Storm of horror: Remembering the 1985 Curry bush ax slayings on the eve of the trial

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 17, 2011 

  • Aug. 29, 1985, was the Thursday before Labor Day weekend. Here’s what was happening that day in Columbus and the world: Weather: Hurricane Elena had just whipped through the Florida Keys and crossed into the Gulf of Mexico. Parts of the panhandle were being evacuated. Folks planning one last summer trip to the beach worrIedly tried to track the storm, then having no Internet to check for instant updates, no Weather Channel to switch to. Television: The TV schedule in that day’s newspaper listed only eight channels, plus HBO, which that night was to show the movie “Fame.” “Magnum P.I.” would be on CBS; “Little House on the Prairie” on ABC. Movies: Those playing in Columbus included “Silverado,” “Rambo: First Blood, Part II,” “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.” Music: The No. 1 pop song was “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News, having just unseated “Shout” by Tears For Fears. Automobiles: Among the top-selling cars were the Ford Escort, Chevrolet Cavalier, and Chevrolet Celebrity. Technology: In Columbus, many workers — including police officers — still used typewriters. About the only computers people had at work then were terminals networked to a mainframe. The two-way radio was standard for wireless communication, as hardly anyone here had a cell phone. National news: President Ronald Reagan had just started his second term. World news: 19 died as rioters in South Africa demanded Nelson Mandela’s freedom.
  • Michael Curry goes on trial for murder Monday in Muscogee Superior Court, accused of killing his eight months’ pregnant wife Ann, 24, daughter Erika, 4, and son Ryan, 20 months, with a bush ax, a tool with a broad, curved blade to clear heavy brush. The gruesome Aug. 29, 1985, crime shocked Columbus. In May 2009, Curry was arrested by cold-case investigators. With a gag order on the case, this two-part report is based on a March 1986 inquest transcript and follow-up news reports.

A storm was coming when Paul Edward Grable Jr. got home from work about 5:30 p.m. Aug. 29, 1985, the Thursday before Labor Day weekend.

As he headed into his parents’ 5428 Rockhurst Drive house, he saw Michael Curry coming home across the street.

Grable, 19, worked at Total Systems Services, later to become TSYS. Still in his work slacks, he kicked off his shoes and sat down to watch TV, his mother, Barbara, cooking dinner in the kitchen.

Someone banged on the door. Grable saw Curry through the peephole, and told his mother as she came from the kitchen. His mother opened the door. Curry leaned against the storm door, looking out of breath. As Grable opened it, Curry collapsed.

Grable picked him up, arms around Curry’s chest, felt a rapid heartbeat and told his mother to call an ambulance; Curry could be having a heart attack. His mother went to the phone.

He was pulling Curry inside when Curry said faintly, “They killed my wife and kids.”

Grable set Curry down and went to tell his mom to call the police. The 911 call came in at 5:34 p.m.

When Grable came back, Curry was clutching the arms of a chair, rocking violently. He let out an angry scream. When Grable tried to calm him, Curry leapt up, grabbed Grable and threw him against the open front door, yelling, “They killed my wife and kids!” The two hit the door so hard the knob punctured the wall behind it.

“Look, I’m trying to help you!” Grable said, pushing Curry back to the chair. Curry sat again.

On the scene

The first officer to arrive was Bobby McLendon, responding to a call coded 9400, meaning its exact nature was unknown.

When he got there at 5:38 p.m., Mrs. Grable ran out and told him a man in her house claimed his family was dead. In the Grables’ living room he found her son with Curry. He asked Curry’s name. Curry didn’t respond. He asked again. “Mike Curry,” Curry said.

“Mike, what is wrong?” McLendon asked. Again, silence. Again the officer repeated the question. “I came home and found my family dead,” Curry said as a second officer, Wiley Spear, came in.

Curry jumped from the chair screaming, cursing, kicking; McLendon and Spear wrestled him to the floor and handcuffed him. McLendon called for an ambulance, and asked which house was Curry’s. Mrs. Grable pointed it out.

As McLendon started toward 5433 Rockhurst Drive, an ambulance arrived. Medics James Waites and Jim Bryant looked in on Curry, and then followed McLendon.

Inside the Curry home

McLendon found Curry’s front door open, the storm door unlocked. He knocked, walked in through the front living room toward the rear den, and saw a bloody bush ax on the den floor.

In the den he looked to a fireplace and on the floor in front of it saw a woman on her back, dead, a deep gash across her throat.

To his left, on the floor in front of a couch, lay a baby, one side of his head cut open, one tiny fist dug into the carpet, a death grip.

Off the den was the kitchen, where a far door led to the driveway on the home’s south side. McLendon saw a little girl, her head split open, pieces of her jaw on the bloody floor.

The medics checked each for a pulse, to confirm the obvious.

McLendon got on the radio, calling for backup, for ranking officers to take charge, ID units to collect evidence. He walked through the bedrooms on the home’s north side, looking for more bodies. Finding none, he, Waites and Bryant walked back outside.

The officers took Curry, still handcuffed, and put him in the back of a patrol car, where he lay silent.

Collecting evidence

Detective Ricky Boren was on Miller Road when he heard McLendon’s call. He headed for Rockhurst Drive, arriving at 5:55 p.m.

Like the others, he first noticed the bush ax as he walked in, its wooden handle about 4 feet long, the hooked and pointed steel blade almost 20 inches long. He saw the blood on it.

He saw that the baby was lying on his left side, clutching the carpet with his right hand. He saw the woman and the little girl.

He walked back out and asked who the patrol officers had in their car. He told them to take Curry downtown to be interviewed.

Boren was on the scene for hours as police collected evidence.

They noticed a window pane, one of 15 in a rear door to the den, broken beside the deadbolt lock. It had been broken from the outside in, the shattered glass falling into a curtain, some pieces landing upright on the carpet, within the sweep of the door. The deadbolt was locked, the key still in it.

Seeing the upright glass in the carpet, detectives decided the rear door was not opened after the glass was broken.

The south side door from the driveway to the kitchen was unlocked. They decided that’s where Ann Curry came in with the kids. Her Ford Escort was in the driveway. A gift she had purchased that morning for Erika to take to a birthday party was still in the car.

Some soap and fingernail polish she had bought for Erika were on the kitchen table beside the girl’s body.

It appeared to some investigators that the mother and children were attacked as soon as they got home. The broken window in the rear door, near an outdoor storage room where Curry kept the bush ax he’d bought a month earlier -- the price tag still on the handle -- seemed a ruse to make it appear an intruder came in that way.

The morgue

Ambulances carried the bodies to the county morgue, where something else witnesses never forgot would happen.

Kilgore decided to try to save Ann Curry’s unborn child.

The coroner was not a doctor. Dr. Joe Webber, the medical examiner, had not yet arrived. Kilgore called Webber’s beeper. Webber pulled over and called Kilgore from a pay phone. Kilgore asked which scalpel to use to cut open the dead woman’s abdomen. Webber told him, rushed back to his car, and sped toward the morgue.

Kilgore extracted the baby Ann Curry had planned to name Tyler. The dead body was perfectly formed -- 19½ inches long and about 5¾ pounds -- but blue from oxygen deprivation.

Webber arrived to finish the autopsy. He saw the slice across Ann’s neck had cut through her neck muscles and severed her carotid artery and her jugular, but not her trachea. He found a 2-inch-long puncture in her left temple.

Erika’s wound was nearly uniform, a groove across the very top of her head conforming to the shape of the curved blade.

Baby Ryan’s ear was cut in half, and the wound in the right side of his head also fit the curve of the blade, Webber said.

The police station

As some of the officers summoned to the crime scene headed back downtown, they plowed into a blinding downpour.

Around 9 p.m., Boren began questioning Curry at police headquarters. The interview would go on for about 2½ hours before Curry was sent to The Medical Center for an examination, to submit samples of his hair, blood, saliva and fingerprints, and surrender his clothes. He finally was released about 2:30 a.m.

Later lab tests found no blood on his clothes, no fingerprints on the bush ax. No fingerprints were on the Rockhurst Drive home’s rear door. No bloody footprints were found inside the house.

Boren noticed scratches on Curry’s arms. Curry told him he got them either moving boxes at the Bradley Center or scuffling with officers at the Grables’.

Curry claimed police badgered him, trying to make him confess. After waiving his right to an attorney, he was interrogated like a criminal, he said: “I was not treated as a victim. I was harassed.”

Officers wouldn’t let him use the restroom, and they wouldn’t call his parents for him, he said.

His father Orval Curry was divorced from his mother Joyce and remarried. It was around 9 p.m. when a friend phoned the father and said something was wrong at Mike’s.

He and his wife got in the car and drove right over, finding the Rockhurst Drive home dark and empty, marked with crime-scene tape. They drove to the Fairview Drive home of Ann’s parents, Jim and Bernice Johnson. The Johnsons were getting ready for bed, also having heard nothing about their daughter and grandchildren. They all got into Orval Curry’s car and headed through the rain to the police station, where they heard the horror story.

Meanwhile Michael Curry was telling Boren where he’d been that day, and Boren was skeptical.

Tracking Thursday’s events

In the days to come, and for years after, Curry’s story would be checked against other witnesses’ accounts of that day to track his movements and those of his wife.

Curry was 27, a maintenance supervisor at The Bradley Center, the hospital and counseling center near Lakebottom Park. He said he left for work that morning at 7:40 a.m., arriving at 7:50 a.m. Bradley Center worker Pam Burt saw Curry in administrator Mike Wolfe’s office about 8 a.m., or a little after. Coworker James McLendon recalled seeing Curry about 8:05 a.m.

Ann Curry, meanwhile, got her kids into the car that morning and headed to her parents’ house at 4416 Fairview Drive, to leave Ryan there while she and Erika shopped for a friend’s birthday gift. Erika was to attend a party that evening at 6, at a Burger King on the Airport Thruway.

Her mother said Ann and Erika went to the Sears store then at the corner of Macon and Rigdon Roads, but got there too early, thinking the store opened at 9:30 a.m. She and Erika returned to the Johnsons’.

After making assignments for his maintenance crew, Curry checked out a Bradley Center vehicle, a blue Chevrolet Impala station wagon, and left about 9:40 a.m. to shop for a fan for the medication room, which had poor ventilation. Though told The Bradley Center lacked adequate credit there, he first went to Sears, he said, just to see what they had.

At 9:50 or 9:55 a.m., Ann again left her mother’s house, also headed to Sears.

Curry said that after checking Sears’ fans, he walked through what was then Columbus Square Mall -- where the Columbus Public Library is today -- to see some renovation work. Then he headed north, to Montgomery Ward, a store then part of Peachtree Mall off the Manchester Expressway.

The Johnson’s house

Back on Fairview Drive, Bernice Johnson played with her grandson, taking him outside, serving him milk, cookies and juice. She wondered whether to give him a nap.

She looked at the clock. It was 10 minutes after noon. “Well,” she told little Ryan, “your mother didn’t say when she’d be back. I don’t know whether to put you down or not.”

She went outside and told her husband she wasn’t sure what to do. “I don’t know where Ann can be,” she said.

Ann arrived minutes later, and stayed long enough to wrap the gift while her mother changed Ryan’s diaper.

Then Ann said she had to hurry home, because her leg hurt. She had been having blood clots, a complication for which she had been hospitalized three weeks earlier. She was injecting a blood thinner.

Her mother pleaded with her to let Ryan stay. Ann would be busy and he was sleepy, and the Johnsons were to keep him the next day anyway. Ann told her not to worry: Mike would be home from work at 5:30; he could watch Ryan while she took Erika to the party.

Sometime between 12:30 and 12:45 p.m., they strapped Ryan into his car seat. Mrs. Johnson told Erika to enjoy the party, and waved as Ann pulled out of the driveway.

She would never see them alive again.

Police later timed the 4-mile drive from the Johnsons’ to the Currys’ home at seven minutes.

Curry’s afternoon

Michael Curry said he couldn’t find the right fan at Montgomery Ward that Thursday, so he headed back to Macon Road, to buy one at Kmart. The cashier would remember him because he was sweating so profusely. She could see sweat had saturated his clothes at the neckline and under his arms.

Curry bought an oscillating fan with a 6-inch diameter. The receipt logged the purchase at 12:55 p.m., but Curry said it took about 15 minutes just to fill out forms for the credit purchase, which a Kmart supervisor had to approve. Then he headed back to the Bradley Center.

Witnesses said he got back shortly after 1 p.m.

Diane DeCasare was the center’s community relations director. That day she had car trouble, and was running late for a 1 p.m. meeting -- about 10 minutes late, she thought. While rushing inside, she saw Curry on the grounds with his boss, Michael Wolfe.

Wolfe recalled that Curry arrived shortly after 1 p.m., and they walked the grounds with a county extension agent to talk about caring for the trees and building a bridge over a creek. They talked for 30 to 45 minutes, he thought.

Pam Burt recalled seeing Curry at 1:15 or 1:30 p.m., again at 2 or 2:30 p.m., and around 4:40 or 4:45 p.m., as he was about to leave work.

Coworker James McLendon saw Curry between 1:30 and 2 p.m, and again at 3 p.m., and at 4:30.

Coworker Ronald Bell also saw Curry between 1:30 and 2 p.m. Around 4:45 p.m., he talked to Curry outside the center for five or 10 minutes. Bell said he left work between 5:05 and 5:15 p.m., and noticed that Curry’s car, a green AMC Hornet borrowed from Ann’s parents, was still there.

Curry told police he left the center at 5:10 p.m. and dropped mail off at the Milgen Road post office on his way home.

Coming home

When Curry got home, he went in the front door because he saw a yellow flyer stuck in the storm door. It was for Energy Savers of Georgia. The distributor said workers put the circular out in the neighborhood from noon to 2 p.m.

First finding his wife and son dead, Curry for no reason he could recall dumped his wife’s pocketbook out on a chair in the den, then walked back in the bedrooms looking for Erika before finding her in the kitchen. Police later found the yellow flyer in Curry’s bedroom.

Curry told police he knelt by the bodies and cried before going to the Grable’s.

So many coworkers saw Curry at The Bradley Center that afternoon that detectives doubt he left again until quitting time. They have focused on the time he was gone, from 9:40 a.m. until 12:55 p.m., the three hours and 15 minutes he told them he spent shopping for a fan.

Some investigators believe Curry spent that time tracking his wife, to gauge when she would get home so he could be there, waiting.

The drive from Rockhurst Drive to the Macon Road Kmart was five miles. Boren later timed it at more than 10 minutes.

The Friday after the homicides, Curry’s father hired attorney Frank Martin to represent his son. Curry never spoke to police again.

What the police learned about his infidelity made them even more suspicious.

Coming Monday: Detectives piece together what happened in the days leading up to the killing.

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