After days of prayer, missing 11-year-old girl is found dead in river

The late Audrii Cunningham, 11.
The late Audrii Cunningham, 11. | Facebook/Polk County Sheriff's Office

After multiple days of searching and prayer vigils, Audrii Cunningham, an 11-year-old girl from Livingston, Texas, who went missing last Thursday after she was sent to catch the school bus with an adult male family friend has been found dead, and the family friend has been charged with her murder, officials announced Wednesday.

“My heart aches with this news," Polk County Sheriff Byron Lyons told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. "I express with my deepest sympathies and condolences to everyone who knew, who cared for and loved Audrii. We will continue to process the evidence that has been gathered to ensure justice for Audrii."

Documents filed Wednesday in Polk County said the family friend, 42-year-old Don Steven McDougal, has been charged with capital murder, according to CNN.

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Audrii’s body was found in the Trinity River along U.S. 59, Lyons said, and it had a large rock tied around it. The rope used to tie the rock around her body, investigators said, was similar to the kind found inside McDougal’s vehicle during a traffic stop two days earlier.

“The information that we have gathered in this criminal investigation is substantial,” Lyons said.

McDougal was described as a friend of the girl’s father, Joshua Cunningham, and lived in a camper on property belonging to the girl’s family, which include her grandparents and other family members. Authorities say McDougal had taken Audrii to the bus stop in the past or would take her to school if she missed the bus.

McDougal’s criminal records date back to at least 2003. They show him with convictions for violent crimes and one for enticing a child, but he was not listed as registered sex offender.

Elic Bryan III, who was a former co-worker of McDougal, told Fox 26 Houston that the suspect in Audrii’s murder was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after he attacked him in 2010 and almost stabbed him.

"We worked together at a quick car in Crosby changing oil. He seemed like an alright guy. He'd come over to hang out with me and my friends every now and again, then things went south with us," Bryan recalled. 

“He got drunk one night. We threw him out of the house, and he came back with a knife, slashed tires, tried to stab me with the knife. I had to run him off with a gun, and the cops finally came out with dogs and got him.”

Bryan said he wishes he “would have shot him, to be honest with you.”

“That’s my one regret,” he told the news outlet. “Didn't want to do it then because it would make you feel bad. But looking back, maybe I should have. With all the allegations against him, he's not a nice guy, apparently. Something is wrong with him in the head.”

Lyons told CNN that even though McDougal had joined the search efforts for Audrii and was seen knocking on doors and in the neighborhood, he was not convinced he was genuine.

“To me, it simply tells me that he’s trying to give the appearances that he has no play or he’s not at fault in her disappearance, and that (he’s) part of the concerned parties who were trying to locate her,” Lyons said.

The criminal complaint against McDougal notes that “video footage and cell phone data places McDougal at three locations of interest,” including along the Trinity River where the young girl’s body was discovered by authorities.

On the third day of a prayer vigil held at the community and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8568 on Sunday, Ray Epps, the senior vice commander of the VFW post in Polk County, remembered the young girl as a light in the community.

"She was a sparkling, vivacious young lady," Epps said, according to Fox4. "She’d come up, help him, and she’d say, ‘I want to go dance.’ so she’d go out and learn how to dance. You know, that’s the type of personality. She lit up everyone’s lives."

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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