EAGLE — An Aurora woman faces murder charges after she allegedly drove her adoptive mother to a remote part of Eagle County and shot her to death.
Traci Cunningham, 28, sat quietly and still in court Tuesday as the charges were read by District Court Judge Russell Granger— two first-degree murder charges, tampering with evidence and two counts of crime of violence.
“Do you understand what those charges are?” Granger asked.
“I understand,” she answered quietly, shifting in her chair.
If convicted, she faces mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole.
District Attorney Bruce Brown said prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
Traci Cunningham’s mother, Penelope Cunningham, 60, is a former nun and was an elementary school social studies teacher. Traci Cunningham was 14 years old when Penelope Cunningham adopted her.
In Traci Cunningham’s first court appearance last week, Brown told Granger that she drove her mother to a remote area and shot her in the back. Traci Cunningham hid the firearm and ammunition, and when she was arrested, she possessed several of Penelope Cunningham’s credit cards, Brown said.
Traci Cunningham remains in the Eagle County jail on $1 million bond.
What Traci told police
Traci Cunningham told police she and Penelope Cunningham were on their way to Grand Junction to hike and take photographs.
On Nov. 28, they drove up Gypsum Creek Road south of Gypsum and were arguing as they went, according to the police affidavit. About 15.2 miles up the road, Traci Cunningham allegedly 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.”
She said the next thing she saw was her mother on the ground and the handgun in her left hand.
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.
She told police that she ran back to the car and drove home (to Aurora), “pretending it was a bad dream.”
The next day, police searched the Aurora home Traci and Penelope Cunningham shared and found rounds of 9-millimeter ammunition and an empty pistol case.
Authorities said Penelope Cunningham was shot sometime between 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 28 and 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 29. She was shot five times in various parts of her body, said Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis.
Penelope Cunningham’s body was discovered in the road at about 8 a.m. on Nov. 29 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.
Tracking down Traci
Police tracked Traci Cunningham down when Vail Communications “pinged” her cell phone at five-minute intervals, beginning at noon Nov. 30. 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.
She was in possession of some of Penelope Cunningham’s credit cards when police found her, prosecutors said.
Richard “Rossi” Moreau was the valley’s last murder case. Moreau opened fire in a West Vail bar, 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 or firstname.lastname@example.org.