Dead by Sunset is a horrific true crime account of Brad Cunningham, who appeared to all, a handsome, charming, and loving father, and caring husband. In reality, he considered his wives and children to be nothing more than disposable possessions.
Cheryl Keeton and Brad Cunningham met and married in Seattle in the late 1970s. Cheryl was his fourth wife. At that time she was a law student and he was a banker. After Cheryl's graduation, she joined a Seattle law firm. Shortly thereafter, Brad became involved in a large real estate development project in Texas and eventually the family moved to Texas. The project encountered difficulties, and the family filed for bankruptcy. Cheryl returned to Seattle to work for the same law firm, while Brad remained in Texas. In 1985, Cheryl transferred to the firm's Portland office. Brad also moved to Oregon and went to work for a savings and loan association. The Cunninghams purchased a home in Gresham. However, the marriage was deteriorating, and Brad eventually moved out.
In February 1986, Cheryl filed for divorce. The divorce proceeding was scheduled to go to trial in October 1986. During the period that followed, the relationship between Cheryl and Brad became increasingly bitter. Both of them sought custody of their three sons: Tyler, aged six, Travis, aged four, and Spencer, aged two. There were discussions of joint custody arrangements, and the parties agreed to an interim visitation schedule under which Brad would pick up the children on Friday evenings and return them to Cheryl's home on Sunday evenings.
In the spring of 1986, a psychologist performed a custody evaluation. He observed that Brad made contradictory statements, claiming to be the children's primary parent but also claiming that he worked very long hours at his job and admitting that he had not even lived in the same state with the children for a significant period of time. Brad also told the psychologist that the Cheryl did not like, and could not handle, the children. Brad confided that he believed that his mother-in-law, Cheryl's mother, was planning to poison him and kidnap the children.
Cheryl told the psychologist that Brad was harsh and inflexible with the children. The psychologist observed that, at a joint meeting with both Brad and Cheryl, Cheryl seemed intimidated and did not want to be alone with Brad, while Brad was "aggressive" and "bombastic." The psychologist concluded that the children seemed well-adjusted and happy with their mother and that Cheryl was the more appropriate custodian of the children because the children's needs were central to her life, whereas Brad had many other pursuits in which he was engaged.
In the summer of 1986, Cheryl consulted with a bankruptcy attorney because she was concerned that Brad had some assets that had not been disclosed in the couple's pending bankruptcy. The attorney told Cheryl about penalties that could result from a failure to disclose assets in a bankruptcy proceeding. Cheryl seemed anxious and fearful of retribution from Brad if she disclosed the assets.
During this period, Brad and Cheryl had numerous disputes about the children. In the spring of 1986, Brad and Cheryl had a loud fight at the children's preschool during which Brad became quite agitated. They also violently disagreed over where their oldest son, Tyler, would attend school in the fall. While Cheryl wanted to enroll Tyler in a school near her home, Brad resisted. He instructed the preschool not to forward Tyler's records to that school. When school began on September 2, Cheryl brought a friend with her to the school to try to keep Brad from interfering with the enrollment. When Brad arrived at the school, he confronted Cheryl angrily, yelling at her. They never resolved their differences about Tyler's schooling.
On September 16, 1986, depositions were taken in the divorce proceeding. Cheryl's attorney tried to question Brad about the couple's taxes, which had not been filed for several years, and about the property that Cheryl believed had not been properly disclosed to the bankruptcy court. Brad gave evasive answers. After the deposition, Brad was highly upset, telling friends that Cheryl had lied and that she was not a fit mother. He told one of his friends, "I'll kill Cheryl." Brad's girlfriend, Hermens, said that Brad was agitated after the deposition, and that he called Cheryl and told her that she would pay for lying at the deposition. Cheryl's brother overheard a telephone conversation between Brad and Cheryl on the evening of September 16 during which Brad called Cheryl a "dumb cunt" and stated, "I'll get you." On September 18, 1986, the divorce court denied Brad's request for a lengthy schedule of the divorce proceeding. The trial was scheduled in one week.
On Friday, September 19, Brad and his girlfriend went to Cheryl's house in southwest Portland to pick up the children for weekend visitation. Brad was irritated and accused Cheryl of having lied. He also told Cheryl about his suspicions of being poisoned. Later, Brad made a statement to his girlfriend that, "when somebody killed one parent but the other parent wasn't convicted of something, being better off for children." The children spent the weekend at Brad's apartment also in southwest Portland.
On Saturday, September 20, Brad took the children to a soccer game in which Tyler was playing. Cheryl also went to the game. When Brad saw her there, he became upset and took the children to the other side of the field because he saw Cheryl's presence as an intrusion on his time with the children. Cheryl, who was also distraught because she couldn't speak with her children, told a friend that Brad did not want her at the game and that he had threatened her.
In the early evening of September 21, Brad, his girlfriend, and the children went out for an early dinner. After dinner, Brad borrowed his girlfriend's car, saying that his vehicle was having some problems. He left his girlfriend at the hospital where she worked at about 6:40 p.m., saying that he had forgotten one of the children's blankets and that he was going back to the apartment before taking the children home to their mother. Brad told his girlfriend that he would return to the hospital to visit her after he took the children home.
At 7:11 p.m., Cheryl made a telephone call from her home to her mother's home in Washington state. Cheryl told her mother that Brad had called to tell her that he wasn't able to return the children to her at 7:00 as arranged because he was having some problems with his vehicle. He would not tell her where he was. She was hysterical when she called her mother and suggested that she might call the police. From Cheryl 's recounting of her conversation with Brad, her mother was under the impression that the children were out somewhere in a broken-down car. At around 7:30 p.m., Cheryl also called her brother, who lived with her and the children but was away from home that evening. She was upset and crying when she talked to him. She told him that Brad had not brought the children home yet and that he claimed to be having car trouble, which she described as a "typical maneuver."
At 7:59 p.m., Cheryl called her mother again. She told her, "Mother, I want you to remember this. I'm going down to the Mobil station by the IGA store, ah, down the hill and I'm going to meet Brad and pick up the children. And I want you to remember this." Cheryl 's mother called her boyfriend and had Cheryl repeat the information so that he could hear it as well. Her mother suggested that Cheryl should not go alone to meet Brad, but Cheryl replied, "No, I cannot leave the kids in the car any longer. I have to go pick up my kids." She told her mother that she would call back when she returned.
At about 8:30 p.m., Cheryl's body was found in her van. The van had traveled down the intersecting side street into the eastbound lanes of the Sunset Highway leading into Portland and crashed on the highway. A motorist on the highway stopped traffic and attempted to rescue Cheryl from the van. He found Cheryl with her head on the passenger floorboard and her feet on the driver's seat. He noted that the van was still running and that a purse had been stuffed onto the accelerator. Paramedics arrived several minutes later and reported Cheryl dead on the scene. Investigating officers noted a substantial amount of blood spatter in the van. They also observed that Cheryl had numerous injuries that were not consistent with being caused by a vehicle accident. They concluded that Cheryl had been murdered and that the murderer had attempted to cause a vehicular accident on the Sunset Highway and make it appear that Cheryl had died in the accident. An autopsy later showed that Cheryl died of head injuries. Both her upper and lower jaws were fractured, and there was evidence of approximately 25 blows.
Around 11:00 p.m. on the night of the murder, police officers went to Brad's apartment. When the officers told Brad that Cheryl was dead, he asked if she had been in a vehicle accident. Brad told the officers that he had last seen Cheryl on Friday evening, two days before the murder, when he picked up their children for his weekend visitation with them. He stated that he had called Cheryl around 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. on the evening of the murder and told her he was running late and that the children were watching "The Sword and the Stone." He stated that he called Cheryl again about an hour later, and she said that she was going to come to his apartment to pick up the children. Brad further stated that the only time he had left his apartment that evening was to put something in his car. Witnesses had a different story.
In the days following the murder, Brad instructed the staff at his office not to disclose information about his whereabouts to the police. He also expressed concerns that Cheryl's mother posed some sort of threat to him and the children. Brad arranged for the children to be moved out of state. He spoke disdainfully of Cheryl after the murder, suggesting that she had probably been killed by someone she had picked up in a bar. Brad told his girlfriend that Cheryl had been nasty to the children and that they would not miss her. Several days after the murder, his girlfriend observed a large bruise on Brad's left arm. He said that he got the bruise on the day of the murder when playing at a park with the children.
It appeared the Brad was going to get away with the murder until Cheryl Keeton's estate filed a civil suit for damages against Brad in 1991. A criminal trial followed in 1993, in which Brad chose to represent himself. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life for the murder of Cheryl Keeton. He is currently serving his sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary. In 2002, he was granted a new murder trial by the Oregon Court of Appeals after his objection to Cheryl's mother's testimony who told jurors about a phone call from Cheryl just before she went to meet Brad on the night of her death. She described the fear in her daughter's voice. Brad claimed that that testimony was hearsay. In February 2005, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed the Appeals Court ruling.
In March 2004, he requested a pardon from the governor based the fact that Author Ann Rule wrote a book about the case. He asked the governor to "grant him a pardon and approve his immediate release because he was "convicted solely on hearsay" and was "tarred by a best selling book and television movie about his case." The governor denied his request for a pardon.
He is now a very overweight old man who is growing rapidly bald. He is no longer the smooth "ladies' man". However, his arrogance continues undiminished, and he continues to file lawsuits and appeals.
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