Michael Curry’s murder trial Friday focused on the testimony of Bernice Johnson, whose recollection of when her daughter and grandchildren left her house is crucial to determining whether Curry had time to kill them when they got home.
Police have said they timed the drive from Johnson’s 4416 Fairview Drive home to the Currys’ 5433 Rockhurst Drive house at 7 minutes.
At 13 minutes detectives measured the drive from Rockhurst Drive to the 3200 Macon Road Kmart where a profusely sweating Curry bought a fan at 12:55 p.m. on Aug. 29, 1985.
At 5:30 that evening, Curry reported finding his family hacked to death with a bush ax when he came home from work. His 24-year-old wife Ann was eight months pregnant, and the baby she carried died with her. Daughter Erika was 4 years old; son Ryan was 1½ years old.
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That day Ann had left Ryan with Johnson while she took Erika shopping for a birthday gift to take to a party that evening. When she returned, she wrapped the gift, loaded the kids into her car and headed home.
Exactly when she returned and left again are unclear.
After the gruesome homicides, Johnson wrestled with her memories of that day, to try to decide when, exactly, Ann went home.
At one point she said she remembered looking at a clock that read 12:10 p.m., and Ann had not returned yet, though she came in minutes later.
The night of the slayings, she told police Ann and the kids left about 12:30 p.m. At a 1986 inquest she said it was no later than 12:45 p.m. In 2008, she told police Ann left at 12:15 or 12:30.
In court Friday she said all she clearly could recall about the time was that before Ann came back from shopping, Johnson took Ryan into the kitchen, sat him on the counter and gave him a wafer and some juice. She turned on the TV, and “The Price Is Right” was on.
After that, she and Ryan went to a toy box and played, and then Ann came in, immediately wrapped the gift and left. “It was kind of an in and out thing,” Johnson said.
She guessed Ann was there for 10 or 11 minutes, maybe a little longer counting the walk out to her car.
In the yard Ann wanted to stir up some fire ants. She asked her mother, “Mama, do you mind if I kick the ant bed? I love to make ’em mad.”
Johnson buckled Ryan into his booster seat, asked Ann to check the straps, walked around to Erika and said, “Honey, have a good time at the party.”
“I will, grandmother. I really will,” Erika replied.
Erika often added “really” while repeating a declaration, Johnson said.
As they drove off, Johnson’s husband Jim, who’d been working out in the yard, called out, “I love you!” and everyone waved, she said.
District Attorney Julia Slater asked Johnson what time that happened. “I can’t remember exactly,” Johnson said.
Time after time
On cross-examination, Curry’s defense attorney Bob Wadkins asked Johnson if she recalled telling a coroner’s inquest Ann left by 12:30 p.m, and no later than 12:45.
“I don’t remember saying that, but I might have,” Johnson answered. “I’ve said a lot of things over 26 years.”
She also could not recall noting a clock read 12:10 while Ryan was with her. Even if she had, she would not have known whether it had the right time, she said.
Wadkins noted that “The Price Is Right” aired on CBS from 11 a.m. to noon.
Slater asked Johnson about the nature of Ann’s relationship with Michael Curry, delving into the family’s history. Johnson said Ann was the youngest of her four children, with a brother and two sisters. Ann was 18 when her father retired from the Army, and the Johnsons stayed in Maryland so she could finish high school at Calvary Christian Academy.
Then they moved to Columbus, where they already had a house. Bernice and Jim Johnson had met here while he was in Army, she said. For a semester Ann left for college at Biola University, a private Christian college in the Los Angeles area, but she got homesick and moved back.
The summer after she graduated from high school, she started seeing Curry, Johnson said, adding that often after a date with Michael, Ann would come home in tears but would never tell her parents why.
Then one day Ann told her mother they needed to talk, so they went back to Ann’s bedroom where she said, “’Mama, I hate to tell you this, but I’m pregnant’,” Johnson recalled, adding, “which I thought was the most devastating news I would ever hear.” Ann was 18 years old.
She married Curry in January 1981, and her parents did not object. “We were thinking in terms of what was best for the baby,” Johnson said. Erika was born Aug. 12.
Asked about the Currys’ relationship in 1985, Johnson said she knew they were having money problems, and Ann was having health complications -- blood clots in her legs -- because of her third pregnancy. She had to go on leave from her job at Blue Cross Blue Shield. The Currys had to borrow a car from the Johnsons while Michael Curry tried to repair an old van he’d got to do side jobs.
One day Ann requested her mother ask Jim Johnson to drive her to the hospital when she went into labor. “Michael told me he won’t do it,” Ann told her.
Then came the stormy evening of Aug. 29, 1985, when Michael Curry’s father Orval came over to tell the Johnsons their daughter’s home was ringed by police crime scene tape. They all rushed to police headquarters, then at 937 First Ave., where the RiverCenter is now.
Officers ushered them in and told them the terrible news. Johnson thought it could not be true: She told police she’d just seen her daughter and grandchildren that very day.
Immediately investigators wanted to know when she saw them last. She guessed 12:30 p.m. “I just said the first thing that came to my mind,” she said Friday.
In dispute in Friday’s testimony was a discussion that occurred in Ann and Michael Curry’s home on Aug. 24, 1985, the Saturday before the murders.
Bernice Johnson said Erika had spent Friday night with her and she was bringing her granddaughter home when she walked in on a conversation that abruptly ended in an uncomfortable silence.
This was her account:
She and Erika came in through the Currys’ side, kitchen door and overheard Ann, Michael and Michael’s mother Joyce Curry discussing divorce.
“Well, I’ll just take my kids and leave,” Ann said.
“You know you won’t take your children and leave,” said Joyce Curry. “We don’t believe in divorce.”
No one greeted Erika, who went straight to her bedroom. Ann was crying and said nothing.
On the witness stand Friday morning, Joyce Curry gave a starkly different account, saying the talk of leaving with the kids was a running joke in her family, something she and her former husband used to laugh about. “We were laughing and cutting up,” she recalled, and Michael was joking that day when he said, “I could always divorce you and leave the children with you.”
After Joyce Curry’s testimony, Bernice Johnson was asked whether the room had a jovial atmosphere when she walked in that day. “Absolutely not,” she declared.
Missing or misinterpreted?
Also Friday, Joyce Curry was asked about a letter she wrote her son two decades after the homicides.
Michael Curry’s then estranged wife Susan had claimed Curry’s mother wrote that she had cancer and once she died, only one person would know what happened to the family.
Joyce Curry testified that she had been diagnosed with mouth cancer she feared would spread to her brain, and she was undergoing radiation treatments. What she actually wrote was, “You’re the only one who’ll know what hell we’ve been through since your family was killed.”
Summoned to the witness stand, Susan Curry said she married Michael on Oct. 6, 2006, and divorced him on Feb. 10, 2009.
Asked about the letter she saw, she referred to correspondence Joyce Curry sent with a clipping from the Aug. 30, 2007, Ledger-Enquirer. The clipping was a letter to the editor from Ann Eckmann of Waverly Hall, one of several supporters who regularly accompany Jim and Bernice Johnson to court proceedings. In her letter, Eckmann wrote: “I am convinced that somewhere in our United States, at least two people know who killed Ann Curry and her children.”
Asked about that clipping and correspondence from Joyce Curry to her son, Susan Curry said of Michael: “I confronted him with it, and he tore it up.”
But she taped it back together, and on it, she wrote, “I want my Michael back,” she said.
Later Susan Curry said she had seen two letters from Joyce Curry to her son. The second was sent in March 2008, she said, adding that at one point she had both letters in her purse, but Michael Curry snatched it from her and tore up the letters “while I went to jail for self-defense trying to get my purse away from him.” No one wanted to question her further.
Other witnesses Friday included crime lab technician Connie Pickens, who testified she found no blood on Michael Curry’s clothes after the homicides, and Ronald Bell, who worked with Curry at The Bradley Center.
Bell was asked if he knew why Curry took 3½ hours the day of the homicides to shop for a 6-inch oscillating fan for the center. “No sir, I don’t,” he answered.
He also was asked about a check-out board for Bradley Center vehicles. The erasable board was hanging in Curry’s office, and the day of the homicides had shown Curry checked out a blue Chevrolet Malibu that morning.
The day after the slayings, that entry was erased, though others remained. Bell didn’t know who erased it.
Curry later told police that on his shopping trip, he first went to Sears, which was then on Macon Road, and then he drove to a Montgomery Ward store that was at Peachtree Mall, where Macy’s is today. Then he drove back to Kmart to buy the fan.
Bell testified that on the day of the homicides, Curry on the vehicle check-out board had written only that he was going to Kmart.