LITCHFIELD, Minn. -- A Grove City man who lost two teenage children to murder-suicide was sentenced Thursday in Meeker County District Court on two felony charges, connected to firearms and drugs at the scene of the tragedy.
Meeker County Judge Stephanie Beckman accepted guilty pleas from Thomas Jon Cunningham on felony counts of possession of a firearm with a serial number removed, and possession of a controlled substance.
In February of 2016 Cunningham’s 17-year-old son David Cunningham fatally shot his 15-year-old sister Jessica before killing the family dog and then turning the gun on himself.
Meeker County Sheriff's Office Deputies searched the home in rural Grove City, discovering 20 firearms, including 17 weapons in David’s bedroom. They also discovered discarded marijuana and other accessories from a marijuana nursery dumped into a ditch on nearby farm land.
BCA and county investigators eventually determined that Thomas Cunningham, after discovering the bodies of his children, had removed marijuana from the house and attempted to hide it before calling 9-1-1.
"The responsibility for the firearms and the marijuana in the home does lie with the parent, which was you," Judge Beckman told the elder Cunningham.
"I have read the presentence report and I see the challenges that you had in being a single parent trying to address the special needs of your children."
As part of the plea negotiations in the case prosecutors dismissed the other three charges, including felony child neglect, negligent storage of a firearm and obstruction of the legal process.
When given an opportunity to speak in court, Cunningham declined.
"I have no statement your honor," Cunningham said.
Judge Beckmann sentenced him 1 year in prison for each count, with five years probation. But the judge then stayed imposition of the sentence, allowing Cunningham to remain free if he doesn't violate probation or other terms of his release. The fact Cunningham had no prior criminal history also played into the sentencing decision.
Beckman also sentenced Cunningham to 180 days in the county jail, to be served in three 60-day stints on Sept. 28, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Those sentences can also be deferred on the advice of Cunningham's probation officer if he's complying with terms of probation.
"Those three segments are to remind you to follow the conditions of your probation, and if not you would be required to do the jail time," the judge explained.
Meeker County Attorney Brandi Schiefelbein said after consulting with the victims' older sister, Sarah Cunningham, she felt that the sentence served the interest of justice. She acknowledged that the defendant had suffered greatly by losing two of his children.
"And seeing that he seeks help to overcome his chemical dependence demons as well as his mental health concerns," Schiefelbein told the judge.
Sarah Cunningham, who was away at college at the time of the murder-suicide, wrote a lengthy victim impact statement. She wasn't able to be in court Thursday, so she asked the prosecutor Schiefelbein read it aloud in the courtroom.
"In the media they say how could David have shot his sister? But you haven’t seen the deep pain Jessie went through. Jessie had a deep depression for a long time, at only 15 she didn’t see purpose in life."
She lamented that her younger sister didn't get enough help for her mental illness, including behaviors such as cutting herself and talking about wanting to die before she turned 18.
In her statement Sarah Cunningham said she didn't know why David decided to shoot himself and his little sister, but that she had heard he was being bullied at school. In fact, she said the day of the shooting he had told family members he wanted to quit Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City High School.
"Kids end their lives everyday because of bullying. If you haven’t walked in David’s shoes, you haven’t experienced David’s pain that led to this tragedy."
Sarah's statement went on to say that both she and her sister Jessica felt unsafe in the house because of David's hobby of collecting firearms, which he often handled inside the home while cleaning and loading them.
"I always felt fear when I saw just how many guns David had in his room," Sarah wrote. "I knew it was something my Dad and David bonded over, but it was too much for Jessie and I."
Sarah Cunningham said her father's cultivation and use of marijuana had bothered her quite a bit as well, but it had become a normal part of living in that household. She said he hoped her father would find ways to heal and that their relationship would be restored eventually.