Lindsay Cutshall, 22, and Jason Allen, 26, were to be married September 11, 2004. Instead, the young couple, who had met and fallen in love at an Appalachian Bible college, were found slain on a California beach weeks before their nuptials in a baffling murder mystery that to date remains unsolved.
On Sunday, August 15th, Jason and Lindsay, both from Ohio, were reported missing by staff at the Christian Rock-N-Water rafting camp where they held summer jobs as river rafting guides. The two were so responsible that everybody at the camp immediately knew something was wrong when they failed to show up Sunday evening as scheduled.
Camp was wrapping up and the couple, with plans to return home August 22nd, had decided to take one last weekend excursion before heading back to Ohio. But they hadn’t told any of the camp leaders or fellow counselors 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 in Columa along the American River 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. The camp director and several staff members first searched in the Auburn area where the couple liked to camp, but later searched the bay area because they knew that Lindsay wanted to visit San Francisco before the end of the summer and this would be their last weekend in California.
Several days passed and there was still no sign of Jason or Lindsay. Then on Wednesday, August 18th, the California Highway Patrol found their car, a red 1993 Ford Tempo, parked in a turnout alongside California Highway 1, about a mile and a half north of the town of Jenner.
The turnout is a popular place for people to stop for a nice view of the Pacific Ocean.
Their car had been found, but there was still no sign of Jason or Lindsay.
Sadly, the search would end just a few hours later, when a helicopter crew was dispatched to rescue a 17-year-old Cotati resident clinging to the edge of a cliff near Jenner. The pilot spotted two people lying motionless in sleeping bags on the driftwood-covered beach below a steep cliff. The site is accessible only by a steep 15-minute hike from the coastal California Route 1. The helicopter swooped in low, and when the people didn’t respond to the engine’s noise, the pilot landed the chopper and the crew discovered that both were dead. They were quickly identified as Jason Allen and Lindsay Cutshall. Each had been shot once in the head at point blank range, execution style. The couple had finally been found, but no one knew what they were doing in this part of the state.
Sonoma County Sheriff’s Lt. Dave Edmonds said the couple died of gunshot wounds to the head, apparently while they slept. There was no indication of a struggle, or that their belongings were damaged or tampered with. “This is a very disturbing case,” Edmonds said. “It appears to be a terrible crime, absent of motive, so it’s a cause of great concern to us. From all indications, the victims were very upstanding citizens, they were very honorable people, they had an absolute absence of enemies.”
The couple’s belongings, car keys, a camera, a bible, wedding literature and journal, were found beside them, completely intact. It appeared that no attempt was made to take Jason’s money or Lindsay’s jewelry. Robbery did not appear to be the motive.
In an effort to reconstruct Jason and Lindsay’s movements, authorities starting tracing the couple’s last steps. No one seemed to knew what Jason and Lindsay were planning on doing that weekend or why they ended up on a Sonoma County beach. While several of the camp counselors indicated that Jason and Lindsay had told them they were going to “visit friends” that weekend, no one knew about any friends they had outside of the camp. Authorities made a key discovery when they found that Lindsay Cutshall’s credit card had been used Saturday afternoon to purchase a $9 miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce at a souvenir shop on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
The credit card transaction places Jason and Lindsay in San Francisco around 1:30 pm on Saturday afternoon. Even if they drove directly from the Fisherman’s Wharf to Jenner without stopping they would not arrive in Jenner until around 4:00 pm. However, they were unfamiliar with the area and a number of sightings and clues indicate that they stopped several times, setting a leisurely pace. I would guess that they did not arrive in Jenner until 6:30 or 7:00 pm on Saturday evening.
Photos that were recovered and developed from a camera found alongside the slain couple reveal that they had stopped at the Golden Gate Bridge. The photo of the couple above appears to have been taken by Jason, extending his own arm to hold the camera. This may indicate that there was no third party to snap the picture, that the couple was not traveling with anyone else.
Dustin Gooler, a cashier at River Gas on Main Street in Guerneville, said he remembers Allen coming into the store late that afternoon. His sighting was verified when he properly identified the location of duct tape on the right front headlight of Jason’s car. He was also able to describe the kayak rack on the roof.
Two additional sightings remain unconfirmed, each from different surf shops, one in Sebastopol and one in the town of Bodega. The owners claim that Jason and Lindsay came into their shop asking about camping on the beaches “North of Jenner”. These reports contradict the Guernville siting because the surfshops were along the Highway 116 route to Jenner and the gas station in Guernville is along the River Road route.
No one knows where Jason or Lindsay spent Friday night. They left the camp late that evening after a long day on the river. Most people doubt they could have made it all the way to San Francisco that night. Even if they did, where could they have stayed? The credit card receipt proves they made it to the city by early Saturday afternoon and the citings in Guernville and around Jenner occurred later that evening. So did they camp out near their camp in Coloma or did they camp out closer to the bay area?
I decided to head to Sonoma County and take a look at the area. The turnout for Fish Head beach is approximately one-and-a-half miles north of downtown Jenner or around one mile north of the River’s End Restaurant (where the Russian River meets the ocean). There are three different turnouts in this general area, which immediately follows a major hairpin turn on the coastal Highway 1. Directly across the road from the ocean, almost improbably, a herd of cattle grazes in a large field.
Several trails lead away from the turnouts. One heads toward a beach directly to the north, another to a set of dangerously steep cliffs, and a third leads to the south and down to Fish Head beach. I initially walked down the middle trail to the steep cliffs because they provide a panoramic view of the entire area.
Take a look at the photo above. From these cliffs you can see the entire stretch of Fish Head Beach. Beyond a rock divider at the end of Fish Head Beach you can see North Jenner beach and the mouth of the Russian River (where it pours into the Pacific). From this vantage point the beach looks small and appears to be littered with driftwood.
I decided to head back toward the turn out and take the trail to the south which leads to Fish Head Beach. This beach is commonly known as Driftwood Beach by many of the locals and is frequented by pot smoking hippies in their twenties who like to go there and get drunk, recreational beach goers, an occassional fisherman or two (either pole fishing or abalone), and even families.
I followed the trail across the top of the ridge heading south until I came to another steeper trail decending down to the beach. I started walking down this trail and could see the cliffs that I took the first photograph from directly to the north. I also had a much closer view of the beach. Take a look at the photo to the right. In this photo you can see the main trail decending down to the beach in the least steep part of the ridge.
Along the steeper sections of this trail, I found ropes tied to the base of several plants. This was probably used to assist detectives in decending down to the beach and in carrying equipment. The trail was rather steep in sections and not too steep in others. There were quite a few unusual plants in the area and I found some cattle bones scattered along the trail. Sea lions are common on this relatively isolated beach that does not see too many visitors. This is also a popular spot for abalone divers. Perhaps Jason and Lindsay encountered abalone or sea lion poachers down on this beach, offenses that carry steep fines and harsh jail time.
As I reached the end of the trail and got closer to the beach and looked directly to the North I could immediately see a couple of things that I recognized from the crime scene photo released by the Sheriff’s Department. Right in front of me was the large burnt log, the pointed rock covered in bird shit, and the recognizable driftwood hut. Jason and Lindsay were found right behind the large burnt log which is visible in the picture to the left.
Taken from the trail, this photo shows the crime scene area. There has been widespread speculation as to why Lindsay and Jason would go to such lengths to spend private time on an isolated beach, only to set up camp so close to the main trail. Some believe they were waiting to meet someone—either a friend they’d come to Jenner to see, or someone new that they met on the drive. Many people have mentioned that Jason is they type of guy who would give rides to hitchhikers. Did they pick one up along the way? Were they waiting for someone that they met earlier that day around the Jenner Area?
Perhaps his was why authorities originally focused on a 21-year old drifter from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Nicholas Edward Scarseth (pictured above) was eventually picked up for questioning in Fort Bragg, about 100 miles north of Jenner. At 6′ 5″ and 185 lbs., the dreadlocked Scarseth cuts an imposing figure. Despite a history of alcoholism and drunken disorderly conduct arrests, Scarseth is not known as being violent. But Joel Martin, 45, owner of a Jenner gift shop, reported seeing someone matching Scarseth’s description during the time frame of the killings. And suspicions lingered for yet another reason: although he grew up Catholic and attended Bible school, Scarseth is known to harbor anger toward those with religious convictions. Scarseth was briefly questioned by the police, tested with a polygraph, then cleared and released. He is no longer a suspect in the case.
Some have suggested the couple chose a spot along the main trail because they arrived just before dark and wanted to avail themselves of the few moments of remaining daylight needed to set up camp. A sighting at the River’s End restaurant and lodge in Jenner suggests they may have stopped in earlier that night to rent a room. But River’s End had no vacancies that night. Perhaps, it is thought, Lindsay and Jason returned to the beach because they could find nowhere else to stay, working quickly to set up camp before the last light of day.
However, the final image on the film roll recovered from Lindsay’s camera indicates that they did reach this campsite before dark. This photo is shown below. Take a close look at the rock formations shown in the distance in this photo. Compare this photo to the second photo from the top of this page, which was taken from ridge above where their campsite was located.
These two images demonstrate that the last photo they took was almost certainly shot from the exact location where their bodies were found. This photo also shows that they reached the campsite before dark. So why did they decide to set up their campsite so close to the main trail? Were they waiting for someone?
Fish Head beach is more commonly known as Driftwood beach by most of the locals. It’s known for its privacy and because it is remote and largely inaccessible, is not regularly patrolled. Directly south is the more popular and heavily trafficked North Jenner beach, a draw for families and tourists who come to watch sea lions and look at the mouth of the Russian River. The North Jenner beach can be accessed by a variety of easy trails and is well patrolled by authorities. Ordinances against fires, camping and parties are strictly enforced.
A set of cliffs and large rocks separate the isolated Fish Head Beach (or “Driftwood”) from North Jenner, and the only two ways to get to Fish Head are by walking around the cliffs during low tide or by parking in one of the turnouts a mile-and-a-half north of the downtown area and hiking down a relatively steep trail for around 15 minutes. This makes the beach an ideal location for camping, bonfires, or parties. It would be extremely difficult to patrol this beach other than by helicopter or by boat.
The beach earned its nickname from the overabundance of driftwood that washes ashore each year, a natural phenomenon that has inspired a subculture of driftwood huts, sculpture and graffiti. The picture above shows a driftwood hut that was found approximately 50 feet to the south of Jason and Lindsay’s campsite.
People often name their huts. A knocked down hut located directly behind their campsite was named “The Driftwood Sinn”, another labeled “Fort Driftwood”. Several logs had things written on them such as “My Beach, Don’t Fuck the place up” or “Locals Rule”. There were even two small huts further down on the beach labeled “Men’s” and “Women’s”, complete with holes in the floor and make-shift driftwood toilet seats.
The regulations at the well-monitored North Jenner Beach don’t apply here. At Driftwood Beach, people light campfires, throw parties, and camp out in the driftwood huts. The beach is littered with beer cans, bottles, trash, and anything else that people decide to leave behind.
Who found Jason and Lindsay on this remote stretch of beach, and how?
Even if the couple had mentioned plans to travel to Jenner, who would think to find them on Fish Head Beach?
The fact that several people they met on the trip report that Jason and Lindsay discussed plans to camp out on a beach north of Jenner indicates an advance decision to camp in the area. Yet everyone at Rock n’ Water denies knowing anything about the couple’s weekend plans.
It is possible that someone from the camp knew that Jason and Lindsay’s target area was “a beach north of Jenner” and drove out there to find them?
It wouldn’t have been that hard.
Just past downtown Jenner, off to the side of Highway 1, are a series of 12 -15 turnouts. They run from River’s End to the Russian Gulch area. It would only take about 10 minutes to drive this 3-mile stretch and scan the parked cars. Few are parked in the turnouts after dark and would be highly visible to a passing motorist.
Were they killed by someone they met on their way out to Jenner? By all reports, Jason and Lindsay spoke to a number of people and specified their plans to camp on a beach north of Jenner. A new acquaintance could as easily have traced the 3-mile stretch of turnouts looking for their car or even stalked them as they made their way to Fish Head.
It is also possible they were killed by someone they ran into on this particular beach. Fish Head is a popular party spot on weekends. The quiet isolation that Jason and Lindsay almost certainly found when they arrived at dusk might have been interrupted later that night by a group of people who showed up with a case of beer and some marijuana and started to party. But why would the couple remain at the campsite if they had encountered someone undesirable? And why would they keep their campsite so close to the main trail if they knew it would be traversed by drunk and potentially belligerent partiers?
For these reasons, I believe that Jason and Lindsay were alone on the beach when they went to sleep that night.
Below are two photos.
The photo above shows the area immediately behind the large burnt log where Jason and Lindsay were found. Note the area that appears to be dug out by law enforcement, probably in order to recover the projectiles used to kill them or any other evidence that might have been buried in the sand. The pile of driftwood in the background is a fallen hut which had been labeled the “Driftwood Sinn” (closeup shot above).
The photo above shows the rest of the beach, south of the Driftwood Sinn hut. To the right you can see the bird shit rock from the crime scene photo and in the distance to the left you can see the Fort Driftwood (as pictured above) sticking out behind the rocks.
Nearly a month to the date after Jason and Lindsay were found slain on Fish Head Beach, authorities released information on the gun used in the murders. Ballistics had narrowed down the weapon to one of two .45 caliber Marlin rifles. The models authorities were looking for: Marlin Model 1894 rifle, lever action, .45 long Colt caliber and a Marlin Model 45, semi-automatic/camp carbine, .45 ACP caliber. A picture of each of these rifles is to the right, the Model 1894 pictured on top and the Model 45 semi-automatic below.
A .45 ACP and .45 long colt are distinctly different types of ammunition. While both have the same bore width, a .45 ACP is much shorter in length and has less gun powder behind it than a .45 long Colt. I believe that ballistics can determine precisely which of these models was actually used in the killings, but that authorities decided to disclose two rifles in an effort to weed out false leads.
Most people believe that the lever-action Marlin Model 1894 rifle, lever action, .45 long Colt rifle was used in these killings. Why would someone pick such a large bulky rifle which is hard to conceal to commit these murders? There are several possible explanations. Perhaps this rifle was the only gun that the perp had access to; perhaps the perp went down to the beach with the specific intention of poaching sea lions and found Jason and Lindsay camping; or perhaps the perp chose this particular rifle because it was his grandfather’s old unregistered gun and had been stashed away in storage for many years. I believe this rifle was chosen because it was an older gun, most likely inherited or taken from an elderly, deceased relative—a perfect choice for a murder weapon as it would be nearly impossible to trace a gun that’s long been stored and was never registered. Thus, I believe Lindsay and Jason were most likely killed by someone who knew them, who planned out the killings, and who drove to Fish Head for the express purpose of murdering the couple.
Some argue that since they had no enemies, no one could possibly want to kill the couple, suggesting a case of mistaken identity. But Jason and Lindsay were shot execution style at point blank range, virtually eliminating the possibility of error.
Authorities later announced that they want to identify a vehicle that was seen in the area of Fishhead Beach during the timeframe of the murders. The vehicle is described as a dark colored sedan, 1980’s or early 90’s model, dirty, with a very distinctive decal in its rear window. The windows also have tinting that is possibly peeling off. The black and white decal may be something like a drawing of a crescent-shaped pollywog-like creature with legs, perhaps symbolic of evolutionary theory. One notable aspect of the decal is that it may be located closer to the center of the rear window than is typical. A police sketch of this dark colored sedan is to the right.
Many people, including authorities, have tried to identify the decal, but with little luck. No direct matches have been made. Some people believe the decal relates to Darwinism (an “evolving” tadpole) and that the driver of the vehicle supports the evolutionary theory over creationism. Were Jason and Lindsay killed because of their beliefs?
Others feel that the decal is in fact not a “pollywog,” but a similarly shaped rafting symbol. Pictured to the left is a decal of someone carrying or portaging a canoe; the human legs and form of the canoe could be mistaken for a “pollywog”. Any number of rafting, canoeing, kayaking, or rowing decals depict “pollywog” shaped boats with oars or paddles that can be construed to resemble tadpole legs. A picture of a raft with oars is to the right.
Or could the decal represent a zygote or embryo, and symbolize the right-to-life movement?
Since Jason and Lindsay were avid whitewater rafting guides with Christian ethics and a strong belief in creationism, there is a very good chance that they knew someone with either a right-to-life or rafting decal. On the other hand, the same beliefs might have provoked a strong and fatal clash of ethics, particularly if the killer was a fanatic, and this scenario could explain an evolutionary theory decal.
Therefore the sighting of this car may well indicate that someone that they knew or who knew them was also in the area that night.
But we still have no way of knowing what Jason and Lindsay were doing in this area, who else might have known that they would be in camping on Fish Head, or why anyone would want to kill them.
We tend to think that Jason and Linsday were killed by someone who knew them and went to this beach with explicit intent to kill them for the following reasons:
Simple Odds most homicides are committed by perps who knew the victims.
Location Serial predators go where they can select their prey. Pretty limited selection on the beaches near Jenner that night.
Lack of similar Crimes No reports of people being shot with .45 rifles, no beach killings, nothing similar. Sonoma county has a very low murder rate.
Victimology Cutshall and Allen were not druggies, they weren’t street prostitutes, they weren’t involved w/gangs or organized crime. They were in a very low-risk category and were killed in a low-risk area.
Weapon Choice I’ve never heard of any serial cases where the perp used a rifle at close range.
Method Both victims shot point blank in the head, no overkill, no multiple shots, just a clean execution. That argues for someone who knew them.
Do you have any ideas about what might have happened to Jason and Lindsay?