‘We dropped the ball’: New audio reveals details of past investigation into Audrii Cunningham’s alleged killer

LIVINGSTON, Texas – Should the man accused of killing Audrii Cunningham have been behind bars before the fifth grader vanished?

Only KPRC 2 has obtained an audio recording of the Polk County Sheriff, appearing to admit the ball was dropped in a previous criminal investigation involving Audrii’s suspected killer, Don Steven McDougal.

Six months before 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham disappeared, the man now accused of killing her was also accused of violently stabbing a stranger three times.

Images shared with KPRC 2 showed the three bloody knife wounds in David Stanley’s back on August 19, 2023. He had to be airlifted to the hospital.

“Mr. Stanley received a knock on the door from a female. She said that her car was broken down and she needed some help. So Mr. Stanley goes out to her vehicle. As he approaches the vehicle, he’s ambushed and stabbed,” said Stanley’s attorney David Feldman.

According to court documents, the woman came to his house with a man he didn’t know. After Stanley tried to help them with a dead battery and realized it wasn’t dead, he started rolling up the cables and the unknown man attacked him with a knife.

Stanley initially identified the wrong suspect, who was arrested but later released, according to a timeline of the investigation the sheriff’s office shared with KPRC 2. He later identified McDougal as the suspect.

Stanley contacted authorities on Friday, Feb. 16, the day after Audrii disappeared, as chatter on social media prompted speculation that McDougal may have been involved.

As investigators zeroed in on McDougal as a person of interest in her disappearance, they say he confessed to the stabbing of Stanley while being questioned by Texas Rangers.

That is what landed him behind bars, charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, as the desperate search for the missing fifth grader continued.

Days later, prosecutors charged McDougal with capital murder in her disappearance and death. But why wasn’t he arrested sooner for the alleged stabbing?

“There was some circumstances that took place that would not allow us to be able to arrest him at that time. And he would not cooperate, would not, basically lawyered up, would not talk with the investigators,” said Polk County Sheriff Byron Lyons at a press conference held on Monday.

In new audio obtained only by KPRC 2, during a late November 2023 meeting for approximately 30 minutes with the stabbing victim’s girlfriend, Lyons appeared to admit the case wasn’t being investigated properly.

“We dropped the ball on this and we’re trying to find the ball to get it fixed,” Lyons appeared to say in the recording. “We didn’t do our job. ... That’s, that’s why we’re here to talk about it. ... We’re fixing it. We’re making it right.”

According to the aggravated assault case timeline shared by the sheriff’s office, a new investigator got assigned to the case within a day of the recorded conversation.

“Months transpired to actually arrest McDougal for the stabbing on August 19, 2023. But for whatever reason, they chose not to. And he remained on the street,” Feldman said.

On Aug. 25, the sheriff’s office timeline shows the woman who came knocking at Stanley’s door also identified McDougal as the man who was with her.

On Nov. 29, 2023, while McDougal was in the Polk County Jail on a different charge, investigators tried to interview him about the alleged stabbing, but he refused to talk, according to the timeline. It’s unclear when he got released from jail on that charge.

After first identifying the wrong suspect, Stanley identified McDougal as the suspected stabber in early September and again in early December, but the case against McDougal didn’t advance until February 8, when the sheriff’s office submitted the investigation to the prosecutor’s office for grand jury consideration.

That was six months after the stabbing and one week before Audrii disappeared.

“This is a tragedy that should not have happened had law enforcement done their job the last few months,” Feldman said. “I don’t think you’d be talking to me about the disappearance of Audrii Cunningham.”

In a statement Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said they didn’t have sufficient evidence to arrest McDougal for the stabbing until his confession to the Rangers, after Audrii disappeared.

KPRC 2 contacted the sheriff’s office about the recordings Thursday night, and Sheriff Byron Lyons’ Chief Deputy Andy Lowrie shared the following response:

“The Sheriff is aggravated and feels like the ball had been dropped. Stanley identified the wrong person who was arrested and put in jail. Stanley did do the identification and even testified in court on a protective order that the wrong person he identified did the stabbing. It was not till later he came forward and admitted he identified the wrong person and people pushed him to identify the wrong person. Sheriff feels responsible for the wrong person going to jail even though Stanley did the identification. Sheriff does not agree with an innocent person going to jail for any reason.”

About the Author

Bryce Newberry joined KPRC 2 in July 2022. He loves the thrill of breaking news and digging deep on a story that gets people talking.

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