Bernita Cunningham Murder: Where Is Justin Stephens Now?

‘Forensic Files II: Broken Santa’ on Investigation Discovery details the horrible murder of Bernita Cunningham, 80, at her Hubbardston, Michigan, home in late November 2006. The criminal avoided capture by preparing the crime scene to look like an accident, but the victim’s family was committed to obtaining justice. We’ve got your back whether you’re curious to learn more about the case, the killer’s identity, or where they are right now. So let’s get started, shall we?

How Did Bernita Cunningham Die?

The Hubbardston, Michigan, home of Edward and Georgia (Gilleo) Herald welcomed Bernita “Billie” Cunningham on September 5, 1926. On May 29, 1948, at Hubbardston’s St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, she wed Albert Cunningham. She worked as a payroll clerk for U.S. Steel until she retired in 1985. She loved to travel, sew, crochet, and spend time with her family. Before she lost her spouse in 1989, their 50-year marriage produced seven children and 10 grandchildren.

Billie was a creature of habit and very involved in her neighbourhood. Billie had lived in her hometown all her life, and her neighbours knew what she did every day. They were therefore concerned when the 80-year-old failed to show up for her afternoon cup of coffee on Tuesday, November 30, 2006. When they observed her lights on late at night, they were aware of yet another deviation from her schedule and assumed she was having trouble sleeping. The following morning, they noticed that her draperies were still closed, so they called her son to check on her welfare.

A few miles down the road, Bill Cunningham, Billie’s son, arrived, and along with a neighbour, they went into the elderly person’s home. She appeared to have met her end by falling from a step stool and hitting her skull while hanging a Christmas ornament, shocking them when they discovered her laying face down in the foyer. She reportedly moved a little before bleeding to death and appeared to fall on a big mirror, breaking it and suffering more cuts. After doing an autopsy, the regional medical examiner determined that the death was unintentional.

Who Killed Bernita Cunningham?

The original inquiry led the local police to make the assumption that Billie Cunningham had a seizure while using the stool to hang the decorations while she was having one of her diabetic episodes. Before she fell to the ground and died from fractures and heavy blood, she slid and hit the mirror. According to Billie’s autopsy, she had multiple injuries to her hand and torso in addition to slashes to her face and throat, a broken cheekbone, and other injuries. The coroner determined that the victim’s accidental death was caused by all of the injuries, which persisted after falling.

Her family was worried, though, when they went inside the house after the police had investigated the area and taken the body away. Tim Cunningham, Billie’s son, said his mother was very meticulous about cleaning and keeping her home tidy. They thought it implausible that the 80-year-old would put her safety in danger by using a step ladder, and they also saw that many things throughout the house were broken, disorganised, or tread upon. Additionally, they dropped food items that had been left on the floor, which was very out of character for Billie.

The adult children were certain that foul play was involved when they saw Billie’s favourite Santa Claus figure lying broken on the ground more than 20 feet from where her body was found. Due to Hubbardston’s appallingly low crime rate, the episode said, the local police did not have much expertise in conducting homicide investigations. So it came as no surprise when, despite many discussions with Billie’s family, the Ionia County Sheriff’s Department declined to resume their investigation into her death.

The Cunningham siblings hired Don Brooks, a private detective, to look into their mother’s death because they were committed to getting justice. Before agreeing with his clients that there had been foul play, he thoroughly examined the records and evidence. Don spoke with Billie’s neighbours and discovered that the police had not discovered any cash in her purse. Additionally, he discovered the 80-year-old’s misgivings about 17-year-old Justin DeWayne Stephens, who had moved in next door with his girlfriend’s family. On November 30, neighbours had seen her interacting with Justin.

He had approached her and asked to use her phone. The teen asked Billie for help with her Christmas decorations after his alleged call went unanswered, and when she declined, he departed the house. However, Don read through the police records and discovered Justin had admitted to the detectives he hadn’t been inside her house since he paid a friend a visit for a fundraiser the year before. Don persuaded the Michigan State Police to reopen an investigation using this fresh information.

Billie’s teeth were discovered next to the body as if they had been knocked out, there was a significant amount of blood on the three adjacent walls, and there was a dent in the wall where someone had supposedly thrown the broken Santa. These and other suspicious differences were noted by the investigators. When Billie’s body was excavated and a second autopsy was performed, they discovered signs of physical trauma, including bruising on her face and the back of her left hand as well as a fractured nose and upper jaw. These were not included in the local medical examiner’s office’s list.

She had been attacked with a blunt object at some point before to dying, and forensic pathologist Dr. Stephen Cohle determined that the death was a homicide since she had four severe lacerations to her neck. However, before a polygraph appointment, Justin abruptly left for his Texas birthplace. When he was detained for trespassing in July 2009, the investigators made a significant discovery. Before interviewing him, they took a knife and a bloody sweater from his aunt.

The lack of DNA evidence discovered by the authorities on the blade or the fabric hurt the case. The investigators found hints that Justin was responsible for her murder, such as omissions from his call records at the time. Despite all the evidence, the police had to release him because they couldn’t coax an admission from him. He was detained once more for narcotics possession, and a Texas Ranger came close to extracting a confession from him before Justin’s sister intervened and begged him not to speak to the police further.

Where is Justin Stephens Now?

In the meantime, the crime lab found that one of the dog hairs recovered on the smashed mirror corresponded to one of Justin’s former girlfriend’s pets. After being connected to the case, Justin broke down and told Texas Rangers that he had killed Billie by breaking into her house. According to him, the 80-year-old discovered him stealing money, and before she could call the police, he killed her. The 24-year-old was given a mandatory life sentence for first-degree murder in addition to a second-degree home invasion penalty of up to 15 years in prison in 2011.

In August 2013, the Court of Appeals maintained his convictions but decided that he should receive a new sentence. In October 2022, Justin, who was 33 at the time, received a revised sentence of 40 to 60 years. Justin is no longer an impetuous, immature youngster, according to his defence attorney. He keeps improving himself and feels terrible guilt about Mrs. Cunningham’s passing. The 34-year-old is being held at the Alger Correctional Facility, and according to his inmate records, his sentence ends in 2070, but he becomes eligible for release in 2050.

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