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News / Nation & World

Family friend of Texas girl Audrii Cunningham held on murder charge in the 11-year-old’s death

By JAMIE STENGLE, Associated Press
Published: February 21, 2024, 10:50am

A family friend of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham was being held on a capital murder charge Wednesday after her body was found in a river near her rural Texas home.

Polk County Sheriff Byron Lyons said the body of the young girl, who went missing last week, was found during a search in the Trinity River in a rural area north of Houston. Lyons said cellphone data was used to help identify places to look and that the local river authority slowed down the outflow of a reservoir to help search teams that were in the water.

Cunningham’s body was found about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from her home near Lake Livingston.

“My heart aches with this news,” Lyons said.

Audrii’s family reported her missing on Feb. 15 after she failed to return after school to her home in Livingston. Investigators then discovered that she never got on the bus to go to school that morning.

Polk County District Attorney Shelly Sitton said Tuesday that she did not yet know if her office would seek the death penalty against Don Steven McDougal, 42.

Lyons said there is “substantial evidence” in the case, and that cellphone data and videos helped identify places to search.

Authorities have said McDougal is a friend of the girl’s father and lived in a camper on the family’s property. Audrii lived with her father, grandparents and other family members, authorities said.

Lyons has said that in the past, McDougal had taken Audrii to the bus stop or would take her to school if she missed the bus.

A backpack that authorities believe belonged to the child was found Friday near the dam on Lake Livingston, one of the state’s largest lakes.

As authorities investigated Audrii’s disappearance last week, they had named McDougal as a person of interest and he was arrested Friday on an unrelated assault charge. Jail records did not list an attorney for him.

Court records from Brazoria County, south of Houston, show McDougal pleaded no contest in 2008 to two felony counts of enticing a child and was sentenced to two years in prison.

The sheriff said Audrii’s body was taken to the Harris County medical examiner’s office in Houston to determine the cause of death.