Storm of horror: Trial of Michael Curry starts today

Investigators, prosecutors piece together details of Curry’s affair, marital trouble and bush ax killings

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 18, 2011 

Today at 9 a.m. in a ninth-floor courtroom of the Columbus Government Center, the judge, prosecution and defense will start picking a jury to hear the murder trial of Michael Curry, accused of using a bush ax to hack to death his pregnant wife Ann, 4-year-old daughter Erika and 20-month-old son Ryan on Aug. 29, 1985.

Presiding will be Chief Judge John Allen. Prosecuting Curry will be District Attorney Julia Slater with assistant DAs Crawford Seals and Mariel Williams. Representing Curry will be public defender Bob Wadkins, with a team that includes T. Moffett Flournoy, Stephen Craft, Victoria Novak, Robin King and Bentley Adams III.

Indicted by a Muscogee County grand jury acting on evidence compiled by cold-case investigators, Curry was arrested May 20, 2009, in Dalton, Ga., where he settled in 1999 after moving to various cities following the slayings of his Columbus family. He’s being held on $300,000 bond in the Muscogee County Jail.

There he will be neighbors once more with Paul Edward Grable Jr., who lived across the street from the Currys when the homicides happened. Grable, who then lived with his parents at 5428 Rockhurst Drive, was the first person to whom Curry reported finding his wife and kids slain in their 5433 Rockhurst Drive home.

Years later, Grable twice was convicted of forcing his way into homes and sexually assaulting young women he knew. Now 45 and still in prison, he’s to testify during Curry’s trial, so he’ll also be in the county jail.

Curry’s defense team wanted to claim Grable could have committed the homicides, but Allen ruled that inadmissible.

Prosecutors said the Curry case over the years has been hindered by false leads that took police off on fruitless tangents.

The defense is expected to call witnesses who’ll speak of other suspicious characters, cars and events that could have some connection to the slayings. The prosecution will try to keep the focus on Curry, to get jurors to believe what 25 years ago seemed to some unthinkable: That a 27-year-old husband and father could butcher his wife and children.

Among those on the witness list are Fred and Pam Burt, now of Junction City, Ga.

Twenty-five years ago, Curry had an affair with Pam Burt, and the weekend before the killings, her husband confronted Curry at a Columbus hotel where the faithless lovers had rendezvoused.

Among the investigators assigned to the Curry case in 1985 was Ricky Boren, today Columbus’ police chief. He questioned Curry the night of the slayings, and was suspicious of Curry’s account of having spent more than three hours that day shopping for a small fan for The Bradley Center, where both Curry and Pam Burt worked.

Learning the two were having an affair -- and that Curry and his wife had marital troubles -- made police even more suspicious.

In the second of a two-part series based primarily on testimony from a 1986 inquest into the Curry killings, the Ledger-Enquirer today examines what happened the weekend before the homicides.

Call for prayer

Ann Curry was a regular at Columbus’ Edgewood Baptist Church, where the Rev. David Howle said she’d had a “profound, personal experience with God” when she and Michael had married about six years earlier. Ann worked in the church nursery.

After she and her kids were killed, investigators learned a woman had sought help from the church’s prayer line at 12:30 a.m. Aug. 24, early on the Saturday preceding the Thursday slayings.

The woman said she needed prayers for her marriage. She said she was eight months’ pregnant, and her husband was going to consult a lawyer about a divorce or a separation she did not want. The coming weekend was crucial, she said: No one supported her desire to stay married.

What Ann Curry’s mother recalled hearing later that day seemed to fit.

That Thursday and Friday, a week before the homicides, Erika had stayed with her grandparents, Jim and Bernice Johnson. Bernice Johnson said that when she brought Erika home on Saturday, Curry’s mother Joyce was there, and as she and Erika walked in, she heard Mrs. Curry say, “Now Ann, you know we don’t believe in divorce. There can’t be a divorce.” Michael Curry was there, too, but Mrs. Johnson said he did not speak to her or to Erika. Whatever conversation had been taking place abruptly ended, she said, and Ann seemed embarrassed, speaking to her mother in a high, nervous tone.

For help with her marriage, Ann would have gone to her church, not her parents, Mrs. Johnson said: She would not have wanted to worry her parents, who had not wanted her to marry Curry to begin with.

The rendezvous

That Saturday night, Michael Curry and Pam Burt met at a nightspot called the Bombay Bicycle Club, north of Macon Road near I-185, where the Longhorn Steakhouse is now. They had been seeing each other since the first week of August, usually meeting for drinks at Ethyl’s Gas House, a lounge then in the Holiday Inn on the Manchester Expressway.

Burt had been married for 18 years, but her relationship with her husband had cooled. Fred Burt later would say he blamed himself for his wife’s infidelity, as he had not paid her the attention she needed.

She got his attention that night. Fred Burt, who worked for RC Cola and usually drove a company truck, had borrowed a friend’s car so he could track down his wife without her noticing.

From the Bombay Bicycle Club, Curry and Pam Burt went to the Manchester Expressway Holiday Inn to get a room. They checked in about 2 a.m., and as she went to Room 341, Curry drove her car around to bring in some clothes.

He did not notice Fred Burt following him.

Fred Burt entered the hotel hallway right behind Curry and told Curry to go outside. He asked his wife what she was doing. She told him it was none of his business, then she stepped out and yelled for Curry not to leave.

Fred Burt went out to the parking lot to talk to Curry, asking if Curry’s wife knew what he was up to.

As they talked in the parking lot, Pam watched, and heard no raised voices, saw no wild gesticulations. Then Fred Burt left, and Curry and Pam Burt spent the night together. She got back to her 4909 Roxbury Court home about 8 a.m. Her husband came by about 9:30 a.m., and they talked, she said. Later they went to lunch together.

Day by day

After the homicides, a woman who worked with Ann Curry in the Edgewood Baptist Church nursery told the Ledger-Enquirer that on the Sunday before the slayings, Ann began sobbing at church and sought counseling.

The following Monday, Fred Burt visited Curry at the Bradley Center. Curry claimed Burt said he could hurt Curry without touching him. Burt said he told Curry he would have hurt him already, had he wanted to.

Detectives said Fred and Pam Burt were forthcoming and cooperative after the killings, and both passed polygraph tests, so police discounted them as suspects.

Pam Burt stopped seeing Curry, but her feelings for him did not end.

“Believe me, I am feeling all of the guilt and hurt you are feeling, and it is almost too much to bear not to be able to talk to you or see you,” she wrote him Sept. 3. “I love you so much I can hardly stand it.”

She added: “Fred is at home for my protection, but it is difficult with him there knowing I want to be with you…. I feel as if I’m not alive myself anymore, and do know that I don’t ever want to be without you.”

After the slayings, Curry stayed with his father Orval Curry. He did not return to work for a month.

Ronald Bell, who worked for Curry and had attended Hardaway High School with him, found the love letters in Curry’s desk, and asked Curry what he should do with them. Throw them away, Curry said: They mean nothing now.

Bell gave the letters to police.

The neighbors

Neighbors would search their memories for what they saw on Rockhurst Drive that last Thursday in August 1985. All they could recall were cars they saw coming and going, or parked at Curry’s house by an old green delivery van he was replacing the engine on. He needed the van to work side jobs. With another child on the way, he could use the money, he told a neighbor.

No one recalled seeing the Bradley Center’s blue Chevy Malibu station wagon Curry was driving that morning, or the green AMC Hornet he had borrowed from the Johnsons to drive to work.

Some reported seeing a beat-up old green car parked in front of Curry’s van around 2:30 or 3 p.m., but they didn’t know its make or model, only that it was not the green Hornet.

Then-Coroner Don Kilgore thought Ann Curry died around 2 or 3 p.m. Medical examiner Joe Webber said her body had begun to stiffen when he examined it, a process he said takes five to eight hours.

Boren believed she was killed as soon as she got home from her parents’ house. So did Bernice Johnson: Ryan was sleepy when Ann left her parents’ Fairview Drive home between 12:30 and 12:45 p.m., and Ann had not put him to bed for a nap.

Despite their suspicions, police back then had no evidence, no witnesses, nothing to justify charging Curry with killing his wife and kids.

Families divided

In the years to come, he would collect their life insurance, despite objections from the Johnsons, who never understood why their son-in-law stopped talking to police after just one interview. A widening rift developed between the two sets of parents.

Orval Curry has died since the killings. Joyce Curry survives. In recent court proceedings, she and the Johnsons have sat on opposite sides of the courtroom. Prosecutors keep them separated as they come and go from the Government Center.

Curry’s defense attorneys believe prosecutors have no more evidence now than in 1985, just suspicion and conjecture. Any evidence someone else killed Curry’s family is enough to cast doubt on his guilt, they think.

The Johnsons just want to know who killed their daughter and grandchildren, and why.

In 1988, they formed a local chapter of VOCAL, Victims of Crime and Leniency, an advocacy group for survivors like them. To court hearings they wear pink lapel ribbons, symbols of crime victims, particularly of Ann, Erika and Ryan.

“We live with this day in and day out, and it’s still unbelievable to me,” Mrs. Johnson told a reporter in 1993. “It’s still the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing on my mind when I go to bed…. I’ll never be able to say it doesn’t matter anymore. The day I die I’ll be thinking about Ann and the children, and wondering what happened.”

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