'You never get over it': Thirty years after the bush-ax murders, the Johnsons continue advocacy for families affected by violent crime

As James and Bernice Johnson count the offspring that have blessed their lives over 62 years of marriage, they make sure to include those no longer present for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at their Fairview Drive home.

They're the proud parents of four children, one now deceased, and grandparents of nine, three deceased, they said last week while sitting in the house decked with family photos.

About 30 years have passed since the Johnsons' pregnant daughter, 24-year-old Ann Curry, her 4-year-old daughter, Erika, and 20-month-old son, Ryan, were hacked to death in a triple homicide known as the bush-ax murders. The incident occurred Aug. 29, 1985, at their daughter's 5433 Rockhurst Drive residence, and their son-in-law, Michael Lee Curry, was convicted of the crime 25 years later.

Yet, the Johnsons -- now in their 80s -- still feel the loss as if it were yesterday.

"You never get over it," said Bernice, as her eyes welled with tears. "There has never been a day in the last 30 years that some time or other I (didn't) think about Ann and what might have been and regret that I had no idea that she was so unhappy in her marriage."

The Johnsons, who have dedicated the past 30 years to advocating on behalf of other families affected by violent crime, are now grieving for another family.

On Jan. 4, which would have been Ann's 55th birthday, they woke up to news that there had been yet another triple homicide in Columbus. The victims in that case were Gloria Short, 54; her son, Caleb, 17; and her granddaughter, Gianna Lindsey, 10.

All three were brutally beaten at Short's Upatoi home, and Short and Lindsey suffered multiple stab wounds, Columbus police said. Short's husband, Robert, discovered the bodies when he returned home after working a 12-hour shift at a local hospital.

Law enforcement officials have charged Jervarceay Tapley, 17, and Raheam Gibson, 19, with three counts of homicide, burglary, theft by taking two motor vehicles and possessing a knife during the commission of a crime. Police said Friday they are still looking for a third suspect.

Jervarceay lived with Gloria Short's brother, the late Robert Averett, and grew up as a close friend of the family. Averett went into cardiac arrest and died two days after hearing of his sister's death. James said he was speechless when he heard the news, which was eerily similar to what his family experienced 30 years ago.

"A family member, or a family friend, killing a family member, you don't understand it," he said.

Bernice said it's beyond comprehension what the Shorts are experiencing. She thought about contacting the family but felt it wasn't the right time because they are still in shock and probably not ready for the conversation.

However, the Johnsons' hearts go out to the family, she said. And she hopes the Shorts will eventually get help through the Victims Witness Assistance program at the district attorney's office and the local chapter of a victims' advocacy group called VOCAL, which she and her husband started after their tragedy.

The group became inactive as the Johnsons grew older and could no longer manage it, but it's now regrouping with the help of their daughter, Elaine.

The president of the group is Toya Winder, the new executive director of the Columbus Community Center.

The next meeting will be held Jan. 30 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the community center located at 3952 Steam Mill Road. Winder said organizers are trying to attract more families to the group, which meets monthly.

"What I have come to realize is that victims' families don't realize there are other families out there to support them," Winder said. "These families are the only ones that can not only sympathize, but empathize with them. We go to funerals and we say, 'Oh, I understand' and whatever. But you can't understand unless you've been there. And that's what I've learned from the Johnsons."

You're not alone

The Johnsons said it has been a long painful journey that started the afternoon of Aug. 29, 1985.

Ann, their youngest child, had come to visit them with her two children earlier in the day. The three left the Johnson's home around 12:30 p.m., according to Ledger-Enquirer reports, and were killed later that afternoon. Michael reported finding his family slain when he got home from work at 5:30 p.m.

The Johnsons said they were working on a brick wall at the front of their home and missed the 6 p.m. news.

Around 9:30 p.m., Michael's father, Orval Curry, stopped by and told them that an accident had occurred at Michael and Ann's house. So they all went to the police station and found out that their loved ones had been murdered.

"At that time, there was nothing such as a victims' group," Bernice said. "If anything happened to a family, they were on their own. As a matter of fact, we were told that night, when I asked (police), 'What do we do now?' We were just told that we needed to go home and plan the funeral.

"I know that sounds terrible, and at the time it hurt," she said. "But what else could the police tell us than just that? They had no group that they could direct us to or that they could contact to get in touch with us."

James said it was "pure hell" planning a funeral for three people, and you never really get over it.

"You've got someone who's always missing," he said. "Two of the grandchildren we knew intimately and they were taken away. I can only think of Erika as being a 5-year-old and, of course today, she would be in her 30s or 40s. And you just can't fathom that because that's not what she was the last time you saw her."

Acting on evidence compiled by cold case investigators, Michael was arrested May 20, 2009, at his home in Dalton, Ga., where he settled after moving from Columbus.

A grand jury indicted him on multiple counts of murder. Ann was 8 months pregnant, and Michael initially faced charges of feticide in the death of the baby to be named Tyler, but those charges were later dropped.

Prosecutors said Curry was having financial problems at the time of the murders and had been having an affair with a coworker. He told the coworker that he could not afford a divorce and child support for two children, plus the third child his wife was expecting. After the homicides, he collected their life insurance benefits.

In April 2011, Michael was found guilty and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, requiring him to serve at least 30 years before he'll be eligible for parole.

Bernice said she will never understand why Curry had to murder her daughter and grandkids. She said all Ann ever wanted was a happy family.

"It is terrible to know that something like this has happened, especially to the children," she said. "There was no reason that I could determine why he felt he had to commit this awful crime, and the same thing with the Short family. What under the sun has occurred that motivated such an awful crime scene? From the little that I have read, it must have been an awful thing for the husband to walk into. He will never ever be the same again. That image will be there all the time. I am so thankful that I never saw any pictures of Ann (and) the children after they were dead."

The Johnsons commended Police Chief Rick Boren and his detectives for apprehending the suspects in the Short case so quickly.

If she were talking to the Short family, Bernice Johnson said she would tell them to draw together as a family, and don't lose hope.

"I would say talk about Gloria, and Caleb and the granddaughter," she said. "Keep them alive in your hearts."

Holding onto memories

That's how she and her husband have been able to cope the past 30 years, she said. They reflect on Ann's outgoing spirit, and the cute things that little Erika used to say. Pictures that hang in the couple's home include one of the two children taken the Monday before they were killed. Bernice recalls taking them there, and will always cherish that memory.

Bernice said the couple couldn't have coped without the support of their three living children and the community. People still stop them in the grocery store and other places to let them know they haven't forgotten about Ann and the children, and she always appreciates it.

She hopes the Shorts will find the same comfort among friends, family, and especially church members. Though there's nothing that anyone can say to take away the pain, just listening to them talk about their loved ones can be good medicine, she said. And it's important to continue living, even though there will always be a hole in their hearts.

"My children insisted that we continue to have our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and we all gathered for those occasions for years and years," she said. "And the hardest thing that I did in 1985 was to have that Thanksgiving dinner, that Christmas dinner here in the dining room. I did not think I could do it. I didn't think I could live through it, but my children insisted and they were smart in this respect."

The Johnsons also poured their hearts and souls into their advocacy work for other victims. Through VOCAL, they successfully pushed for legislation requiring people to be notified if a life insurance policy is taken out on them and for victims and their families to be notified when prisoners are up for parole or being released from prison.

"One of the things that VOCAL did is we would go to parole hearings and we would write letters to the parole board to protest the parole of these people that were coming up," Bernice said. "And in many cases, they listened to us."

She said the Parole Board has informed the family that Michael will come up for parole consideration in 2039.

"Of course, Jim and I won't be around then hopefully," she said. "But we have already been told by many number of people, 'Don't worry, we're going to write a letter.' And Jim and I have already written our letter and it has been given to the victims witness program. And when he comes up for parole, our letter -- although we should be in the grave by then -- will go to them so they will know what the impact has been on us of what he did."

The Johnsons said they're proud of all they have been able to accomplish through their efforts.

"There have been tremendous changes in the last 30 years regarding the family members of a crime victim, and we were part of that, and I'm grateful that we were able to reach out to other people who lost loved ones," Bernice said. "Because it does not matter who these people are -- black or white, red, any color -- they all hurt the same way. We all have a heart and a chain has been broken as far as the family is concerned."

An uphill battle

Tom Waynick, executive director of the Pastoral Institute, said people who go through violent experiences like the Johnsons and Shorts face an uphill battle as they try to cope with both grief and trauma.

"There's something that we call complicated grief," he said. "Whenever there are unknowns, questions left unanswered, violence, or an unusually difficult form of death, that's related to complicated grief. Actually, when there's violence, you're not only doing grief work, but you're also doing trauma work. And although they share similarities, they also have differences.

"In trauma work, you're dealing with the fact that trauma has given an individual often times a sense that the world is very unsafe, and the result of that is we have some post-traumatic stress reactions that require not just accepting and grieving the loss, but regaining a sense that my world is OK, that life can be OK, that I can go on."

Waynick recommends three steps for dealing with such a traumatic scenario.

"First, give yourself permission to walk your individual journey through both grief and trauma, and you don't know how long that process is going to be," he said. "The second thing is to find security and comfort in those people that you can trust, and the people who love you the most. And then as you hit the road bumps that inevitably come up in those processes, don't' be afraid to reach out to the professions that can help ease the path, and that would be maybe going to a physician, maybe going to a counselor, or going to your pastor, priest of rabbi; going to those resources in the community who have experience with these things, and finding comfort there."

The Johnsons said there is no making sense of such tragedies, but they draw strength from their faith.

"We live in a world that's full of evil and it looks like Satan is having a grand time, but the comfort for me is knowing God is still in control," Bernice said. "We don't understand all of this, but I know he's in control. And I know one day, we will be reunited with Ann and the children. And, Frankly, I'm looking forward to that day."

Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.