03:31 - Source: CNN
Sheriff reveals what McDougal's behavior tells him about Audrii Cunningham case
CNN  — 

The last time Audrii Cunningham’s family saw her alive, the 11-year-old was getting ready for school Thursday morning and heading out to catch the bus.

But she never made it onto the school bus or into her classroom in the small Texas town of Livingston, about 70 miles northeast of Houston.

After an exhaustive, five-day search, Audrii’s body was found in a river, tied to a rock. And the family friend who was entrusted with taking her to the bus stop is now charged with capital murder in the girl’s death.

Here’s the latest on what we know about the investigation:

New details emerge on the murder suspect

Don Steven McDougal, 42, has been charged with capital murder, according to court documents filed in Polk County on Wednesday.

McDougal, a friend of Audrii’s father, lived in a trailer on the family’s property, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office said. Investigators say McDougal agreed to take Audrii to the bus stop on Thursday morning, but she never arrived.

Polk County Jail/AP
Don Steven McDougal

McDougal lied about his whereabouts and activities, a sheriff’s deputy wrote in a criminal complaint.

“Video footage and cell phone data places McDougal at three locations of interest,” including along the Trinity River, where Audrii’s body would later be found, according to the criminal complaint.

On Thursday, after Audrii didn’t come home from school, her family reported her missing. A massive search ensued – and the suspect joined in, Sheriff Byron Lyons said.

“Some of the witnesses have even said that he was in the community and knocking on doors (Thursday) … asking have they seen her,” Lyons told CNN.

But the sheriff said he believes McDougal’s effort was an act.

“To me, it simply tells me is that he’s trying to give the appearances that … he’s not at fault in her disappearance and that (he’s) part of the concerned parties who were trying to locate her.”

Neither the court documents filed Wednesday nor jail records list an attorney for McDougal. CNN has also reached out to the suspect’s family for comment.

On Friday, the day after McDougal was seen participating in the search, he was arrested for an unrelated aggravated assault case. McDougal remained in custody while authorities kept scouring for any sign of Audrii.

Authorities found a backpack resembling Audrii’s red Hello Kitty backpack near Lake Livingston Dam, the sheriff’s office said.

Audrii’s home is close to the sprawling lake – a reservoir of the Trinity River that provides water for the city of Houston.

Four days later, Audrii’s body was found Tuesday, in the Trinity River.

The girl was tied with a rope to a rock

Investigators found Audrii’s body after using cell phone records, video analysis and information from the man last seen with her, the sheriff said.

To help uncover the body, the sheriff said water management authorities slowed the flow from the Lake Livingston reservoir – one of the largest reservoirs in the state – allowing the river level to recede enough to reveal the remains.

Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle/AP
Divers recovered the body of Audrii Cunningham near this part of the Trinity River on Tuesday.

A large rock was found tied around Audrii’s body, the criminal complaint says. “The rope used was consistent with rope that was observed in McDougal’s vehicle on a traffic stop two days prior,” the court document states.

The condition of Audrii’s remains is not being released, the sheriff said. The Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office will determine her cause of death.

Authorities have not released a possible motive for the killing. McDougal is being held without bond for the capital murder charge.

The suspect’s criminal record spans decades

McDougal has a lengthy criminal history dating back to at least 2003, with convictions for violent crimes and one for enticing a child, according to court records in several Texas counties.

Don Steven McDougal's incarceration timeline

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice listed McDougal’s sentences:
  • February 2003: 3 years for assault of a public servant out of Liberty County
  • February 7, 2006: 8 months for theft out of Harris County
  • February 14, 2006: 180 days for possession of less than 1 gram of meth out of Harris County
  • March 2007: 2 years for enticing a child out of Brazoria County
  • July 2009: 180 days for unauthorized use of a vehicle out of Harris County
  • February 2010: 4 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon out of Harris County
  • September 2020: 2 years for unauthorized use of a vehicle out of Liberty County
  • September 2022: McDougal is released after completing his sentence

In 2007, he was convicted of enticing a child in Brazoria County, Texas. Court records show he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to two years in prison but was given credit for 527 days.

Online records do not detail the specific allegations in the child enticement case. But the offense is defined by the state as “the intent to interfere with the lawful custody of a child younger than 18 years” when a person “entices, persuades, or takes the child from the custody of the parent or guardian.”

McDougal was also convicted in 2010 and 2019 for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

The victim in the first aggravated assault case said McDougal, his former coworker, attacked him after being thrown out of his house.

“He showed up with some other friends that I had,” Elic Bryan told CNN on Tuesday.

McDougal started stabbing the door before coming back inside, Bryan said.

“He came at me with the knife, and I had my shotgun, and I hit him in the face with it,” Bryan said. “I had no idea he was that kind of person.”

That aggravated assault case led to a four-year prison sentence.

‘This is the stuff you see on TV’

Audrii’s mother, Cassie Matthews, said her heart always broke for the parents of missing children whom she heard about on the news.

“This is the stuff you see on TV, and you can only imagine what the family and the parents are going through,” Matthews told CNN affiliate KPRC last week.

Now, she’s one of those parents.

“There’s not words for it. There is not one feeling you feel. It’s a roller coaster. You are broken, you are mad, you are empty. And right now, I am empty,” Matthews said.

“She has so many opportunities ahead of her, and she deserves every right to be able to reach those opportunities.”

CNN’s Andy Rose, Amy Simonson, Caroll Alvarado, Elizabeth Wolfe and Amanda Jackson contributed to this report.