From left, John D. Careaga, Johnathon F. Higgins, Christale Lynn Careaga, and Hunter E. Schaap. (Courtesy the Careaga family)

Careaga murders: Nearly four months later, the investigation continues

Detective Lt. Earl Smith: ‘I am very optimistic that this is a solvable case’

SEABECK — Three members of the Careaga family were murdered in their home on Jan. 27. A fourth family member was found at another location two days later. He, too, had been murdered.

As the four-month anniversary of the killings nears, the investigation continues and a lead detective on the case said he’s “very optimistic” that the case will be solved.

“We’re still making progress,” sheriff’s Detective Lt. Earl Smith said May 12. “We have a lot of things to go through. The state patrol crime lab is processing evidence. I am very optimistic that this is a solvable case.”

Smith returned to patrol this week. The new point of contact on the Careaga murders is Detective Lt. Jon Van Gesen.

As he exited as lead detective on the case, Smith declined to disclose any information he felt would compromise the case. Is an arrest near? Has a suspect been identified? “We have interviewed a lot of individuals and will continue to interview,” Smith said. “We still have evidence that needs to be processed.”

In earlier interviews, investigators asked residents to be patient, saying that they want to make sure they have enough evidence to result in conviction. They referred to the case of Geraldo DeJesus, who was arrested five months after the shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend and a toddler in a home in the Kariotis Mobile Home Park. He was convicted and received two life sentences.

Meanwhile, information about the Careaga murders can be reported anonymously to sheriff’s Detective Lissa Gundrum, 360-337-5669. Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound is offering a $4,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect or suspects. Call 1-800-222-TIPS or go to www.crimestoppers.com. Again, callers can remain anonymous.

To recap:

At 11:28 p.m. Jan. 27, a caller phoned 911, reporting violence at the Careaga home near Lake Tahuyeh. Investigators later identified the caller as Hunter E. Schaap, 16, one of the victims.

At 11:35 p.m., Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue Engine 56 arrived at the home. Deputies searched outbuildings for other people and called in the King County Sheriff’s helicopter to search the surrounding woods from the air.

At 11:55 p.m., firefighters extinguished the house fire and, after the smoke cleared, investigators entered and found three bodies inside. The three were identified as Christale Lynn Careaga, 37; her son, Johnathon F. Higgins, 16; and her husband’s stepson from a previous marriage, Hunter Schaap. The three were found in separate rooms of the home, Gundrum said Feb. 3.

The home is situated on a large, forested lot. There was no evidence of forced entry and no evidence of a struggle. “Not that we can tell,” Gundrum said. However, the scene was altered by the house fire and the process of extinguishing the fire, she said.

The search began for Christale’s husband, John Careaga, and his F-150 pickup. At 5:27 p.m. Jan. 29, investigators found Careaga’s body in his truck, which had been destroyed by fire, at a tree farm in Mason County. Careaga’s remains were identified on Jan. 31; investigators say he had been murdered.

At 9 p.m., about 2.5 hours before violence broke out at his home, John Careaga was shopping at the Camp Union Store less than three miles from his home. The store’s video surveillance tape documented Careaga’s visit there.

Did he go home or was he intercepted? “We don’t have that information, and unfortunately there’s nobody to ask,” Gundrum said. Investigators believe he was killed elsewhere. “We do feel that John was the focus because he was killed at a separate location than his family.”

The Careagas had an authorized medical marijuana grow at their home, and investigators found approximately $60,000 in a safe at the home. The Careagas owned two businesses: Juanito’s Taqueria and Christale’s Java Hut on Kitsap Way. “Detectives did locate some cash and secured it for safekeeping from the burned-out residence,” the sheriff’s department reported on its Facebook page. “This family were business owners and it is not unusual for a business owner to have cash on hand.”

Investigators do not believe the marijuana and cash were factors in the murders. “No,” Gundrum said. “I should say, we don’t know if that was a motive, but that’s not where our focus is.”

At this point, investigators are not releasing the manner of death — that is, how the four died.

An estimated 700 relatives and friends gathered Feb. 7 at GracePoint Church in Bremerton for a celebration of life in honor of the four.

Meanwhile, the family continues to raise money to help defray the costs associated with their loved one’s deaths. Go to www.gofundme.com/careaga-family-fund.