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Emotional vigil held for 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham after family friend charged in her murder

Community holds vigil for Audrii Cunningham
Community holds vigil for Audrii Cunningham 00:47

"She was perfection." That's how Cassie Matthews, the mother of Audrii Cunningham, described her daughter at a vigil held Wednesday in Polk County, Texas. The 11-year-old's body was found Tuesday in the Trinity River near Houston after she was reported missing last week. 

Don McDougal, 42, who was described as a family friend, has been charged with capital murder in connection to her death.

Family and friends gathered for the vigil wearing purple and carrying purple balloons as they prayed. 

"I'm at a loss for words most of the time, other than the fact that I am beyond blessed to be able to give birth to something that is – she was perfection," Matthews said at the vigil. "And you know, as a parent, we're all pretty biased that we think our kids are perfect, but it just is what it is. But I I'm truly blessed to have given birth to such an amazing little girl."  

Audrii Cunningham Vigil
Cassie Matthews speaks at a vigil in honor of her 11-year-old daughter, Audrii Cunningham, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Livingston, Texas.  Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspap

Mourners lit candles for Audrii. "Hopefully with all of our candles together it'll be bright enough that maybe she can see it. Maybe she'll see all the love and support that come together at once," Matthews said.

"This world is not gonna be the same without her," said Brenda Cedars, Audrii's aunt. "No matter where she went or who she met, she just made them light up. She could always make you laugh and no matter what kind of mood you were in. And it just isn't fair that we all got robbed of that."

The parent of one of Audrii's friends who came to the vigil described to KHOU what it was like to explain her death to their kids. "When your baby comes home and says, 'Momma, did they find her?' No, they didn't and that will never happen again," said Kasey Evans, the mother of one of Audrii's classmates. "I had to sit down and explain to my 6-year-old and my 10-year-old that she's no longer with us."

Audrii Cunningham Vigil
Kristlyn Wood, a cousin of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham, reacts during a vigil in Cunningham's honor, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Livingston, Texas.  Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspap

Casey Baker, a friend of Matthews, said her friend is "hurting," and they came out to the vigil for justice. "That's what we came here for, to shed her light so everybody can see it," she told KHOU. "You know, there's nothing we can say. There's nothing else we can do that's going to bring her home permanently. It's tragic for the family."

"There's no other questions that can be answered," Baker said. "Nothing y'all can say or ask will bring her home, will bring her back to us. We will not have her walking through our doors anymore. But instead having her walk beside us in faith"

Visitation for Audrii is scheduled for Friday, March 1 in Livingston, according to Pace Funeral Home, CBS Texas reports. A rosary service and funeral will be held at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Saturday.

Audrii went missing on her way to school and investigators said McDougal was supposed to take her to her school bus stop that day. McDougal was a person of interested and was arrested last week on an unrelated charge of aggravated assault. 

According to a criminal complaint, Audrii's body was found in the river, about 10 miles from her home, CBS Texas reports. She had been tied to a large rock with rope, authorities said. Cellphone data and video footage was used to place McDougal near where her body was found and the rope used was consistent with a rope found in his vehicle during a recent traffic stop, according to law enforcement. 

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