Suspected carjacker was subject of 1989 manhunt

WARNER ROBINS — The man arrested Wednesday in North Carolina in connection with the carjacking and kidnapping of an 87-year-old woman outside the The Galleria in Centerville has been the subject of a dramatic manhunt in the past.

David Lee Cunningham, 50, who police say has ties to both Warner Robins and Concord, N.C., is expected to be extradited to Houston County by Friday to face charges of kidnapping with bodily injury, carjacking, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, robbery by force and theft of a motor vehicle in the March 29 incident outside the mall, said Centerville police Sgt. Chuck Hadden.

Cunningham was being held Friday at the Cabarrus County, N.C., jail on a parole violation for 1989 convictions in Houston County for kidnapping, armed robbery, aggravated assault, theft of a motor vehicle and escape, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections Web site. He also has a theft by shoplifting conviction from 1998 in Fulton County.

The Houston County convictions are connected to a series of events that started about 11:45 p.m. on March 6, 1989, when Cunningham and six other men broke out of the Houston County jail by overpowering three jailers, according to records from the Houston County District Attorney’s Office and Houston County Superior Court.

The men fled in a 1987 Dodge D150 pickup truck stolen from one of the jailers.

The records reviewed by The Telegraph include police reports, victim statements, teletype communications among law enforcement agencies and varied court documents.

Four of the seven men, who were in jail on varied charges from aggravated child molestation to trafficking cocaine, were recaptured the next morning, records show.

But Cunningham, who was in jail on charges of fleeing and attempting to elude police and reckless driving, and the two other escapees broke into a Centerville home on Brantley Drive, March 7, 1989, about 8 a.m., the records show.

When one of the residents returned to the home that afternoon, Cunningham and the other two men were inside. The men tied up the resident and put him in the bedroom, the records show.

When the resident’s wife came home, Cunningham pointed a double-barreled shotgun at her and she ran out the front door screaming. Cunningham ran after her, grabbed her in the front yard and brought her back into the home, the records show.

“When he got me back into the house, he said, ‘Get down on the floor,’” the woman said in her statement to police. “I did and he placed the shotgun in the small of (my) back, saying, ‘You think that was smart? ... We’ve got your husband back there and we could have shot him. What if I had shot you?’ He then placed the gun on my right buttock and said, ‘What if I had shot your a--?’ ”

She was also tied up and taken to the bedroom.

The men stole the couple’s silver 1986 Honda Civic hatchback as well as several weapons, cash, credit cards and jewelry.

A manhunt ensued across state lines, with sheriff’s investigators contacting Florida authorities in case the men went to visit relatives there.

One of the men contacted his grandmother in Florida, according to the records.

Teletypes sent from the Houston County Sheriff’s Office to other law enforcement agencies warned officers to use extreme caution because the men were believed to be armed and had threatened not to be taken alive.

The stolen car was recovered in El Paso, Texas. Cunningham, and Roy Kenneth Sanford, 41, were taken into custody by the U.S. Customs Service when attempting to re-enter the U.S. from Mexico.

The third man, Thor Robert Thompson, was captured separately in El Paso.

Thompson died in 2008. Sanford escaped from a Georgia prison in February 1999 but is currently incarcerated in a Missouri prison, said Sharmelle Brooks, a Georgia Department of Corrections spokesperson.

All three men went to prison in connection to the incident at the Centerville home.

Now, more than 20 years later, Cunningham is accused of carjacking and kidnapping Nellie Robinson, of Warner Robins, whose arm was broken in the struggle. Cunningham allegedly drove her down Clever Road, a dirt road off U.S. 41, robbed her of $50 and left her by the side of the road.

She walked to a subdivision, where she went to a house for help and police were called.

Her stolen 1997 Buick Park Avenue was found in a church parking lot less than a mile from where Cunningham was living with his wife in Concord, N.C. A church member became suspicious after the car, which was missing its license plate, had been parked at the church for a while. A relative of Cunningham’s lives in Warner Robins.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.