Capital Murder Charges in 11-Year-Old Girl’s Death

Audrii Cunningham
Audrii Cunningham | Image by Polk County Sheriff's Office

The main suspect in the death of an 11-year-old girl in Polk County was booked on capital murder charges on Wednesday.

The search for Audrii Cunningham, who went missing on her way to her bus stop on the morning of February 15, ended five days later with the discovery of her body in the Trinity River, as previously covered in The Dallas Express. The day after her disappearance, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office arrested Don Steven McDougal, a friend of Audrii’s father living in a trailer behind their house, on an unrelated aggravated assault charge.

The 42-year-old has a long criminal history, including several charges of aggravated assault and one charge of child enticement in 2008, as reported by The Dallas Express.

While announcing the recovery of Audrii’s body during a February 20 press conference, Polk County Sheriff Byron Lyons explained that an arrest warrant was being prepared for McDougal in connection to her death. He said there was substantial evidence linking him to the girl’s death, the cause of which is still being investigated by the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The criminal complaint filed on February 21 showed that McDougal was rebooked on capital murder charges and revealed new details about the case, according to CNN.

McDougal was allegedly supposed to drive Audrii to the bus stop on the day of her disappearance, and they were allegedly seen by Audrii’s family leaving in his truck. During interviews with police, he allegedly “lied about his whereabouts and activities,” but cell phone data traced him to “three locations of interest,” including near where Audrii’s backpack was found and her body was recovered.

The court filing also revealed that in order to submerge Audrii’s body in the river, someone had tied it to a large rock using rope allegedly spotted in McDougal’s truck by an officer during a traffic stop several days before.

McDougal has reportedly maintained his innocence in social media posts.

“I was there and was questioned. I am not running or hiding,” he wrote, according to CNN. “I have done everything I can to help find her. I have done nothing wrong.”

In Dallas, the murder rate rose by 15% between 2022 and 2023, according to data from the City’s crime analytics dashboard. As of February 20, 32 criminal homicides had been reported. The victims were primarily black or Hispanic males with a median age of 25.

The Dallas Police Department has struggled to curb crime amid longstanding manpower issues, with just 3,000 officers currently in the field despite a City report previously recommending 4,000. Yet City officials only budgeted $654 million this year for its police, far less than other high-crime jurisdictions such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

The impact of these shortfalls has been seen in delayed police response times and rising criminality in Downtown Dallas, as The Dallas Express has extensively covered.

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