Benjamin Cunningham was a loving father of three children, a man who went to church, sang in the choir and encouraged his kids to get a higher education and make something great of themselves.
Michael Cunningham, Ben’s only son, would regular visit his father at the 400 West Morisey Blvd. home in Clinton where Ben had been staying with his brother Jerry since their mother passed in 2013. He was visiting again on Wednesday evening — “making my usual rounds,” he said — when his 56-year-old father was suddenly struck down by a gunshot while in his front yard.
“I was here all of 10 minutes,” said Michael. “He was getting dressed for church. We chatted for a while and then went outside.”
Another man who regularly mowed the lawn was at the house at the time and needed gas for the mower, so Michael went under the carport to retrieve some, his vision of the yard concealed for a moment. He saw the man trying to crank up the mower, but did not see his father. Simultaneously, a loud noise rang out.
“I came around the corner and saw my dad laying there,” he said. “He was laying by the tree and I knew something was wrong. I realized it must have been a gunshot. I called 911 and started pumping his chest. He took a deep breath and I told him the ambulance was coming.”
It was approximately 7:15 p.m. Wednesday when police and EMS responded.
As emergency responders were en route, Michael talked with his dad, whose blood soaked the collar of the crisp shirt he had just donned moments earlier to go to Saint Pauls Church of Christ. Police arrived in minutes, followed by EMS personnel minutes after that. They tried to revive him for nearly half an hour, possibly longer, before Ben was pronounced dead, his son said.
“It all happened so quick,” Michael said Thursday, one of many family members gathered at the West Morisey Boulevard home throughout the day. “I saw him take his last breath.”
Clinton Police have urged the public for any assistance they can provide in apprehending the suspect responsible for Ben’s death. Working closely with agents from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, police are conducting inquiries into the homicide and are attempting to locate a burgundy vehicle seen at the residence at the time Cunningham was shot.
The vehicle suddenly pulled out and drove off from the Stetson Street-side driveway, Michael spotting it for a split second.
“Every day when I would get off from work I would come here and we would sit and watch TV and talk about life,” Michael said, standing in nearly the exact spot he was less than a day earlier when he heard the gunshot that claimed his father. “He was a good guy. He encouraged his kids to get their education, he cooked for the church and he sang in the male choir. I think if (the shooting) hadn’t happened he would have tried to get me to go to church.”
Michael doesn’t know who would do this to his father, who he said was a friendly person. He doesn’t know of anyone who had any issues with him and wants the police to do all they can to find the man who took his life. Similar sentiments have been shared on social media since news trickled in Wednesday evening of the homicide.
The outpouring the Cunningham family has received in a short time has been overwhelming, Michael said. His phone has been inundated with messages, his Facebook flooded with posts, all offering condolences on his family’s sudden loss. It means a lot, he said.
As often as Ben could, he would talk to his children about the importance of gaining knowledge and utilizing it to improve their lives and others. His two older children took that to heart, with Michael earning a business degree from N.C. Central University in 2011 and Michael’s sister Deidra earning her master’s at NCCU. Their younger sister Dimond is in middle school.
He would cook dinner or take the kids to The Hungry Farmer and have discussions with them. Many of those talks were between father and son, including the Wednesday night Ben’s life was cut short.
“He was a really active parent,” Michael attested. “He always encouraged me to go to church, stay out of trouble and make something great out of myself.”
Michael said he takes solace in the fact that he was able to share a last moment with his dad.
“I was shaken up all night. I broke down last night and again this morning,” he conceded. “At least we had a good conversation and I told him I loved him.”
Anyone with information about the vehicle or Cunningham’s death is urged to call the Clinton Police Department at 910-592-3105 or the CPD TIP Line at 910-590-3009. Citizens can also anonymously text information by sending it to 847411 and texting “tipcpd” followed by the information or send photos and other information through the “tipcpd” app for Apple and Android devices.
Reach staff writer Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.