On the morning of Feb. 17, Marcus Johnson and T.J. Cunningham agreed to meet at an empty Eaglecrest High School in Aurora to “box it out.”
It was the culmination of more than a year of disputes between the neighbors over parking and Airbnb rentals. Police were involved more than once.
At the school, the two walked toward one another, yelling expletives. When they were about five feet away, Johnson pulled out a gun and put a bullet between Cunningham’s eyes, another into his chest, according to testimony Friday during a preliminary hearing in Arapahoe County District Court.
During Friday’s hearing, Arapahoe County prosecutors and investigators detailed the rising tensions and a combative relationship between the two neighbors that ended with the fatal shooting of the 46-year-old Cunningham, an assistant high school principal in Aurora and former University of Colorado football star. District Court Judge John Scipione agreed that there was probable cause to send Johnson to trial on charges of first-degree murder after deliberation.
“Certainly Johnson knew where and why he was going to the school,” Scipione. “He came prepared, from his standpoint, of how he was going to approach ‘boxing it out.’ He brought a gun to a fistfight.”
Cunningham, who police say was unarmed, was transported to the hospital after the shooting, but died the next day.
Arapahoe County investigator Mary Lou Kochaniec described how on Feb. 17, Cunningham arrived at his home with two cases of beer and a bottle wine for a party he was hosting later that day. Soon after, Johnson came over and the two exchanged words, the confrontation becoming increasingly hostile, Kochaniec said.
Security cameras from Cunningham’s house and a neighbor’s home show Cunningham with what appears to be the wine bottle in his hand as the two men argued in the street. At one point, Kochaniec said, Cunningham tried to walk away, but Johnson continued to engage him.
Cunningham’s 17-year-old brother told police that he and Cunningham then got into their car to go meet Johnson at nearby Eaglecrest High School to “box it out,” Kochaniec said.
They drove down the street, pausing at one point to wait for Johnson, she said.
The two parties parked on opposite ends of the driveway leading up to high school. As the two yelled at each other, Cunningham’s younger brother told him that he thought Johnson might have a gun, Kochaniec said. According to the brother’s account relayed to police, Cunningham brushed him off. Moments later, Cunningham was shot.
After the shooting, Johnson called 911 to say that he shot his neighbor after being attacked, police said. He told police where he lived, and authorities found a black handgun in his car.
Johnson’s defense team argued on Friday that Johnson acted in self-defense, using deadly force only because he believed anything less would not have been enough. First-degree murder after deliberation and with intent, they argued, did not fit because the shooting was reactionary and not premeditated.
Kochaniec, through interviews with Cunningham’s wife Kristi, outlined to the court a series of disputes dating back to 2017. The incidents started relatively mundane, with Cunningham asking Johnson to move his car in 2017, leading to a parking agreement which lasted for a while, police said. Cunningham and his wife later went to the neighborhood HOA to complain that Johnson was renting out his home on AirBnb, which was not allowed.
The conflicts escalated over time, Kristi Cunningham told investigators.
The defense disputed those events.
Johnson and Cunningham’s relationship became so hostile that both sides sought protection orders against the other, prosecutors said.
Johnson, 31, who sat stoically next to his attorneys throughout Friday’s proceedings, has a criminal record dating back to 2007, including a third-degree assault charge, Colorado Bureau of Investigation records show.
Cunningham left a lasting imprint on metro Denver’s athletic, academic and philanthropic communities. A football star at Aurora’s Overland High School, Cunningham played wide receiver and defensive back for some of CU’s most dominant teams in the early 1990s. He had a brief stint in the NFL, playing nine games in 1996 for the Seattle Seahawks, before injuries ended his professional career.
It was in the classroom where Cunningham made his enduring impact. His former coworkers at Hinkley High School and Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster remembered the 46-year-old as the rare educator who “could make a kid believe they could do anything,” while also serving as an indispensable mentor for students of color.
A Go Fund Me has raised over $81,000 for the Cunningham family.