Audrii Cunningham remembered as radiant fifth grader after family friend is charged with her murder

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Family and friends of Audrii Cunningham, the east Texas 11-year-old who was found dead after vanishing on the way to school, mourned her as a bright and friendly child during a Wednesday night vigil near the river where her body was recovered earlier this week.

“No matter where she went or who she met, she just made them light up,” said Audrii’s aunt, Brenda Cedars. “She could always make you laugh, no matter what kind of mood you were in. It just isn’t fair that we all got robbed of that.”

Audrii disappeared Thursday morning after leaving her home in rural Livingston, Texas, with a family friend who had agreed to take her to the school bus stop, authorities said. But the fifth-grader never made it onto the bus or into her classroom, sparking a massive five-day search that ended when her body – weighed down with a large rock – was pulled from a local river, according to court documents.

The friend who was supposed to take her to the bus stop, Don Steven McDougal, was charged Wednesday with capital murder in her death.

Audrii’s mother, Cassie Matthews, said during the memorial that her pain has left her at a loss for words. She described her daughter as “perfection.”

“I’m truly blessed to have given birth to such an amazing little girl,” the mother said.

Kristlyn Wood, a cousin of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham, reacts during a vigil in Cunningham's honor, on February 21 in Livingston, Texas. - Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle/AP
Kristlyn Wood, a cousin of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham, reacts during a vigil in Cunningham's honor, on February 21 in Livingston, Texas. - Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle/AP

A crowd clad in shades of purple – Audrii’s favorite color – clutched candles as dusk fell on the memorial service. Some piled bouquets of lavender and violent-hued flowers onto a table decorated with clusters of balloons while children dressed in purple dresses, scrunchies and shoes buzzed around the gathering.

Audrii had no trouble making friends and was “friendly, very nice and very caring,” recalled Kasey Evans, whose daughter attended school with her.

Many of her classmates and friends are now grappling with the fifth-grader’s death, a process Livingston School District Superintendent Brent Hawkins said in a statement will look different for each child.

“Any time you lose a child it’s catastrophic, but to lose one the way that we lost her was even more. … I don’t have the words to describe (it), other than we had a brush with evil” Hawkins told CNN affiliate KPRC.

Evans said she initially struggled to answer her kids’ questions about whether Audrii had been found – and now has to tell them she is never coming home.

“How do you sit there and tell your babies … that they’re not gonna see their friend,” she said. “How do you explain it to them?”

Suspect lived on family’s property

The suspect, McDougal, was a friend of Audrii’s father who lived in a trailer on her family property and sometimes drove the girl to the school bus stop in the neighborhood, Polk County officials said.

McDougal had agreed to take Audrii to catch her bus Thursday morning, but she was never seen at the bus stop and a bag resembling her bright red, Hello Kitty backpack was later found near a local dam, according to investigators.

He was the main person of interest in her disappearance as authorities frantically scoured the town, which lies about 70 miles northeast of Houston, he said. McDougal was seen aiding in the search effort, knocking on neighborhood doors and asking if anyone had seen Audrii, Sheriff Byron Lyons said.

Audrii’s body was found Tuesday in the Trinity River, downstream from the reservoir near where the backpack was found. It was one of several locations McDougal told investigators he had gone around the time of her disappearance, Lyons said.

A large rock had been tied to the child’s body with a rope that “was consistent with rope that was observed in McDougal’s vehicle on a traffic stop two days prior,” a criminal complaint states.

No other details about the condition of her remains have been provided, and the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office is working to determine her cause of death.

Investigators believe McDougal lied about his whereabouts and activities on the day of Audrii’s disappearance, the criminal complaint said, citing video footage, cell phone data and forensic evidence.

In the days after Audrii vanished, McDougal claimed in several social media comments that he was not guilty of her disappearance and had “done nothing wrong,” according to activity on a Facebook account appearing to belong to the suspect.

“I’m not guilty,” reads a comment from the account under a post on the Facebook page “True Crime Society” the day after Audrii was reported missing.

Don Steven McDougal - Polk County Jail/AP
Don Steven McDougal - Polk County Jail/AP

“I was there and was questioned. I am not running or hiding,” an account appearing to belong to McDougal wrote under a post on Friday. He commented again, saying, “I have done everything I can to help find her. I have done nothing wrong.”

McDougal has a lengthy criminal history dating back to the early 2000s, with convictions for violent crimes and one for enticing a child, according to court records.

He was convicted in 2007 of enticing a child in Brazoria County, Texas. Court records show he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to two years in prison but was given credit for 527 days.

Online records do not detail specific allegations in the case, but the offense is defined by the state as “the intent to interfere with the lawful custody of a child younger than 18 years” when a person “entices, persuades, or takes the child from the custody of the parent or guardian.”

When McDougal was charged in Audrii’s death on Wednesday, he was already in jail in connection with an unrelated assault case. He is being held without bond on the capital murder charge.

Neither the court documents filed Wednesday nor jail records list an attorney for McDougal.

CNN’s Andy Rose, Raja Razek, Holly Yan, Rosa Flores and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.

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