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Traci Cunningham's trip to car for beef jerky allegedly ends with her mom's murder

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This week, Aurora's Traci Cunningham was formally charged with murder in the death of her adoptive mother, Penelope, in Eagle County. But while there seems little doubt that she pulled the trigger, the circumstances of the case practically guarantee an unusual defense.

According to her arrest affidavit, Traci says she can't remember firing the fatal shot -- but she does recall stumbling upon a gun while searching for some beef jerky.

The Vail Daily, which has done a lot of the best coverage on this case, notes that Penelope Cunningham was a former nun turned elementary school social studies teacher at Maxwell Elementary School.

An excerpt from her Maxwell bio shared by CBS4 reads, "I am here to give my students the best fourth grade education possible. All they have to do is pay attention, participate and do their best. No lazy brains allowed!"

The 28-year-old Traci was adopted by Penelope fourteen years ago, when she was in her middle teens.

Penelope was sixty when she died. Prior to that, she and Traci lived together in Aurora.

As for the crime itself, an arrest affidavit accessed by the Daily maintains that the pair were en route to Grand Junction over the Thanksgiving break for a hiking-and-photo-taking trip. But on November 28, as they headed up Gypsum Creek Road, near the town of Gypsum in Eagle County, an argument took place that was apparently serious enough for Penelope to get out of their car and start walking.

Here's a look at the area, in a screen capture from 7News.

The affidavit's narrative maintains that Traci got out of the vehicle, too, then headed back to it in search of some beef jerky. But instead of finding a snack, she reportedly "encountered" a Springfield XDM 9-millimeter handgun.

The gun had been packed by Penelope, Traci told investigators.

At that point, Traci allegedly picked up the gun, but as she began walking up the road, she's quoted as saying that "everything goes black" -- and when the darkness lifted, she saw Penelope on the ground, mortally wounded.

She'd been shot five times in various parts of her body, including her back.

Continue for more about the death of Penelope Cunningham, including additional photos and a video. Traci's reaction? She said she checked her mom's pulse and then her cell phone, which wasn't getting a signal in the remote area, then ran back to the car and drove back to Aurora, all the while pretending that what had happened was "a bad dream."

The body was discovered the following morning, and it didn't take long for authorities to zero in on Traci as the most likely suspect. She wasn't around at her home in Aurora, but law enforcers who searched the place did locate some ammo and an empty gun case. After that, they pinged Traci's cell phone, which led them to a bagel shop in Lakewood, where representatives of that town's police department brought her in for questioning. Her arrest for the slaying followed shortly thereafter.

At this writing, Traci is in the Eagle County Jail, with a $1 million bond likely to keep her there for the long haul. The charges she faces include two crime of violence counts, evidence tampering, and both first-degree murder and first-degree murder with malice, both of which call for a mandatory life sentence, but could also be eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors haven't decided about the latter course yet.

Look below to see a larger version of Traci's mug shot, followed by a CBS4 report from shortly after the arrest.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Mile High Murder archive circa September: "Photos: Isabella Guzman stabbed mom 79 times, affidavit says."

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