FRENCH CAMP - David Brian Bernal II is the only suspect in his girlfriend's fatal Flag City shooting, San Joaquin County Sheriff's investigators said Thursday at a press conference announcing a $15,000 reward for his capture.
More than a month has passed since Jennifer Alyson Bushnell, 29, was shot three times and then left for dead beside a gas pump at a 76 station near Interstate 5 on Feb. 20. Authorities in four California counties have since launched a manhunt for Bernal, her 27-year-old boyfriend.
Bushnell's mother and father, as well as her younger sister and brother, traveled from their homes in Humboldt County, roughly four hours away, to attend Thursday's event. Her mother, Angie Bushnell, took a deep breath and briefly lowered her head to control her emotions before begging the public to help find Bernal.
"Please come forward so we can get this person off the streets, before anything happens to any other family," Angie Bushnell said.
Thursday was the first time investigators named Bernal as the suspect, rather than seeking him "in connection" with the homicide. They also believe friends in Kings County are helping Bernal avoid capture.
San Joaquin County investigators, hoping a reward could help find Bernal, had sought the help of the Modesto-based Carole Sund/Carrington Foundation, which offers rewards in missing persons and homicide cases. After the foundation's board went through a screening process, which includes background information on the victim, they accompanied her family to Thursday's press conference to announce the reward.
"The family has been devastated by this. Jennifer lost her life too soon, too young," said Kim Petersen, the foundation's executive director. "We are offering a $15,000 reward leading to the arrest and conviction of David Brian Bernal."
Bernal, of Selma in Kings County, has numerous tattoos including "White Pride" across his stomach and a Confederate flag, and may have dyed his naturally dark brown hair blond, Detective Larry Gardiman said.
"We believe he is still in the Kings County area. He still has friends in the area that have been helping him," Gardiman said.
Bernal and Bushnell had been dating for several months, and she sometimes traveled from Redway in Humboldt County to see him. On Feb. 16, Bernal's mother called police after fleeing her home, saying that her son had brandished a gun and made threats, and was last seen dragging Bushnell into the house.
Kings County Sheriff's deputies spent hours trying to contact people in the house, and the SWAT team ultimately forced its way inside that afternoon.
David Bernal is described as a white male, 6 feet 1 inch tall,
200 pounds, with brown hair and green eyes, though his hair may
have been dyed. Anyone with information may contact Detective Larry
Gardiman at (209) 468-4444, or the main Sheriff's Department line
The foundation was formed after Carole Sund, her daughter Juli Sund and Silvina Pelosso disappeared while on a February 1999 trip to a cheer competition at University of the Pacific in Stockton, followed by a night in Yosemite National Park. They disappeared in the park and their car was found after the family offered a reward. It ultimately led to authorities finding their bodies, as well as prosecuting and convicting their killer.
Sund's parents, Francis and Carole Carrington, then formed the foundation aimed at increasing awareness of missing people who disappeared under suspicious circumstances. As of late February, the foundation is involved in 53 cases across the country and has committed a total of $315,000 in rewards for those cases.
The foundation has paid out 25 rewards, including the local case of missing Woodbridge attorney Lawrence McNabney, who disappeared in September 2001. His wife ultimately committed suicide in jail and her accomplice, Sarah Dutra, was convicted of manslaughter and recently returned from prison for a new sentencing trial.
Since 2004, the foundation has offered support to 921 families. Such support includes attending court hearings, speaking to the media and distributing fliers.
Reward assistance criteria
• Victim must be innocent and not involved in illegal activities.
• Rewards are posted for a six-month period of time.
• Investigating agency must sanction the reward request and qualify the legitimate need.
• Victim's family members, a law enforcement agency representative, the Foundation and media announce the reward at a designated press conference.
• Following the press conference, awareness will continue with fliers announcing the reward.
Nobody was in the home, and Bushnell appeared at the scene that evening, saying she was unharmed and that she and Bernal had gone for a walk to talk.
Investigators there had planned to pursue charges against Bernal but never found him. The couple left the area on Feb. 19 and headed to Garberville, near Bushnell's home, to get a car she had in storage, investigators said Thursday.
They stopped for gas at Flag City shortly before 1 a.m. on Feb. 20, and surveillance video showed Bernal entering the gas station, leaving and then pulling out a gun and firing when Bushnell got out of the car. According to a coroner's report, the suspect fired two more times after Bushnell fell to the ground.
The Kings County Sheriff's Department has since formed a task force focused on finding Bernal and has "literally followed up on hundreds of tips," said Sgt. Tom Desmarais, head of the San Joaquin sheriff's homicide unit.
While investigators search for Bernal, others are focusing on domestic violence prevention. Suzanne Schultz, coordinator of the family crimes outreach program in the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office, said she is targeting young people to warn them about domestic violence.
"For those involved in domestic violence relationships, this is the ultimate price," she said of Bushnell's death.
Jails can be increased and punishments can be stiffened, Schultz said, "but the buck has to stop here. We have to increase awareness."