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Young Couple's Dreams Ended on Isolated Beach

August 21, 2004|William Wan and Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

JENNER, Calif. — They came from a small town in Ohio with no stoplights, no stores, only a few houses and three churches. It was the life outdoors and a chance to help others that drew them to California.

Over the summer, Lindsay Cutshall and her fiance, Jason Allen, had found both and planned to return to Ohio next month to get married. But before the trip home, they set out for one last trek into the wild, hiking down to a rugged beach and sleeping on the sand. They never woke up.

Cutshall, 23, and Allen, 26, were shot in the head sometime this week on a remote beach near this coastal town in Sonoma County. The bodies were found side by side Wednesday, still in sleeping clothes and zipped tight in separate sleeping bags, police said. Beside them lay a Christian book, camping gear and wedding literature.

Authorities have no suspects or possible motives. Nothing was stolen, and no weapon was found. "The case doesn't lend itself to an easy motive," said Sonoma County Sheriff's Lt. Dave Edmonds. "That's why it was so troubling."

The couple worked as river guides this summer at a Christian camp northeast of Sacramento and were last seen Aug. 13. They told co-workers that they were going to visit friends. Last Saturday, a credit card bill placed them in San Francisco, buying a souvenir set of hot sauce, investigators said. Later that day, they stopped for gas in Guerneville, 13 miles from Jenner.

They were supposed to be back at the Rock-N-Water camp in Coloma on Sunday. When they failed to show up, the camp reported them missing. The couple didn't tell camp leaders exactly where they were going, so no one knew precisely where to search.

El Dorado County sheriff's deputies scoured the area around the camp with no luck. Cutshall's and Allen's parents flew in to help. And the couple's church back in Ohio held an emergency prayer meeting.

Then on Wednesday, the California Highway Patrol found their car, a red 1993 Ford Tempo, parked on California 1 near the beach.

Another break came later that day, when a helicopter crew was rescuing a 17-year-old boy clinging to the edge of a cliff near Jenner.

The pilot spotted the couple lying on the driftwood-covered beach below a steep cliff. The site is accessible only by a steep 15-minute hike from California 1. The helicopter swooped in low, and when the couple didn't respond to the engine's noise, the pilot called in detectives.

The killings have been mourned both in Fresno, Ohio -- where Cutshall and Allen lived -- and in Jenner, another rural hamlet unaccustomed to such violence.

"It's scary," said Virginia Benight, postmaster for Jenner, a town so small that the 200 residents have to pick up their mail at the post office. Many in town still keep their houses' windows and doors unlocked, she said, adding that homicide "is not something that normally happens here."

The bartender at River's End, a restaurant with four rental cabins, said the couple might have slept on the beach because they couldn't find a room.

"They came in Monday night, and we were booked," said Joe Lucey.

The couple also stopped by the Jenner Inn down the road.

"They came in and booked a room, then they canceled," said manager Gail Andersen. "They said, 'We decided to go camping instead.' "

The killings have reignited fears of some residents about transients who sometimes build makeshift huts out of driftwood on the beach. Detectives have interviewed some of those drifters but said they had no evidence the transients had anything to do with the killings.

In the couple's town this week, the prayers that Lindsay and Jason would be found alive gave way to grief.

"We watched her grow up," said Ned Horsfall, 49, who lives a few miles up the road from Cutshall in the town of 150 people. "She was just a sweetheart, and Jason, he just always had a smile on his face."

The two met at Appalachian Bible College in Bradley, W.Va., where she studied for two years and he earned a degree in Bible and camping.

After dating six weeks, Allen nervously called Cutshall's father, Chris, to ask his permission to marry her.

"That's the way we work things in Ohio," Chris Cutshall, 49, said Friday. "We're a little old-fashioned that way."

Allen moved from Michigan to Fresno to be closer to his fiancee and plan the wedding.

The couple's parents, who arrived earlier this week in Placerville to help with the search, spoke Friday about the pain of their loss and the joy their children brought them in life.

The couple had traveled to Rock-N-Water hoping to bond and to influence youths while guiding them down rollicking rivers.

"They were a team," said Allen's mother, Delores, 52.

The couple had intended to get married Sept. 11. Cutshall was supposed to fly back this week to work on the final details with her mother, Kathy. It was to be an outdoor ceremony at a church friend's barn surrounded by flowers, said the mother, her eyes tearing up.

There were plans to spend a month rafting on the Gauley River in West Virginia and then honeymoon in Costa Rica.

Now their parents are planning a funeral in Ohio.

"Most of all, we want to get a completely insane, coldblooded killer off the beaches and off the streets," said Chris Cutshall. "Whoever did this is the exact opposite of Jason and Lindsay, the worst of the worst."

But their Christianity has helped ease the families' pain, he said.

"Our faith is strong. We know where Jason and Lindsay are," Cutshall said.

Allen's father, Bob added, "We know it's not the last time we'll see them."

Times special correspondent Horowitz reported from Jenner and staff writer Wan from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Gabrielle Banks in Placerville contributed to this report.

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