Investigation Discovery’s ‘Forensic Files II: Broken Santa’ chronicles how 80-year-old Bernita Cunningham was brutally murdered inside her Hubbardston, Michigan, home in late November 2006. The perpetrator successfully evaded the authorities by staging the crime scene to make it seem like an accident, but the victim’s family was determined to find justice. If you’re interested in finding out more about the case, including the killer’s identity and current whereabouts, we’ve your back. Let’s dive in then, shall we?
How Did Bernita Cunningham Die?
Bernita “Billie” Cunningham was born to Edward and Georgia (Gilleo) Herald in Hubbardston, Michigan, on September 5, 1926. She married Albert Cunningham on May 29, 1948, at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Hubbardston. She retired from U.S. Steel, as a payroll clerk, in 1985 and enjoyed crocheting, sewing, traveling, and loved spending time with her family. Her five-decade-long marriage resulted in seven children and ten grandchildren before she lost her husband in 1989.
Billie was very active in her community and a creature of habit. A lifelong resident of her native town, Billie’s neighbors were well-versed in her daily routine. Hence, it was concerning for them when the 80-year-old did not come for her afternoon cuppa on Tuesday afternoon, November 30, 2006. They also noticed another break in her routine when they saw her lights on late at night and thought she was not sleeping well. Hence, they called her son for a welfare check when they saw her drapes still shut the following morning.
Billie’s son, Bill Cunningham, who lived a few miles down the road, came over, and he and one neighbor entered the octagenarian’s residence together. They were shocked to find her lying face down in the foyer, seeming to meet her end by falling from a step stool and hitting her head while hanging a Christmas decoration. According to reports, she seemingly tumbled on a large mirror, shattering it, and moved around a bit, causing more cuts, before she bled to death. The local medical examiner ruled it an accidental death after conducting an autopsy.
Who Killed Bernita Cunningham?
According to the initial investigation, the local police hypothesized Billie Cunningham suffered from a seizure during one of her diabetic spells while standing on the stool to hang the decorations. She slipped and hit the mirror before she fell on the floor and died from fractures and excessive bleeding. Billie’s autopsy revealed she had suffered cuts to her throat and face, a broken cheekbone, and various injuries to her hand and midsection. All the injuries were persistent with accidentally falling, and the coroner ruled it as an accidental death.
However, her family was concerned when they entered the home after the authorities had processed the scene and removed the body. Billie’s son, Tim Cunningham, stated his mother was quite particular about cleaning her residence and maintaining a spotless household. In addition to finding it unlikely that the 80-year-old would risk her safety by climbing a step ladder, they also noticed many items across the house were out of order, scattered, or trampled upon. They also spilled food items left on the floor — which was highly uncharacteristic of Billie.
When the adult children noticed her favorite Santa Claus figurine had been left broken on the ground more than 20 feet from where Billie’s body was discovered, they were sure foul play was involved. The episode explained the local police did not have much experience in homicide investigation due to Hubbardston’s abysmal low crime rate. Hence, it was unsurprising when the Ionia County Sheriff’s Department refused to reopen their investigation into Billie’s death despite several meetings with her family.
Determined to find justice, the Cunningham siblings hired a private investigator, Don Brooks, to investigate their mother’s death. He carefully reviewed the documents and evidence before agreeing with his clients regarding the involvement of foul play. Don interviewed Billie’s neighbors and learned the police found no money in her purse. He also learned about the 80-year-old’s reservation about Justin DeWayne Stephens, then 17, who had moved in across the street with his girlfriend’s family. Neighbors had spotted her interacting with Justin on November 30.
He had come over and requested to use her phone. When his alleged call went unanswered, the teen asked whether he could help Billie with her Christmas decorations and left the residence when she declined. However, Don reviewed the police documents to learn Justin had told the investigators he had not been inside her home since the previous year when he visited with a friend for a fundraiser. Armed with this new information, Don convinced the Michigan State Police to reopen an investigation.
The investigators noticed several suspicious discrepancies — Billie’s dentures were found near the body as if they had been knocked out, massive amounts of blood on the three surrounding walls, and a dent on the wall caused by someone allegedly throwing the broken Santa. The authorities exhumed Billie’s body and conducted a second autopsy to find evidence of blunt injury — a fractured nose, upper jaw, and bruising on her face and the back of her left hand. The local medical examiner’s office had not listed these.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Stephen Cohle concluded the death as a homicide after noticing she had been hit with a blunt object at some point before her demise and had died from four deep lacerations to her neck. However, Justin unexpectedly fled to his Texas hometown before a polygraph appointment. The detectives got a breakthrough when he was arrested for trespassing in July 2009. They retrieved a bloodied sweatshirt and a knife from his aunt before they interviewed him.
However, the investigation took a hit when the authorities found no DNA evidence on the blade or the cloth. The detectives discovered circumstantial evidence against Justin, including gaps in his call logs at the time of her murder. Despite all the proof, the authorities had to let him go since they could not get an admission out of him. He was arrested again for drug possession, and a Texas Ranger almost got a confession out of him before his sister called and asked Justin not to say anything more to the authorities.
Where is Justin Stephens Now?
Meanwhile, the crime lab discovered one of the hairs found on the broken mirror belonged to one of the dogs in Justin’s erstwhile girlfriend. He was linked to the case, and Justin finally broke down and confessed to Texas Rangers about breaking into Billie’s home and murdering her. He admitted the 80-year-old caught him stealing cash, and he murdered her before she could contact the police. The 24-year-old received a mandatory life sentence for first-degree murder, plus up to 15 years in prison for a second-degree home invasion in 2011.
The Court of Appeals upheld his convictions in August 2013 but ruled that he should be resentenced. Justin, then 33, was resentenced to from 40 to 60 years instead in October 2022. His defense attorney stated, “Justin is no longer an impulsive, immature teenager. He continues to work on himself and is profoundly remorseful for the death of Mrs. Cunningham.” The 34-year-old is incarcerated at the Alger Correctional Facility, and his inmate records state he will be eligible for parole in August 2050 while his prison term expires in 2070.