February 11, 2009

Foul play at the park

Death penalty trial begins for man accused of killing couple in Fern Creek

The early autumn sun had not yet risen when a teenager encountered a gruesome scene at Fern Creek Park on Oct. 12, 2005.

Cutting through the park on his way to school, the boy stumbled upon a body in the remote parking lot. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw the charred remains of a man, lying in a pool of blood.

While waiting for police to respond, the boy noticed what appeared to be a trash bag, partially obscured by a Dumpster in the corner of the dark lot.

It turned out to be a second burnt corpse.

That morning detectives combed the area for clues, and local television news stations soon began reporting details about the horrific discovery of two bodies, one male, one female, apparently gunned down and then set on fire.

And within a few hours the coroner’s office began receiving calls from friends and relatives of Trevor Alexander, 28, and Tykea Sanderson, 24, who reportedly were heading to Fern Creek Park the previous night to buy drugs.

The pair never returned.

Both bodies were badly burned, making them difficult to identify. But a Chevy Suburban found smoldering in a nearby wooded area belonged to Alexander, and the coroner soon concluded the remains were those of the missing Newburg couple.

Friends of the victims immediately told investigators Alexander and Sanderson were at the park to purchase Ecstasy from Francois Cunningham, who is now on trial for capital murder in connection with the crime.

A football star at Fern Creek High School in the mid-1990s, Cunningham faces the death penalty if convicted at a trial that started Monday and is expected to last at least two weeks.

“There is a murderer in this courtroom. A murderer who shot two people. A murderer who set them on fire. A murderer who literally let them melt alive,” Ryane Conroy, assistant commonwealth’s attorney, told the jury during a dramatic opening argument in Jefferson County Circuit Court. “His crime is not easy to stomach and his appearance today can be deceiving.”

Seated at the defense table, the 31-year-old Cunningham appeared calm, occasionally jotting down notes.

Prior to this case, court records reveal Cunningham pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 1998 and was sentenced to 18 years, although he was released on parole after only serving three. His criminal record will not be admitted as evidence at this trial.

After outlining the evidence for the jury, the prosecutor said, “At the end of this case there will be no mistake that there is a murderer in this courtroom and he sits right there,” pointing to Cunningham, dressed in a dark blue suit, crisp white shirt and maroon tie.

During a brief recess, the defendant looked directly at a family member of one of the victims and mumbled several inaudible statements. A subsequent confrontation was narrowly averted outside the courtroom when relatives of both the defendant and the victims exchanged words. A sheriff’s deputy warned that any more disturbances would result in the judge ejecting them from the courtroom, and possibly sending them to jail.

In response to the commonwealth’s opening argument, defense attorney Frank Mascagni claimed the evidence simply does not add up, likening the prosecution’s case to an illogical jigsaw puzzle and saying he will prove his client’s innocence in the coming weeks. Unlike the prosecutor’s PowerPoint presentation, the defense lawyer scribbled notes and diagrams on a yellow legal pad as he paced in front of the jurors.

“I’m saying my client didn’t commit this crime. I’m looking you dead in the face,” said Mascagni, arguing that people do not get murdered over a handful of Ecstasy pills. “Is he guilty of being stupid? Yeah. But I guess we’d all go to jail for that.”

 

It was a little before 6 a.m. on a crisp fall morning when 16-year-old Savage Border encountered something out of the ordinary on his walk to Fern Creek High School. Cutting through the park as usual, the high school sophomore at first thought he might have stumbled upon a drunk passed out in the parking lot.

Upon closer inspection, however, it was clear the man was dead.

Unable to get his cell phone to work, Border ran to his best friend’s house nearby.

“We went back to the park to make sure I wasn’t imagining things,” said Border, one of the first witnesses called by the prosecution this week. “Sure enough, it was a dead body.”

They called for help, but before police responded the duo made another grisly find — a second burned body, partially obscured by a trash bin about 80 feet away.

A deputy coroner identified the victims as Alexander and Sanderson and ultimately concluded they likely died from gunshot wounds, although their severe burns might very well have contributed to their deaths.

Detectives interviewed friends of the victims and learned that in the hours before the murder the couple was partying and playing video games at home. Those interviewed told police that Alexander spoke to Cunningham on the phone several times that evening about meeting at Fern Creek Park to buy Ecstasy at midnight.

By the time police tried to contact Cunningham, he had left town. The day after the murder he apparently traveled to Lexington for the night. The next day he went to Cincinnati and paid cash for a plane ticket to Seattle, where he ultimately was arrested.

Following Cunningham’s hasty departure, investigators searched the suspect’s car and rented home in Fern Creek. Because the crime involved arson, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also participated in the investigation, finding evidence of an accelerant inside Cunningham’s sport utility vehicle.

A round of 9-mm ammunition matching shell casings found at the scene of the murders was found under his dresser. Cell phone records also reveal Cunningham was near the crime scene at the time of the slaying.

In response, the defense pointed out that there were in fact three types of shell casings recovered at the scene, making it unlikely that one person committed this crime, as the commonwealth claims. In addition, Cunningham’s lawyer repeatedly mentioned the fact that a witness who lives near the park heard three gunshots at 12:30 p.m. the night of the murder, then spotted “two white boys in a pickup truck” speeding away.