More details of Hartless killing emerge in bond hearing

Published 3:36 am Friday, October 20, 2023

Buckingham County resident Joseph Frank Cunningham will have to stay in jail until his January hearing. His daughter and her boyfriend, on the other hand, get to be free, at least temporarily. Over a two-day period last week, an Amherst County judge held bond hearings in the case, as the trio face charges connected with the death of 49-year-old Kevin D. Hartless. 

During a Monday, Oct. 16 hearing, Amherst County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Bennett granted a $15,000 secured bond for Joseph’s daughter, 19-year-old Summer Brooke Cunningham. Her boyfriend, former Longwood University police officer David Chester Christian, 33, was granted a $25,000 secured bond during a hearing one day later. Joseph Cunningham’s request for bond, meanwhile, was denied. 

The Hartless case as presented

What we also heard during that Tuesday hearing were more details about events leading up to the death of Hartless. Back on Thursday, Jan. 19, Amherst County sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call coming from the Alhambra Road area. Dispatchers were told there was a man in the George Washington National Forest suffering from a gunshot wound. Deputies arrived to find Hartless dead, arresting Joseph Cunningham at the scene. His daughter and Christian were arrested and charged in connection with the crime in September. 

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During the Oct. 17 hearing, Amherst County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lyle Carver argued that the situation was based on a case of adultery. Joseph Cunningham, Carver alleged, wanted to prove his wife was having an affair with Hartless. Joseph wanted evidence to help in his divorce and the custody battle for their younger child that would follow. 

Carver said Summer and her boyfriend agreed to help get this evidence. They spotted Cunningham’s wife and Hartless at a store in Nelson County and started following them, trailing all the way to the national forest. At that point, Carver argued, Christian blocked Hartless in with his vehicle, with a plan to take a picture of the two together. 

“He was trapped and couldn’t escape,” Carver claimed of Hartless. 

At that point, a fight broke out between Hartless and Joseph Cunningham. Ronnie West, the attorney for Joseph Cunningham, told the court that during the fight, Hartless grabbed his gun and fired it toward Joseph. Joseph, in turn, grabbed Christian’s gun from the truck and shot back, killing Hartless, West said, adding a jury will decide if that was self-defense. The prosecution, meanwhile, argues it was no accident. Carver pointed out that he has a recording of Joseph threatening to kill Hartless, made prior to the day of the killing. 

‘A bad situation’ 

West argued there had been threats issued by both sides. Hartless had previously worked with Joseph Cunningham and the men had argued over the affair. He acknowledged it was stupid for his client and the other two defendants to follow Hartless. However, West claimed they hadn’t gone out there looking to kill anyone. 

“Bad judgment led to a bad situation,” West argued.  

Joseph Cunningham currently faces one count each of first degree murder, felony homicide, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, two counts of abduction and one count of conspiracy to commit abduction. In light of the charges, the situation surrounding Hartless’s death and the fact Joseph was out on probation from a domestic violence charge at the time of the killing, the older Cunningham’s request for bond was denied. 

As for the other two defendants, their respective lawyers argued for their innocence. Carver, however, pointed out that it was Christian’s gun used in the killing of Hartless. It was Christian who blocked Hartless in, preventing him and Joseph’s wife from escaping the scene. Carver also argued that as a former police officer, Christian should have realized this was a volatile situation and steered clear. In making a decision, Bennett said it was clear this plan to get pictures of Hartless and Joseph’s wife together “went completely off the rails”.

However, he didn’t see enough to reject the bond request for Christian or Summer Cunningham. While granting Christian’s bond, Bennett did include some requirements, however. Christian has a 7 p.m. curfew, with the exception of work. He is also ordered to maintain his employment and possess no firearms. Summer Cunningham was the only one of the three to get bond with no conditions. Her attorney, Chuck Felmlee, pointed out his client was the one to call in and report the incident to police. 

What happens next in Hartless case? 

It’ll be a few months before this case is back before the judge. A preliminary hearing for all three co-defendants is currently set for Jan. 18, 2024 in Amherst General District Court.