First evidence heard in Cunningham trial
GEORGETOWN — Lawyers in the case say one of two things is true about accused murderer Traci Cunningham:
Prosecutors say she is a calculating killer who drove her adoptive mother from Aurora to an isolated spot in Eagle County and shot her to death.
Her defense attorneys say she didn’t do what she’s accused of and is innocent.
The jury of 12 people and two alternates – four women and 10 men – will spend the next three weeks wading through the details of those two basic arguments. Cunningham’s murder trial started Wednesday. The 29-year-old pleaded not guilty to first degree murder charges. If convicted, she’ll spend the rest of her life in prison.
She is accused of murdering her adoptive mother, Penelope Cunningham, 60, a former nun and elementary school teacher.
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District Attorney Bruce Brown told the jury that Traci Cunningham borrowed a friend’s car and on Thanksgiving Day 2013 drove her mother from Aurora to Gypsum, stopping 15.2 miles up Gypsum Creek Road. As her mother was outside the car, Traci Cunningham reached into the back seat, found a handgun and shot her mother repeatedly.
“The defendant borrowed a car because she had to hide a crime,” Brown said. “For Penelope Cunningham, it was a one-way trip.”
Penelope Cunningham’s body was found in the road the next morning.
Cynthia Jones, Traci Cunningham’s defense attorney, asked the jury to consider all the evidence, such as ballistics and soil.
“What we ask is that you consider all of this evidence and those statements. Can you put a square peg in a round hole to make it fit? Or doesn’t it fit?” Jones said.
She ‘encountered’ the gun
After the shooting, Eagle County Sheriff’s deputies found Traci Cunningham at a bagel shop in Aurora. During a police interview, she told police that they were going to meet a friend and that she had dropped her mother at a Burger King in a Steamboat Springs.
“There is no Burger King in Steamboat Springs,” Brown said.
In subsequent interviews with police, Traci Cunningham admitted she had gone up Gypsum Creek Road with her mother, went into the back seat and “encountered” the gun. She said she does not remember what happened next, Brown said.
“The next time she remembered something, she saw her mother, Penny Cunningham, dead in the road,” Brown said.
After her mother’s death, Traci Cunningham sent text messages to her mother, Brown said.
“This will show a course of conduct designed to fool people who would look into this,” Brown said.
The evidence rolling out
Investigators examined the car Traci Cunningham borrowed and found the same dirt on its undercarriage that is found on Gypsum Creek Road, Brown said.
In the Aurora townhome the women shared, police found a gun case, a handgun wrapped in a grocery bag, bullets, and Traci Cunningham’s boots with mud that matched the dirt at the scene.
Ashton Fichtl, 37, lives in Gypsum and found Penelope Cunningham’s body the next morning when he drove up Gypsum Creek to get his mother’s Saab, which his mother and sister used when they went for a Thanksgiving Day hike. Fichtl’s mother’s Saab wouldn’t start after the hike, so she walked to a nearby home to use the phone — there’s no cell service in the area.
The next morning they drove Fichtl’s pickup up Gypsum Creek Road to get the car. Fichtl jump-started his mother’s car. While it was warming he looked up the road and saw what he thought might be an animal carcass. He walked up to it and saw it was a female’s body.
“I’d never seen a dead person before. I was a little bit freaked out,” Fichtl said.
Traci Cunningham had led her mother to believe they were driving west toward Arizona to meet a man, an Army veteran. Penelope Cunningham’s brother, Peter Cunningham, recalled that his sister told him the man in Arizona “might make me a mother-in-law.”
The trip to Arizona was to show that man’s family property the Cunningham family owned in the area. Peter Cunningham said the man’s family offered to pay $700,000 for the property, which had been listed for $350,000.
“That was a big red flag,” Peter Cunningham said.
Penelope Cunningham told her brother that she hoped the offer was real, but she was never sure of what her daughter told her was true or not, he said.
It was the last conversation Peter Cunningham had with his sister.
The man in Arizona and his family do not exist, Brown said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.