HUBBARDSTON — Nearly seven years ago, the community of Hubbardston was shook to its core when one of its beloved residents, Bernita “Billie” Cunningham, was found dead in her home.
After several years and much investigating, the case of her death finally came to an end in July 2011 when Texas native Justin Stephens was convicted of murdering the 80-year-old woman.
On Tuesday, at the St. John the Baptist Church Family Parish Center, about 50 people learned new details about the five-year investigation as Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Michael Morey gifted the Hubbardston Area Historical Society with documents from the investigation.
“It dawned on me that Billie’s murder may, at some point in the future, good or bad, right, or wrong, have some historical significance,” Morey said. “I thought the historical society might appreciate having some documents from the investigation.”
Morey said he spent much time investigating the scene of the murder and walked away with only one conclusion.
“After I became involved and took a look at this case, I became 110 percent convinced that this was a homicide,” he said.
Morey said his main reasons for suspecting murder were because of the nature and number of injuries Cunningham sustained. A second reason arrived from a broken Christmas ornament that was found in a house that was otherwise clean.
“That told me there was the likely presence of another person,” he said. “We investigated and ultimately eliminated numerous suspects from this area.”
Morey then developed a possible suspect, Stephens, who lived in a rental house across the street from Cunningham’s home. Morey requested the presence of the Michigan State Mobile Crime Lab, which spent an entire day processing both homes.
According to Morey, Stephens became the primary suspect after neighbors divulged some of their final conversations with Cunningham.
“The morning before her death, Billie had gone to a neighbor’s house for coffee and mentioned that a neighbor boy had come to her house and offered to help hang Christmas decorations,” he said. “We were able to pretty much narrow it down based on a comment that she said he was the same boy who sold candy bars to her the previous autumn. Through process of elimination, Justin was the only suspect left.”
Morey admitted volunteering to help hang Christmas decorations is not suspicious, but he said one other action Stephens committed was suspicious.
“He also asked to use her phone,” he said. “We pulled Billie’s phone records and no phone calls were ever made. It was a ruse, for whatever reason, he faked the phone call.”
According to Morey, Stephens’ background was that of previously breaking into houses to steal money and food, as he was often homeless.
“It was determined that Billie probably had money in her purse the day she died and there was no money in her purse when it was searched,” he said. “It became pretty obvious that we needed to have a chat with Justin Stephens. I had never met him, but he was back in Texas and I wanted to talk to him badly.”
Morey then worked with a computer database in Texas, which sent him an email anytime Stephens’ name was run by a Texas police officer.
“Low and beyond, in July of 2009, I received an email that he had been arrested,” he said.
Morey then flew to Texas to speak with Stephens. They spoke for about 20 minutes before Stephens asked for an attorney, halting further discussion.
“We had learned by now that he had suddenly come into possession of about $100 at the time of that Billie died,” he said. “When I asked him about where he got the $100, he asked for a lawyer.”
Though Morey felt he had a strong case against Stephens, after discussions with Ionia County Prosecutor Ron Schaffer, it was deemed that without physical evidence, a jury would unlikely reach a guilty verdict. Starting back at square one, Morey said he then began to reach out to officers in Texas for assistance.
“I had a hard time getting the Texas authorities interested in our case,” he said.
But just when he needed a break, one came in the form of Texas Ranger Jim Holland.
“Fast forward a few moments and strolling in from the sunset was Ranger Holland,” he said. “I told him the story and he said he would go and talk to Justin personally.”
By then, Stephens had been arrested for another crime. Holland drove four hours across the state of Texas to speak with Stephens, but again Stephens wouldn’t admit anything.
Holland called Morey and told him he believed it was “painfully obvious” that Stephens was guilty. Holland said he thought he could try one more time and make Stephens be truthful.
Morey received a phone call from Holland at around 1 a.m. informing him that Stephens had given him “the whole story.”
According to Morey, Stephens’ story went as follows:
Stephens was home alone at his house the day of Cunningham’s death in December 2006, with a clear view of her home. He saw her get in her van and drive away toward town and told himself he had a chance to steal some drug money.
Stephens broke into the house, went into her bedroom, found her purse on the bedroom floor, took $100 cash from the purse, went to leave, but was discovered by Cunningham, who had returned home. They had an altercation in the hallway and Cunningham attempted to call the police when Stephens assaulted her. He then exited her house and fled to the cemetery behind the home. He threw away his clothes in the weeds and “went on about life.”
“Between all of the circumstantial evidence and the fact that the story that Justin gave fit with everything we saw in the house, fit with my theory of the crime, it was pretty obvious he was guilty,” Morey said.
A recording of the audio interview was overnighted to Morey and by the next day an arrest warrant had been issued for Stephens.
After a week-long trial in July 2011, Stephens, who was 21 at the time of the trial and 17 at the time of the murder, was found guilty by jury and sentenced to mandatory life in prison.
In tribute to Cunningham, Joanne Howard of the Hubbardston Area Historical Society had a few words to deliver in Cunningham’s memory at Tuesday’s annual fall social.
“My first memory of Billie was seeing her walk across the church parking lot into our yard which is next door to this hall when I was about 4 years old,” she said. “We walked down town together, which was the beginning of an almost daily ritual.
“As we both got older, she took me everywhere with her — shopping, to the dentist, to the doctor — she was my mentor before mentoring became a household word. She came to your face and told you exactly what you were doing that was wrong, she never went gossiping behind your back. Compliments were genuine and freely given, but she let you know exactly what she thought.
Howard asked everyone to keep Cunningham in their thoughts during one key moment of their everyday lives.
“The next time you misplace something, your keys or whatever, I want you to think of Billie’s favorite saying; ‘Tony, Tony, come around. Something’s lost and must be found.’ Say it over and over and over until you find it.”
According to historical society co-chairman Jack Fahey, the documents received from Morey will not be available to the public for several weeks yet.
The Hubbardston Area Historical Society display room is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the Hubbardston Community Center.
Call Howard at (989) 584-3803 for more information about the Hubbardston Area Historical Society.