After pharmacy school, 25-year-old Justin Cunningham took a job with K-Mart Pharmacy in western Nebraska and was again back at the home of Steve and Sherry Jobman, a rodeo family who own an arena in Bayard.
He shot up the ranks in his new field and became a district manager for K-Mart pharmacies with a territory that covered up to 26 stores in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, Montana, and occasionally New Mexico and Idaho. He traveled for days at a time, but when he wasn’t on the road, he was working at the Jobmans’ kitchen table.
“He sat at my kitchen table across from me, and we tried to solve the problems of the world,” Sherry Jobman said. “Over time, of course, he became part of our family. He was loved — and he was a unique character. He could argue. He would argue just to explore another answer even if he didn’t agree with it. He was an incredibly intelligent person.”
While living in western Nebraska, Justin, his brother Dalton and some friends went to a concert in Kearney. There, he met a Kansas nurse named Abby Kijowski.
“He told me proudly that he was a doctor,” Abby said. “He got a smirk on his face, and I said ‘What kind of doctor?’ He told me he was a pharmacist, and I said, ‘I’m a nurse.’ And then he just said, ‘So nothing I’m going to say right now is going to impress you?’ and I told him, ‘Nope.’
But I guess he did impress me.”
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Abby and Justin became a couple, and eventually Justin bought a place about 10 miles from the Jobmans in Bayard. He bought a dog, too — a Corgi he called Maizy.
“He built her a fenced-in yard at their place with the help of his dad and Abby’s dad,” said Justin’s mother, Suzanne Cunningham. “He loved her. She went everywhere with him. He loved that little dog. He loved her like she was a child — it was crazy.”
There in western Nebraska, Justin Cunningham was building the cowboy life he dreamed of.
“If he could have roped every day, that was his dream,” Abby said. “He joked that I should go back to nurse anesthetist school so he could be a stay-at-home dad someday. He was joking, but there was a hint of seriousness there. That was his passion for sure. He did pharmacy — he had to make a living to support his roping.”
Cunningham’s hard work in the practice pen was paying off, too. He won a World Series of Team Roping qualifier in Cheyenne, Wyo., worth $6,290.
On Sept. 16, 2017, he was his brother Dalton’s best man at his wedding. He was just beaming with pride. He choked up while giving the best man speech at the reception, totally out of character for him.
Dalton and his wife, Shaunna, were Justin’s biggest fans in the roping pen, too, and went to watch him in 2016 and 2017 when he competed in Las Vegas at the World Series of Team Roping Finale.
“I could tell he was happy to have us out there,” Dalton Cunningham said.
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Abby Kijowski almost always went with Justin to rodeos, especially World Series of Team Roping qualifiers in Loveland. It was one of their favorite trips, given the fun bar and restaurant nearby that they usually went to after the roping.
But she had planned a girls’ weekend with friends in Las Vegas on this particular weekend in February 2018. She spent Saturday, Feb. 10, in Vegas, flying back into Denver on Sunday morning. Before she went to bed Saturday night, she and Justin exchanged a few text messages celebrating his win that day worth $6,840.
“He was so pumped,” Kijowski said. “He knew I was with my friends, but he wanted me to know he won. He joked that maybe I shouldn’t come rope anymore because he always wins big when I’m not there.”
Then Abby went to bed and the next morning got on a plane early to head to Colorado to see Justin.
As the plane landed, she turned on her phone on the runway.
“A lot of our friends and his roping friends were texting me, and they said, ‘Call me right now. It’s an emergency.’ I don’t remember the exact messages, because it was a blur. I started crying right away. I called Spencer (Jobman). And he was hysterically crying.
“He said I needed to call Suzanne, Justin’s mom. And I knew right away it wasn’t good. I thought maybe a roping accident. That to me made more sense. His mom couldn’t even talk to me. His brother had to get on the phone. He said they found Justin and Maizy. And I didn’t believe him, and I hung up on him. And I started screaming that Justin and Maizy were dead,” Abby said.
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When Lance Allen, owner of Mountain States Cattle Co., and fellow Nebraska roper Tucker White flung open the door, they found Cunningham lying just inside on the trailer floor. They shook him, trying in vain to wake him up.
But it was too late.
The rest of the day was a blur of phone calls, tears and talking to God, with Cunningham’s family making the agonizing cross-state drive to Loveland to say goodbye to their son.
Somewhere in that whirl of a nightmarish day, though, the family received word that Maizy, Justin’s dog, wasn’t really gone. A local vet and roper — Wade Shoemaker — had followed Allen out to Cunningham’s trailer and noticed some movement in the dog. When EMTs arrived, Shoemaker rushed to their ambulance, found an oxygen mask and began trying to revive her.
Against all odds, Maizy pulled through.
“At that point, that was the only light in our darkness we had right then,” Suzanne Cunningham said. “I told them to do what they needed to do, and they did. We visited her on Monday morning and Tuesday, and they kept calling her their miracle. That was not supposed to happen. Her kidney and liver function were compromised. She was in shock. But right now, she’s doing really well.”
“It was such a miracle that she survived. Everyone was very invested in her and her case,” Kijowski added about the dog who now never leaves her side.
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Spencer Jobman loaded Cunningham’s horses into the trailer and mustered the courage to drive his best buddy’s pickup back home to Nebraska. Steve Jobman ended up buying one of his horses and the others are at the Cunninghams’ place.
Cunningham was the Jobmans’ second friend to die in his living quarters trailer from carbon monoxide poisoning. He’d roped for the last few years at the memorial roping the Jobmans hosted in their indoor arena for Jeff Fleming, their former hired man who died 10 years earlier sleeping in his trailer in the parking lot of a hospital the night after the birth of his second child.
“Never before had Justin ever left that (generator) in the back of his trailer,” Sherry Jobman said. “I would always say to the boys to make sure it was outside, and Justin always had it outside. It was very unusual he didn’t this time. It’s so hard for me, because Justin was so smart. It was probably the only mistake he ever made in his life.”
Justin’s trailer did not have a carbon monoxide detector, and, on that night in Loveland, when the temperature got down to negative 3 degrees, Cunningham probably thought he’d be OK leaving the windows and vents open in the horse compartment, with the generator moved toward the back of the trailer.
But that is never OK, Loveland, Colo., Fire Lt. Jeremy Ardent said.
“The minute you start a generator like that without having it vented, you’re immediately at risk,” Ardent said. “It starts to build up the minute you turn the generator on. CO is heavier than air, so it can settle into places.”
In the past five years, the Loveland Fire Department has responded to 179 CO-related incidents, Ardent said. Most were as a result of small engines operated in enclosed spaces, he said.
Annually, an average of 430 Americans die from unintentional, non-fire-related CO poisoning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
“Justin would want people to hear about what happened, and learn from it,” said his brother, Dalton. “He’d want people to be aware of their generators and get carbon monoxide detectors.”
A good CO detector should last 10 years, Ardent said, but batteries should be changed twice a year. Change the batteries when you change your clocks for the time change in the spring and fall, Ardent recommended.
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“We’ll host the Justin Cunningham Memorial Roping every year in our indoor arena,” Sherry Jobman said. “We will give saddles, and we will give CO detectors to every person who places at our roping. We’ll have battery backups, too. It never should have happened. I will never walk by a trailer with a generator running in the back of the trailer — I will say, ‘Get up and get that unloaded.’ I will bang on the doors. We have to be aware of people parking too close to us, too.
Every year somebody pulls in too close and their generator is running, and it will set off my CO detector on my truck. We have to park farther apart so everyone has room to run their generators.”
“If we have one thing to push out there, it is to watch out for your friends and family,” Gail Cunningham said. “Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you know is right. If you know someone’s windows are down and your generator is close, make sure they’re aware and do your best to never park close. Make sure they have a detector. We can’t change the past, but we can affect the future.”