New Details in Death of Ex-Phoenix Cop's Daughter: Severe Neglect, Abuse Alleged

Sylvia Norwood, right, mother of the deceased girl, Sanaa Cunningham, following a hearing for Germayne Cunningham in January.
Sylvia Norwood, right, mother of the deceased girl, Sanaa Cunningham, following a hearing for Germayne Cunningham in January. Sean Holstege
Secrecy shrouds the case of a former Phoenix cop who was never arrested or jailed after being charged with killing his mentally ill young daughter, even as prosecutors mulled seeking the death penalty.

Still, prosecutors trickled out some new details in a filing last week, depicting the horror of 7-year-old Sanaa Cunningham’s final months alive, in which she was ordered to pick up dog feces by hand while wearing only a diaper.

Ex-cop and prison guard Germayne Cunningham, 38, along with his 42-year-old Australian wife, Lisa, were charged with murder, plus felony child abuse and neglect in Sanaa’s death in February 2017. Even though both were late or absent to a routine hearing to enter not-guilty pleas, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge allowed them free on bond.

Last week’s disclosure remains the clearest glimpse at what prosecutors think happened in the Cunninghams' south Phoenix home. It undercuts the couple’s claims that they only tried to help the little girl, and alleges that, rather than seek medical help for a serious of rare and series maladies, they ignored medical advice.

Prosecutors had alleged the couple tied up Sanaa with plastic twisty ties, left her to sleep outside, and confined to a laundry room, garage, or patio, often wearing diapers or a makeshift straitjacket.

The autopsy noted scars on at least 60 locations on Sanaa’s body, about more than 100 cuts and bruises. She had multiple ulcers and abscesses on her nose, hands, legs and feet and died of septic shock. Pathologists could not conclude if the festering wounds, or inadequate treatment of them, directly caused Sanaa’s early death.

The autopsy states the manner of death was "undetermined" and how the injuries occurred "unknown." It was the last official report officials released, and the only one that was more than a summary.

Since that bizarre arraignment in January, and despite the shocking nature of the accusations, the case has plodded along, far from the spotlight. That’s largely due to a string of hidden motions and sealed documents and lawyers’ concerted efforts to keep a tight lid on routine records.

It’s also despite prosecutors being granted a third extension to consider filing — or not — their plans to seek the death penalty for the Cunninghams.

The details of Sanaa’s final months gave prosecutors plenty to ponder. They said as much in the most recent filing last week to counter an effort to start the whole case from scratch.

Defense attorneys wanted to send the case back to a new grand jury to get a second opinion as to whether there was enough evidence to prosecute. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office laid out the clearest reasons yet released to the public as to why the trial should proceed.

Germayne Cunningham had always insisted his daughter suffered a series of rare and severely disabling mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, pica, mood disorders, and conditions that led her to urinate and defecate uncontrollably.

Pathologists confirmed this. It took them five pages to summarize Sanaa’s “complicated medical history.” She had a history of scratching, biting, and hitting herself. She would binge and purge food. Sometimes she would eat paper or the hair from her dolls.

Initially, Goodyear cops took Cunningham at his word when he told them he was scrambling to get adequate treatment and that what child welfare officers might consider abuse were steps he took to stop Sanaa hurting herself.

But prosecutors painted a more damning new portrait last week in court documents.

In them, they said Sanaa’s condition deteriorated after the Cunninghams began home-schooling her in April 2016. Before that she was "a verbal, normal child." But then she steadily stopped speaking.

Cunningham’s claims that his little girl was prone to self-harm "are unverifiable," prosecutors said, because the couple kept her away from others.

That summer, neighbors notice Sanaa in the backyard raking rocks or picking up dog feces with her bare hands, clad only in a diaper. That is the first indication in a public record of such discipline.

In fall 2016, the filing alleges, authorities learned the Cunninghams used police-issued RIPP restraints, zip-ties, and handcuffs to restrain Sanaa.

In December, her parents locked her outside on the patio in a diaper and text messages showed it was punishment for making a mess, prosecutors claimed.

That same month, on December 14, 2016, a video was taken. It showed a “festering, uncovered, and untreated wound” on Sanaa’s foot

Later, the autopsy described a 1-inch open cut filled with pus, which appeared “untreated and extending all the way to the bones." Germayne Cunningham told authorities he had treated it with Neosporin and gauze.

His attorneys said prosecutors lied to the original grand jury by telling panelists the couple had never treated the wound. They had, defense lawyers argued, and to ignore the fact kept exculpatory evidence from the grand jury.

Prosecutors said in their response motion there was no way to prove the Cunningham’s claims, and even if they could, it didn’t matter. They reasoned the wound was severe enough it “could have contributed” to Sanaa’s death, and “that only putting Neosporin and gauze on a festering, possibly fatal wound is not treatment.”

Also in December 2016, Sanaa was restrained in the garage “spread-eagle” near the water cooler, using zip-ties. When she got loose one time, she banged her head on the floor so hard, people in the house heard it, prosecutors alleged last week.

The Cunninghams retrofitted their laundry room to confine Sanaa there. That’s where they put the girl in an oversize shirt and tied the sleeves behind her back, like a straitjacket.

Between the time the Cunninghams kept Sanaa indoors for home-schooling until a month before her death, the parents took the sick girl to several doctors. This began with a pediatrician, dietitian and behavior specialist. According to prosecutors, the couple never followed up on visits and instead sought help from psychiatrists.

“They would find a doctor, describe the victim’s behavior (as reported only by them), and then fail to follow up on the doctor’s advice when it was not what they wanted,” prosecutors said.

One psychiatrist evaluated Sanaa alone for eight hours, but did not see evidence of the reported behaviors. Still, the psychiatrist diagnosed her with schizophrenia, which is extremely rare in children before they reach puberty.

The psychiatrist recommended full-time in-patient care, but the Cunninghams sought a second opinion and got a prescription for Risperdal, a strong anti-psychotic. The parents gave Sanaa the drug, but discontinued it “abruptly,” contrary to doctors’ and pharmacists’ instructions.

By February 7, 2017, Germayne and Lisa Cunningham noticed Sanaa was “catatonic, constantly shaking, drooling, and unable to eat or drink normally.”

“Instead of seeking immediate medical help, the defendants instead took cellphone videos of the victim,” prosecutors alleged last week, adding the couple communicated by text with doctors, “but opted to wait until the visible injuries on her arms and legs could heal.”

Four days later on February 11, 2017, Sanaa had turned cold — so cold the thermometer couldn’t get a reading. Lisa Cunningham put the girl in a portable “pack-n-play” crib and surrounded her with warm water bottles.

She waited until morning to text Germayne Cunningham, and together they took Sanaa to urgent care. She died later that day at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

None of that has been released formally until now.

Although Sanaa died in February, it wasn’t until December 2017, exactly 10 months later, that the Arizona Department of Child Safety issued a statement. The statement came two days before DCS published findings of a suspected child abuse death on its website and 11 days after the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office charged the Cunninghams with 11 felonies.

In its statement, DCS noted it had opened four separate investigations.

The first began in March 4, 2016, in response to an allegation of neglect. The DCS investigator interviewed Sanaa and her sibling. Both denied maltreatment. The case was closed and stamped “unsubstantiated.”

On October 27, 2016, DCS launched a second probe of the family. This was based on a report of possible sex abuse. Nobody was named as a suspect. DCS found the claim unsubstantiated and kept the file open. The family refused an offer for a referral to family support services. Pathologists found no evidence of sexual assault when they later completed their autopsy of Sanaa’s body.

On December 21, 2016, DCS opened its third investigation, following a report of neglect and abuse at the hands of her parents. They provided evidence they were seeking treatment for Sanaa’s maladies. But the case was discontinued when the girl died. “The allegations have been proposed for substantiation,” DCS said.

“In each instance that DCS investigated, there was not sufficient evidence to legally justify removing Sanaa from her home or to mandate court ordered services. Sanaa had an extensive documented history of multiple psychiatric and behavioral health issues and was under the care of various medical professionals for treatment,” DCS said.

The fourth case was opened when she died on February 12, 2017.

That remains, 16 months after Sanaa died and six months after her parents were indicted, the extent of what DCS has released. Public records requests for the investigation files have not been answered.

That’s part of a pattern in this case of keeping secret commonplace records.

Prosecutors indicted the Cunninghams on December 1, 2017. The probable cause statement, the document used to justify jailing a suspect, was sealed and never unsealed. This is a routine document, typically released within hours of an arrest.

In February, officials with the Goodyear Police Department, which conducted the criminal investigation into Sanaa’s death, told Phoenix New Times they were ready to release about a third of the 2,500 pages of the report, in response to a public records request. Then they said nothing could be released.

That’s because on Valentine’s Day, February 14, prosecutors and defense attorney’s filed a sealed emergency motion asking the Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Kemp to clamp down on pubic releases. Specifically, it barred Goodyear PD, DCS, and the two legal teams “from disseminating any and all materials related to the criminal investigation” of the case.

Judge Kemp duly obliged the next day.

Usually some records are released. Even in Phoenix’s two high-profile serial shooter cases, some of the police reports and autopsies have been released.

In another irregularity in this case: Prosecutors never sought an arrest warrant.

The autopsy never concluded homicide was the manner of death. Pathologists ruled that the cause was sepsis related to complications from bronchitis and pneumonia and manner “inconclusive.”

When Germayne Cunningham arrived late and Lisa Cunningham not at all to their arraignment in January, Kemp ordered the father free on bond and the mother to return to court. Often, judges issue bench warrants for arrests in less serious cases.

And so, away from the spotlight, the case slowly moves on. Prosecutors are seeking time to consider going for the death penalty, and winning extensions. They now have until September 5 to declare their intent. And defense attorneys keep asking and getting more time to convince the judge to send the case back for another grand jury review.
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Sean Holstege is a freelance reporter with a 30-year career in print news. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege