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Body of Missing Texas Girl Audrii Cunningham Found in Trinity River, Suspect to Face Murder Charges

HomeTop NewsBody of Missing Texas Girl Audrii Cunningham Found in Trinity River, Suspect...

A massive search for the 11-year-old, who vanished on her way to school, ended tragically as authorities prepare to charge a family friend with capital murder.

LIVINGSTON, Texas – February 21, 2024 – A desperate, days-long search for a missing 11-year-old girl in Texas ended in heartbreak on Tuesday as authorities found the body of Audrii Cunningham in the Trinity River and announced plans to charge a family friend with her murder.

At an emotional press conference, Polk County Sheriff Byron Lyons confirmed that Audrii’s body had been recovered under a highway bridge spanning the Trinity River, about 5 miles from where her backpack was discovered near a dam on Friday. The sheriff declined to provide details on the cause of death, saying only that the case was now being treated as a homicide investigation.

Polk County District Attorney Shelly Sitton said her office was preparing to file capital murder charges against 42-year-old Don Steven McDougal, who had emerged as a key suspect in Audrii’s disappearance. McDougal has been in custody since Friday on unrelated aggravated assault charges.

Based on all the evidence law enforcement has collected, we believe the appropriate charge is capital murder for the death of Audrii Cunningham,” Sitton told reporters. She vowed that authorities would “stand beside each other and do whatever it takes to get justice for Audrii.”

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The grim discovery brought an anguished end to an intensive search for Audrii that captivated the nation after she went missing on her way to school last Thursday morning. An Amber Alert was issued, and officers from across Texas joined local authorities, drones, horses and dogs to scour miles of rural landscape around Audrii’s home in Livingston, about 70 miles northeast of Houston.

The 4-foot-1 blonde-haired, blue-eyed fifth grader was last seen leaving her family’s trailer home around 7 a.m. on February 15th. McDougal, a family friend who occasionally gave Audrii rides to school or the bus stop, told authorities the two left the house together that morning but offered conflicting accounts about whether he dropped her off at the bus stop.

Audrii never made it to school that day. Her disappearance immediately set off alarms, with police canvassing the nearby Lake Livingston area and issuing missing child alerts across the region.

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Sheriff Lyons said on Tuesday that cell phone data, surveillance footage submitted by local residents, and information provided by McDougal himself ultimately led investigators to the spot in the river where she was found. Diving teams had been hampered in their search, he said, until the Trinity River Authority agreed to lower the river’s water level to allow better access.

Officials have released few details about what may have happened to Audrii after she disappeared. McDougal, who has an extensive criminal record that includes convictions for aggravated assault and enticing a child, initially denied any involvement. But “some of the witnesses have even said that he was in the community and knocking on doors…asking have they seen her,” Sheriff Lyons noted earlier, calling McDougal’s actions an attempt “to give the appearances that he has no play or he’s not at fault in her disappearance.”

On social media, McDougal posted comments last week protesting his innocence. “I was there and was questioned. I am not running or hiding,” he wrote on Facebook. “I have done everything I can to help find her. I have done nothing wrong.”

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The Livingston community, devastated by Audrii’s disappearance, reacted with grief at the tragic news. At Livingston Intermediate School, where Audrii was a fifth grader, administrators offered counseling to students and staff. In a statement, the district called the loss “a tragedy” and said officials were “heartbroken.”

As the investigation now shifts toward prosecution, many unanswered questions remain about the circumstances of Audrii’s death. An autopsy by the Harris County medical examiner’s office is pending. Sheriff Lyons said authorities are still working to determine where and how she died, and whether McDougal may have held her captive before killing her.

But for a community holding onto shreds of hope that Audrii would be found alive, the news of her death in the river was a crushing blow. Her family, who had issued anguished pleas for information, faces the grim task of mourning a bright young life cut short by incomprehensible violence.

“We are heartbroken to learn of Audrii’s tragic death,” said Livingston ISD Superintendent Brent Hawkins. “This is an incredibly difficult time for our students, staff and community as we process this loss.”

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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