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 and an additional charge of tampering with evidence.
“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’s mother, Penelope Cunningham, 60, is a former nun and was an elementary school social studies teacher. Traci Cunningham was 14 when Penelope Cunningham adopted her.
In Cunningham’s first court appearance last week, Brown told Granger that Cunningham drove her mother to a remote area and shot her in the back. Cunningham hid the firearm and ammunition, and when she was arrested she possessed several of Penelope Cunningham’s credit cards, Brown said.
Cunningham remains in the Eagle County jail on $1 million bond.
What Traci told police
Cunningham told police she and her mother were on their way to Grand Junction hike and take photographs.
On Nov. 28, they drove up Gypsum Creek Road south of Gypsum, and were arguing as they went. About 15.2 miles up the road, Cunningham stopped the car and Penelope Cunningham got out and started walking up the road.
According to the arrest affidavit, 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 mm handgun that Cunningham said her mother brought along.
Cunningham told police that she picked up the handgun, walked up the road and then “everything goes black.”
Cunningham said the next thing she saw was her mother on the ground and the handgun in her left hand.
She said rolled her mother over and checked for a pulse on her neck, then checked her cell phone and found she had no service.
Cunningham told police 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 Cunningham and her mother shared, and found rounds of 9 mm ammunition and an empty pistol case.
Authorities said Penelope Cunningham was shot sometime between 3:30 p.m. Thursday and 8:30 a.m. Friday 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 about 8 a.m. Friday 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 Cunningham down when Vail Communications “pinged” her cell phone at five-minute intervals, beginning at noon Saturday. Three hours later they found Cunningham at a Lakewood bagel shop, where she was picked up and taken to the Lakewood Police Department for questioning.
Cunningham was in possession of some of her mother’s credit cards when police found her, prosecutors said.
Richard “Rossi” Moreau was the valley’s last murder case when Moreau opened fire in a West Vail bar with a Springfield handgun modified to hold 13 rounds. He killed Dr. Gary Kitching and wounded 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.
If convicted, Traci Cunningham faces mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole.