DENVER — Three years later, Julie Stephens can hardly hold back her tears talking about the life and death of her good friend and former colleague T.J. Cunningham.
"It's still so raw, it's still raw to so many of us," Stephens said. "When the news hit Hinkley High School that he had been shot, we couldn't even breathe. It's like the heartbeat of the school just stopped.".
In February 2019, Cunningham was murdered as a result of an ongoing dispute over a parking spot with a man who lived in his Aurora neighborhood.
According to prosecutors, the two men agreed to settle the dispute in the parking lot of nearby Eaglecrest High School, where Cunningham was then shot and killed. On Thursday, Marcus Johnson was found guilty of second-degree murder.
"It's justice. It's justice for T.J. Cunningham," Stephens said. "I'm hoping that it brings some peace and closure to T.J.'s family and gives them an opportunity to heal."
The 46-year-old Cunningham was a married father of five children. He was a Colorado native and a star football player at the University of Colorado who played one year in the NFL. When his playing days were over, he came back to Colorado and became an educator. First, a special education teacher and later an assistant principal at Hinkley High School, where he worked for the last three years of his life with Julie Stephens.
"He was just there for everyone," Stephens said. "He just made you feel better about yourself, just spending a few minutes with him."
Stephens described Cunningham as kind, funny and compassionate. A man, she said, with a magnetic personality who was driven to improve the lives of young people.
"He was a champion, he was always looking at the strength of kids and always looking at their potential," Stephens said.
According to Stephens, Cunningham's death -- and especially the violent way he died -- shook the Hinkley High School community at the time, and has left her shaken to this day.
"It's still really hard to process and really fathom," Stephens said. "He left a void in the community that will never be filled."
Marcus Johnson, the man convicted of killing Cunningham, will be sentenced on December 2. He faces up to 48 years in prison.
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