Sonoma County, Freitas, taken aback by Cutshall’s response, quizzed Thompson, the stalwart Christian, about his beliefs.

“It didn’t make sense to me, but Dave was able to help explain it to me,” Freitas said. “(Chris) was so happy that his daughter was in heaven and there was no question in his mind that she was in heaven: ‘She’s in heaven and heaven’s a better place than this and I can’t wait to be there with her. Everything’s good.’ ”

Hundreds of tips poured into the sheriff’s office in the first few days of the hunt for the killer. Detectives quickly broadened their search to outside Sonoma County, looking at similarities in unsolved murder cases in Humboldt County and Arizona to see if there were links.

A drifter — a Wisconsin native still on the road 10 years later — was named a person of interest. He took a polygraph exam and was cleared of involvement.

Coastal residents were shaken.

“Living out on the coast, away from big cities, it’s not something we’re used to,” said Nick Marlow, then a Duncans Mills resident. He purchased a gun soon after, he said, partly in response to the events.

“It was a shock … and resonated throughout the community,” said Marlow, 38, now of Occidental.

Tipsters in the coastal region reported an unfamiliar car with a distinctive decal on its window in the area at the time of the murders; detectives circulated hundreds of fliers.

The rare Marlin rifle was publicly identified as the murder weapon. Detectives went door to door in the county and elsewhere looking for that model of gun, eventually taking about 100 firearms to test.

The weeks wore on and theories abounded: that the couple had stumbled upon a drug deal or an abalone-poaching ring; that they had angered someone by evangelizing or otherwise speaking too openly about their faith. Chris was convinced that one man had stalked the couple.

More time passed. The state posted a $50,000 reward. It is still unclaimed.

“It’s always in the back of my mind, just like it has been for the last 10 years,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Carlos Basurto, who oversees VCI now and was one of the first detectives to set foot on Fish Head Beach on that Wednesday in 2004.

Perhaps the brightest hope for a resolution to the case came in 2009. Joseph Henry Burgess, a fugitive wanted in connection with the 1972 slaying of a young Christian couple as they slept on a Vancouver Island beach, got into a gunfight in New Mexico in which he and a sheriff’s deputy were killed.

Sonoma County detectives flew to New Mexico to see if there were ties between the 1972 case and the killings of Jason and Lindsay. But Burgess’ DNA did not match that found on a beer bottle discovered at the scene of the Fish Head Beach murders.

That didn’t exclude Burgess as a suspect, but it meant he could not be connected to the slayings through any other means — by anything in a dozen 4-inch binders of tips, for example, or piles of boxes of investigative research.

“It was extremely frustrating, extremely frustrating,” Basurto said. Still, detectives continue to work the case.

“Although it’s considered a cold case, it has not gotten cold,” he said.

In February, detectives flew to the East Coast — Basurto won’t say where — to interview a “person of interest.” There have been no public developments as a result, but that angle remains open, Basurto said, and other persons of interest are also being explored.

Several viable tips come in monthly that detectives track down, and at times are solid enough to mobilize the unit.

“We’ve had so many different leads that were burning hot … that ended up flaming out,” Basurto said.

The case is, in some ways, a sore point.

“It seems like a black eye, on my tenure, at least, in VCI,” Thompson said.

But the Christian in him, as well as the veteran law enforcement officer, holds out a strong hope.

“One of these days, there’ll be some sort of break,” Thompson said. “I know there are enough people still working on it, still thinking about it and still praying about it.”

When it comes to the possibility that one day they might know who killed their children, “closure” is not a word that the Allens and Cutshalls use. They concede an interest in the killer’s capture — she would like to ask him why, Delores said. Chris said he would like to have him ask their forgiveness. But in conversation, those concerns seem overshadowed by their commitment to forgiveness and their certainty that the killer will one day face a superior judgment.

“We believe in the justice system, too, and we know there are consequences to sin and we would like to see the person caught,” Delores said

“And brought to justice,” added Bob.

“And brought to justice,” echoed Delores. “But it would be a miserable life if we were so absorbed in anger and bitterness that we lost our joy and we don’t want anybody to have that power over us, to take joy from our lives. That’s why we give it to the Lord, knowing he is the final judge.”

Chris Cutshall said he also pities the killer, foretelling for him a stern fate.

“That guy doesn’t have to face the pitiful anger of a little human being, of a father,” he said. “He has to face the wrath of God. And knowing scripture and believing scripture as I do, that’s an awful thing. I wouldn’t wish that even on him.”

The mothers could not enter their childrens’ bedrooms for several years after the murders.

For nearly three years, Chris Cutshall would periodically find himself flat on the floor, sobbing.

Bob Allen thinks of hunting with his son, and the loss hits him in his gut.

“Jason was an excellent shot,” he said with pride.

For all the prayers, for all the faith, the pain still arrives — Mother’s Day, birthdays, holidays. On any day.

A week before being interviewed in early May, Kathy Cutshall, out of the blue, was weeping.

“It’s almost like a homesickness,” she said.

There still are days when she goes to her part-time job in a jewelry store and cannot stay.

Delores still finds herself crying at times when she comes across things that belonged to Jason.

“They are not unaffected,” said Janna Kuiphof, 36, a childhood friend of Jason’s in Zeeland who is still close to the Allens, and who has come to know the Cutshalls. “There still is a deep and profound sense of loss and sadness because Jason and Lindsay not being here has left a noticeable hole.”

But the families have survived almost unimaginable loss. Indeed, they appear to have thrived.

They have been helped by the almost certain knowledge that their children were sleeping when they were shot.

For the Cutshalls, in particular, the fact that no evidence of sexual assault was detected has softened the tragedy.

“There were some things that I think God knew I couldn’t handle. And one was if there had been torture,” Kathy said. “Or if I knew they had pain. And he (God) took care of that.”

That in the murders’ wake, there have been people — a woman in Brazil who changed her surname to Cutshall; a television journalist; a law enforcement officer — who found the same Christ they worship has also been a salve.

“God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God,” Chris said. “Out of this awfulness, this tragedy that was very personally experienced, we’ve seen God keep that promise.”

Delores and Bob say the unexpected ability to live without rage at the killer has been a blessing.

“The more the anger builds, the more it tears you down,” Bob said. “We were able to give that anger to the Lord, so we’re not angry.”

“We don’t hold any anger or bitterness to this person. We know that this person is a lost soul,” Delores added. “And Jason and Lindsay dedicated their lives to bringing good news to those people who are lost.”

Cutshall has flourished as a pastor, the congregation is more solid than it was before the killings, and his power as a Christian minister has grown.

“I think it’s deepened the church’s respect for me. It gave me clout. Before I would get, every once in a while, ‘You don’t understand. You haven’t gone through what I’ve been through.’ I don’t get that anymore.”

Still, Cutshall, who wears a ring of his daughter’s on the little finger of his right hand, doesn’t like to visit the gravesite near Fresno where Jason and Lindsay’s cremated remains are buried together — as if they had married — in the same casket.

Faith, he said, is not, and should not be, an exemption from sorrow.

“The biggest fear I’ve had over the years is that I wouldn’t grieve over her any longer,” Cutshall said. “She’s worth it. She’s worthy. I’m her father. This is her mother. We feel kind of fearful to get to that place where we wouldn’t anymore. We don’t break into tears all the time anymore. But we still grieve.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay.