EAGLE — After arguing with her adoptive mother, an Aurora woman went looking for beef jerky in the back seat of their car and instead pulled out the handgun that police say killed her mother.
Traci Cunningham, 28, told police she and her mother, Penelope Cunningham, 60, were on their way to Grand Junction to hike and take photographs.
“She (Penelope Cunningham) was taken to a secluded place and shot in the back,” District Attorney Bruce Brown said during Traci Cunningham’s first court appearance Monday.
Penelope Cunningham was a schoolteacher and former nun who adopted Traci Cunningham when Traci was 14 years old, according to an arrest affidavit.
Traci Cunningham hid the firearm and ammunition, and when she was arrested she possessed several of Penelope Cunningham’s credit cards, Brown said.
What Traci told police
Traci and Penelope Cunningham drove up Gypsum Creek Road south of Gypsum and were arguing about household chores and animal care as they went, according to the police affidavit. About 15 miles up the road, Traci Cunningham stopped the car and Penelope Cunningham got out and started walking up the road. According to the arrest affidavit, Traci Cunningham told police she got out of the car and went into the back of the car to look for beef jerky. Instead of beef jerky, she told police she “encountered” a Springfield XDM 9-millimeter handgun that Traci Cunningham said Penelope Cunningham brought along.
Traci Cunningham told police that she picked up the handgun, walked up the road and then “everything goes black.”
Traci Cunningham said the next thing she saw was the handgun in her left hand and her mother on the ground.
She said she rolled her mother over and checked for a pulse on her neck, and then checked her cell phone and found she had no service.
Traci Cunningham told police she ran back to the car and drove home (to Aurora), “pretending it was a bad dream.”
Authorities said Penelope Cunningham was shot sometime between 3:30 p.m. Thursday and 8:30 a.m. Friday. She was shot five times in various parts of her body, said Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis.
Finding the body
A pool of blood was still visible on the road Monday where Penelope Cunningham died. Although Traci Cunningham told police they were going hiking in Grand Junction, they had to drive past several trailheads along Gypsum Creek Road to get to the spot where Penelope Cunningham died and was later found.
Penelope Cunningham’s body was discovered in the road at about 8 a.m. on Friday when a local man drove his truck up Gypsum Creek Road to help recover his mother’s stranded Saab. The car had broken down the previous afternoon.
Once they got the Saab started and were waiting for it to warm up, the man spotted what he thought was an elk carcass in the road. He told police he had seen elk carcasses in the road before, left by irresponsible hunters.
When the man got 5 feet away, he “saw it was a dead person,” he told police.
He drove to a nearby home and called 911.
Eagle County sheriff’s deputies arrived and found blood on Penelope Cunningham’s face and head. She had frost on her jacket and was cold to the touch, the arrest affidavit said.
Search and finding Traci
Police got a search warrant and sifted through the Aurora home Traci and Penelope Cunningham shared. They said they found rounds of 9-millimeter ammunition and an empty pistol case.
Their Aurora neighbors told police that Traci Cunningham was 14 when Penelope Cunningham, a former nun, adopted her. They told police Traci Cunningham “is capable of being violent,” the arrest affidavit said.
Penelope Cunningham’s older brother told police that she told him she and Traci Cunningham were traveling in Colorado to meet Traci Cunningham’s partner’s family for Thanksgiving. He told police that Penelope Cunningham had inherited some land in Arizona and that Traci Cunningham’s partner’s father was interested in buying it.
Police tracked Traci Cunningham down when Vail Communications “pinged” her cell phone at five-minute intervals, beginning at noon Saturday. Three hours later, they found Traci Cunningham at a Lakewood bagel shop, where she was picked up and taken to the Lakewood Police Department for questioning.
Traci Cunningham was in possession of some of Penelope Cunningham’s credit cards when police found her, prosecutors said.
Traci Cunningham sat quietly at the defendant’s table, wide-eyed and facing forward with her head slightly bowed during her first court appearance Monday, and huddling occasionally with her court-appointed defense attorney, Carolin Lopez with the public defender’s office.
District Court Judge Russell Granger read Traci Cunningham her rights.
“Do you understand these rights?” Granger asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Traci Cunningham answered quietly.
Granger set Traci Cunningham’s bond at $1 million, citing her lack of ties to the community and the nature of the crime. That’s half of what Brown and Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Wiard asked for, but is more than Lopez argued for.
“My primary concern is for public safety. This is an extremely dangerous event,” Brown said.
Lopez argued for a lower bond, pointing out that Traci Cunningham has no family who could post that kind of bond and has no one who could help her post it.
A preliminary hearing is at least a month out. Lopez argued Traci Cunningham would have to remain in custody, and that would be prejudicial to her case and her ability to assist in her own defense.
Formal charges have not been filed, but that’s not unusual in a case like this, Granger said.
Brown told Granger that prosecutors would charge Traci Cunningham with first-degree murder. If convicted, she is automatically sentenced to life without parole and could face the death penalty.
The two sides are back in Granger’s court today.
Richard “Rossi” Moreau was the valley’s last murder case. Moreau opened fire in a West Vail bar in 2009, killing Dr. Gary Kitching and wounding three others. The jury convicted him of all eight felonies he faced. District Court Judge Thomas Moorhead sentenced him to life in prison.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.