Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dead By Sunset Based on Murder of Cheryl Keeton Cunningham

The Story

The victim, defendant's estranged wife Cheryl Keeton Cunningham, was murdered on September 21, 1986. Defendant and the victim met and married in Seattle in the late 1970s, when she was a law student and he was a banker. After her graduation, she joined a Seattle law firm. Shortly thereafter, defendant became involved in a large real estate development project in Texas and, in the early 1980s, the family moved to Texas. The project encountered difficulties, and the family filed for bankruptcy as a result. The victim subsequently returned to Seattle to work for the same law firm, while defendant remained in Texas. In 1985, the victim transferred to the firm's Portland office, and defendant also moved to Oregon and went to work for a savings and loan association. Defendant and the victim purchased a home in Gresham. However, the marriage was deteriorating, and defendant eventually moved out of the family home.

In February 1986, the victim filed for divorce. The divorce proceeding was scheduled to go to trial in October 1986. In the period between when the victim filed for divorce and her murder, the interactions between the victim and defendant became increasingly acrimonious. Both parties sought custody of their three sons: Tyler, aged six, Travis, aged four, and Spencer, aged two. There were discussions of joint custody arrangements, and the parties agreed to an interim visitation schedule under which defendant would pick up the children on Friday evenings and return them to the victim's home on Sunday evenings. In the spring of 1986, a psychologist performed a custody evaluation. He observed that defendant made contradictory statements, claiming to be the children's primary parent but also claiming that he worked very long hours at his job and admitting that he had not even lived in the same state with the children for a significant period of time. Defendant also told the psychologist that the victim did not like, and could not handle, the children. Defendant confided that he believed that his mother-in-law, the victim's mother, was planning to poison him and kidnap the children. For her part, the victim told the psychologist that defendant was harsh and inflexible with the children. The psychologist observed that, at a joint meeting with both defendant and the victim, the victim seemed intimidated and did not want to be alone with defendant, while defendant was "aggressive" and "bombastic." The psychologist concluded that the children seemed well-adjusted and happy with their mother and that the victim was the more appropriate custodian of the children because the children's needs were central to her life, whereas defendant had many other pursuits in which he was engaged. In the summer of 1986, the victim consulted with a bankruptcy attorney with whom she worked because she was concerned that defendant had some assets that had not been disclosed in the couple's pending bankruptcy. The attorney told the victim about penalties that could result from a failure to disclose assets in a bankruptcy proceeding. The victim seemed anxious and fearful of retribution from defendant if she disclosed the assets.

Throughout the period from the divorce filing until the murder, defendant and the victim had numerous disputes about the children. In the spring of 1986, defendant and the victim had a loud fight at the children's preschool during which defendant became quite agitated. They also vehemently disagreed over where their oldest son, Tyler, would attend school in the fall. While the victim wanted to enroll Tyler in a school near her home, defendant resisted--and instructed the preschool not to forward Tyler's records to that school. When school began on September 2, the victim brought a friend with her to the school to try to keep defendant from interfering with the enrollment process. When defendant arrived at the school, he confronted the victim angrily, yelling at her. They never resolved their differences about Tyler's schooling. On September 16, 1986, depositions were taken in the divorce proceeding. The victim's attorney tried to question defendant about the couple's taxes, which had not been filed for several years, and about the property that the victim believed had not been properly disclosed to the bankruptcy court. Defendant gave evasive answers. After the deposition, defendant was highly upset, telling friends that the victim had lied and that she was not a fit mother. He told one of his friends: "I'll kill Cheryl." Defendant's girlfriend, Hermens, testified that defendant was agitated after the deposition, and that he called the victim and told her that she would pay for lying at the deposition. The victim's brother overheard a telephone conversation between defendant and the victim on the evening of September 16 during which defendant called the victim a "dumb cunt" and stated: "I'll get you." On September 18, 1986, the divorce court denied defendant's request for a lengthy set-over of the divorce proceeding. The trial was set over only one week.

On Friday, September 19, two days before the victim's death, defendant and Hermens came to the victim's house in the West Slope area of southwest Portland to pick up the children for weekend visitation. Defendant was irritated and accused the victim of having lied. He also told the victim about his suspicions of being poisoned. Later, defendant made a statement to Hermens to the effect that, "when somebody killed one parent but the other parent wasn't convicted of something, being better off for children." The children spent the weekend at defendant's apartment in the Madison Towers complex in southwest Portland. On Saturday, September 20, defendant took the children to a soccer game in which Tyler was playing. The victim also went to the game. When defendant saw the victim there, he became upset and took the children to the other side of the field because he perceived the victim's presence as an intrusion on his time with the children. The victim, who was also distraught because she couldn't speak with her children, told a friend that defendant did not want her at the game and that he had threatened her.

The victim was murdered some time between 8:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on September 21. Earlier that evening, defendant, Hermens and the children went out for an early dinner because Hermens was scheduled to work that night. After dinner, defendant borrowed Hermens's car, saying that his vehicle was having some problems. He left Hermens at the hospital where she worked at about 6:40 p.m., saying that he had forgotten one of the children's blankets and that he was going back to the apartment before taking the children home to their mother. Defendant told Hermens that he would return to the hospital to visit her after he took the children home. At 7:11 p.m., the victim made a telephone call from her home to her mother's home in Washington state. The victim told her mother that defendant had called to tell her that he wasn't able to return the children to her at 7:00 as arranged because he was having some gas problems with his vehicle. He would not tell the victim where he was. The victim was "hysterical" when she called her mother and suggested that she might call the police. From the victim's recounting of her conversation with defendant, her mother was under the impression that the children were out somewhere in a broken-down car. At around 7:30 p.m., the victim also spoke on the telephone with her brother, who lived with her and the children but was away from home that evening. She was upset and crying when she talked to him. She told him that defendant had not brought the children home yet and that he claimed to be having car trouble, which she described as a "typical maneuver."

At 7:59 p.m., the victim again called her mother. At trial, her mother recounted that conversation:

"[S]he said, 'Mother, I want you to remember this. I'm going down to the Mobil station by the IGA store, ah, down the hill.' She said, 'And I'm going to meet Brad and pick up the children. And I want you to remember this.' She was real stern about it." The victim's mother called her boyfriend over to the telephone and had the victim repeat the information so that he could hear it as well. Her mother suggested that the victim should not go alone to meet defendant, but the victim replied: "No, I cannot leave the kids in the car any longer. I have to go pick up my kids." The victim told her mother that she would call back when she returned. During the course of the divorce, the victim regularly made contemporaneous notes of any conversations she had with defendant. After her death, notations in the victim's handwriting were found on a piece of paper at her house. The first notation on the paper read:

"7:10 - 'I'm having gas problems.'


-I asked where boys were & said I'd pick them up.

-He says - 'I'll handle it & hangs up." The second notation on the paper read:

"8:00 SW Canyon Lane - IGA mkt

-at IGA - at Mobil (tho closed)"

Around 7:30 p.m., defendant called Hermens and told her that the victim was coming to the apartment to pick up the children. Between 7:30 and 7:35 p.m., one of defendant's acquaintances saw him in the Madison Towers parking garage. Defendant was walking toward the door of the parking garage with his four-year-old son, Travis. Defendant was wearing "nice, casual attire," and had his keys in his hand. Hermens tried to call defendant at his apartment at 8:00 p.m. and again at 8:30 p.m., but he did not answer the phone. According to Tyler, who was then six years old, after defendant and the children returned to the apartment that evening, they began to watch the movie, "The Sword and the Stone." Defendant left with Travis about half way through the movie, leaving Tyler and two-year-old Spencer alone. (3) According to Tyler, defendant returned to the apartment shortly after the movie ended and said that he had been jogging. Defendant went into the kitchen and washed dishes, and Tyler then began watching a part of the movie, "Rambo," on broadcast television. Given Tyler's description of the scene that was playing when he first began watching the later movie, the time was then between 8:53 and 8:58 p.m.

Hermens called defendant at 9:00 p.m., and defendant answered. His voice was high-pitched, his speech was rapid, and he was out of breath. He told Hermens that he had been downstairs waiting for the victim. At about 9:15 p.m., another resident of the apartment complex saw defendant enter the parking garage with a child about four or five years of age. Defendant wore shorts and a tee-shirt. He was barefoot, and his hair was wet. Meanwhile, the victim had been murdered. Shortly after 8:00 p.m., a resident on a street that intersected the Sunset Highway--three tenths of a mile from the IGA store and Mobil station mentioned in the victim's note and telephone call--saw the victim's van across from his house, facing the freeway. That witness saw what appeared to be two people in the front of the van and a child in the back. After he went into his house, he heard some sounds, including the sound of a dog barking. Another resident on the same street was leaving for work around 8:00 p.m. and saw a van idling in the street facing the highway. He thought there was a man in the driver's seat. A third resident reported that, shortly after 8:00 p.m., she heard muffled banging or thumping from the area toward the front of her house, like a rubber hammer hitting something. A dog started barking. She looked out her window but did not see anything. At about 8:30 p.m., the victim's body was found in her van. The van had traveled down the intersecting side street into the eastbound lanes of the Sunset Highway leading into Portland and crashed on the highway. A motorist on the highway stopped traffic and attempted to rescue the victim from the van. He found the victim head first on the passenger floorboard, with her feet on the driver's seat. The motorist also observed an infant car seat in the van and attempted to locate an infant, but failed to find one. He noted that the van was still running and that a purse had been stuffed onto the accelerator. Paramedics arrived several minutes later and reported the victim dead on the scene. Investigating officers noted a substantial amount of blood spatter in the van. They also observed that the victim had numerous injuries that were not consistent with being caused by a vehicle accident. (4) They concluded that the victim had been murdered and that the murderer had attempted to cause a vehicular accident on the Sunset Highway and make it appear that the victim had died in the accident. An autopsy later showed that the victim died of head injuries. Both her upper and lower jaws were fractured, and there was evidence of approximately 25 blows. Around 11:00 p.m. on the night of the murder, police officers went to defendant's apartment. When the officers told defendant that the victim was dead, he asked if she had been in a vehicle accident. Defendant told the officers that he had last seen the victim on Friday evening, two days before the murder, when he picked up their children for his weekend visitation with them. He stated that he had called the victim around 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. on the evening of the murder and told her he was running late and that the children were watching "The Sword and the Stone." He stated that he called the victim again about an hour later, and she said that she was going to come to his apartment to pick up the children. Defendant further stated that the only time he had left his apartment that evening was to put something in his car.Early the next morning, September 22, defendant called the acquaintance who had seen him and Travis in the garage the previous evening, asking her if she recalled seeing him at 8:00 the evening before, carrying boxes. She replied that it had been 7:30 p.m., and that he had not been carrying boxes.

After the murder, defendant told his former girlfriend, Stevenson, that he had called the victim on the evening of the murder to tell her about his car trouble. He stated that the victim did not care that the children would not be returned because she had someone with her. He told Stevenson that he had decided to keep the children for the night because the victim was not interested in having them back and had been drinking. He also said that the victim had called him that evening demanding that he return the children, but he had refused. He told Stevenson that he had been out of the apartment with Travis to get a blanket from the car because the children would be spending the night. Defendant later told Hermens--contrary to what he had told her on the evening of the murder (viz., that he had been downstairs waiting for the victim)--that he had been out of the apartment with Travis doing errands and putting shoes into his car.In the days following the murder, defendant instructed staff at his office not to disclose information about his whereabouts to the police. He also expressed concerns that the victim's mother posed some sort of threat to him and the children. Defendant arranged for the children to be moved out of state. He spoke derisively of the victim after the murder, suggesting that she had probably been killed by someone she had picked up in a bar. Defendant told Hermens that the victim had been nasty to the children and that they would not miss her. Several days after the murder, Hermens observed a large bruise on defendant's left arm. Defendant said that he got the bruise on the day of the murder when playing at a park with the children. (5) Defendant was tried on a charge of murder, in a trial lasting from October 27 to December 22, 1994.


Updates: on Brad Cunningham
Interview excerpt with Ann Rule:
I can't remember his last name , but is there anything new with the "Brad" case ?
Brad Cunningham, the non-hero in Dead By Sunset, is suing me for $666 million
because he said I lied about him. He is also suing the State of Oregon's
penitentiary system because they won't allow pornography to be mailed to the
He is a very dangerous man!!! And a very angry man.
Brad is in prison for many, many years and his boys are doing great with Sarah.
$666 million?
Well, he offered me a deal for $333 million--but that would have cut severely into
my checking account. : *) He has delusions of grandeur, and he files his own suits.
Bradly Cunningham is still incarcerated in Oregon. He is suing the prison for not allowing inmates to have pornography. Brad has appealed his sentence and is seeking a new trial, Brad and Cheryl’s three sons were adopted by Brad’s ex-wife, Sara. They are in high school and college.

This update is from Ann Rule's Site: In February of 2002, Brad Cunningham was granted the right to a new trial by the Oregon Court of Appeals. They ruled that some vital testimony by Cheryl Keeton's mother, Betty Troseth, in his 1994 trial was to be considered hearsay. This ruling threw out the shocking testimony about Cheryl's last phone calls an hour before she was murdered, calls in which she told her mother that she was going to meet Brad to retrieve her sons from a court-ordered visit. Even though Cheryl's battered body was found an hour later, close to the gas station where she intended to meet Brad, her last cry for help is now considered to be only hearsay. In a stunning ruling, the Court of Appeals did not find Cheryl's calls to be "excited utterances" or a death bed statement. The Oregon Attorney General's Office, the Washington County District Attorney, Cheryl's law firm of Garvey, Schubert, and many others are fighting to prevent a re-trial for Cunningham. He remains in prison, and he will be locked up if and when he becomes the defendant in another murder trial. Whether he will choose to represent himself again is a question. If he should go to trial for murder again, and should he be acquitted of Cheryl's murder, he will walk free. Most Oregon residents are unaware of the Appeals' court's ruling. Cheryl's and Brad's three sons have grown up into fine young men, cherished by their "adopted" mother, Sara. The two older boys have finished college, and the youngest is in high school.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Other Murder Made to Look Like An Accident Cases

 Here are a few more cases that are similar to the story above. The cases below are not based on the movie.

Stephen Beckham Victoria Beckham Murder June 1994 Newberry, South Carolina

At around 10 pm the police were called to the scene of what appeared to be an accident. The car looked like it had run off the side of the road. When the cops examined the car, they find drops of blood on the seats. It was obvious that there was a struggle in the car. There were also injuries to the woman's body. It was so obvious to detectives that something else had happened, and that the scene was made to look like an accident. The police were able to find the driver's license of the woman in the car. She was identified as Victoria Lander Beckham aka Vicki Beckham. Her family was told of her death. Her ex husband was also questioned since it was the last place that she had visited. The police learned that she was in a custody battle with her ex husband . Autopsy report indicated that she had a crushed windpipe and that she had been beaten. The  time of death was at 6:30 pm.

Witnesses remembered seeing a gold car in the area at the time of the accident. One witness was able to confirm for sure that it was a gold Pontiac, and that he was sure because it was similar to a car that he had before. Motor vehicles checked records to see if they could find the car, but they were unable to find anything. After one year, there was still no suspect in the case so the news covered the case again. Police then received a tip from a man who came forward to state that he used to see a gold colored car outside a club, and that it belonged to the owner of  the club. The owner was contacted, at which time he stated that he loaned the car to one of his bouncers at one time. Forensic detectives examined the car and retrieved fingerprints. The bouncer, Anderson, was contacted but denied any involvement in the crime. Richard Anderson later confessed that he was hired to kill Vickie Beckham by Stephen Beckham . They planned the murder over the phone . According to Anderson, Vicki went to Stephens to drop off the kids. Stephen somehow convinced her to leave with him. He then stopped off on the side of the road, he got out of the car, and he proceeded to beat her. When Anderson came to discard the body, he found that Vicki was still live, so he hit her over the head with a large tool. Then he staged the seen to look like an accident. Phone records were able to link the two to the crime. The two men were both convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Vicki Beckham was the daughter of State Senator James Lander
Stephen Beckham was the son of a retired Episcopal bishop