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Palm Desert man who broke into neighbor’s home convicted

Standoff underway in the 74-400 block of Santolina Drive in Palm Desert (8/16/22)
Standoff underway in the 74-400 block of Santolina Drive in Palm Desert (8/16/22)

A 39-year-old man who broke into his neighbor's home in Palm Desert was convicted today of felony and misdemeanor charges related to the incident.  

Stephen Eric Cunningham of Palm Desert was convicted of one felony count each of possession of an assault weapon and possession of a firearm as well as one misdemeanor count each of possessing controlled substances and violating a court order, according to court records.

He is set to be sentenced Dec. 15 at the Larson Justice Center in Indio   

Jurors began deliberating in the trial Wednesday and reached the guilty verdicts by Thursday.

Cunningham burst into his neighbor's residence shortly after 5 a.m. Aug. 16, 2022, in the 74-400 block of Santolina Drive, according to the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

During opening statements, Deputy District Attorney Kelsey Waters told jurors that while the defendant's neighbors, the Smiths, were in their home, they were startled awake by a loud noise.

Mrs. Smith, who initially thought it was her husband, said she went to check the noise and saw a dark figure in the darkness, which was Cunningham.   

The defendant was outside of their door saying something along the lines of "Bring her out now or ... I'm going to kick my foot through the door,'' Waters said. After he did, he was confronted by Mrs. Smith, who asked for him to leave, which he eventually did.

He fled his neighbor's home and into his own next door, where he barricaded himself inside as law enforcement, including a SWAT team, surrounded his home, waiting for him to come out, according to Waters.   

Cunnningham eventually surrendered and was arrested. At the conclusion of a search of his home, firearms and drugs were found inside.   

Prior to the break-in, the Smiths experienced multiple isolated incidents with the defendant, which prompted them to file a restraining order against the defendant in 2020, Waters said.

Cunningham's defense attorney Jeffery Economides then told jurors that his client was going through a tough time when the random incidents occurred with his neighbors, and that the restraining order was filed against him because they speculated he had issues with substance abuse.

A few of the incidents included him going to knock on their door late at night asking about a softball thrown over the backyard; random visits from sheriff's deputies and Child Protective Services, and the defendant lingering in their front yard, Economides said, adding that nothing of consequence happened within a year and a half of the court order being served to him.   

Economides also said that his client was going through a rough patch during that time, because his brother died and Cunningham started to have issues with substance abuse.

When he kicked the front door in, Cunningham thought he heard crying from inside the home and entered with the intention to help someone, but when he encountered Mrs. Smith, "It was almost sobering,'' and he left immediately, Economides said.  

Cunningham was booked into the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning, where he remains held without bail.

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Article Topic Follows: Crime

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