A time for murder

What a difference a few minutes make

Published by: Laura Hinton and Linda Masarella
Published on: 3 November 2011

After a busy morning with my heavily- pregnant daughter Ann, 24, and her kids, I'd spent the afternoon helping my husband clear up the yard.
It had been a sweltering August day, so me and Jim, 58, were settling down later than usual in front of the TV.
Suddenly, the phone rang.
‘I hope that's not Ann telling us she's ready to pop,' Jim joked, as I jumped up to answer it. ‘Because I've already missed the 6 o'clock news and my dinner hasn't even settled down yet!'
‘Jim!' I tutted, rolling my eyes. ‘It's a couple more weeks until she's due...'
Walking into the hallway, I heard him grumble something about how her husband Michael, 27, should be the one taking her to the hospital for the birth.
He should, but then this was Michael we were talking about.
He'd made it quite clear he wasn't happy they were having a third child. Too expensive, he'd told her, but then you could never put a price on a mother's love. And Ann was already the best mother to Erika, four, and Ryan, 20 months.
Truth be told, Michael was a nasty piece of work... I'd never liked him. Hopefully, she'd come to her senses one day and they'd get divorced.
More than anything, it was his manipulative nature I hated. He could get Ann to do anything. When they first met at church, he'd told her he was thinking about committing suicide!
I guess she'd always thought that she could save him.
‘Hello,' I said, finally reaching the phone. Speak of the devil - it was Orval, Michael's father.
‘There's yellow crime scene tape around Ann and Michael's house,' he spluttered down the phone line.
‘Oh my God,' I gasped, turning to attract Jim. But he'd heard the panic in my voice, because he was looking at me, eyes wide open. ‘We'll drive over right away.'
It was a frantic 10-minute drive to Ann and Michael's house, but we were soon pulling up outside. ‘What's happened?!' I asked the small crowd gathered outside. ‘I'm Ann's mother. Where is she? Where are the kids?!'
Suddenly, a police officer spotted us. He directed me and Jim to his car.
‘We need to take you to the station,' he said.
We drove in silence - but the minute we arrived... ‘Your daughter and grandchildren's bodies were found butchered in their home this evening,' the detective said. ‘We believe it was a botched robbery attempt.'
There was a sharp intake of breath beside me as the news hit Jim. It was like he'd been winded.
‘B-but that's impossible,' I gasped. ‘They can't be dead. They were with me all morning!'
‘Until when?' the detective quizzed.
‘Oh, I don't know...' I spluttered. I couldn't think straight, just said the first thing that came into my head. What did it matter anyway? ‘About 12.30pm,' I said, plucking the time out of the air.
I'd been vacuuming when they called round and I'd heard a voice. ‘Erika!' I'd chuckled. ‘You gave me a fright!'
And there she'd been, grinning up at me with deep brown eyes exactly like her mother's behind her little glasses. Of course, Ann had a key, she'd just let herself in.
‘Sorry, Mum,' she'd said, appearing at the bottom of the stairs. Ryan was in her arms, balanced on her bump. That little boy's smile could light up a room, I even loved those bright, blue eyes he'd inherited from his dad.
‘Would you mind looking after this little one while I pop into town with Erika?' she'd asked, running a hand through her thick, dark brown hair. ‘I need to buy a present for her friend's birthday party this afternoon.'
Then she'd looked down. ‘Michael didn't want to help.' So they were still having problems...
‘My pleasure,' I'd smiled. ‘Take as long as you like.'
So that morning, Ryan had tottered about in his stroller as I'd tried to get on with my chores. By the time Ann came back though, we'd gone through the entire box of toys in the playroom Jim had built for them.
That was when I'd asked if she'd wanted to stay for lunch. ‘But she said no, because she wanted Erika to have a nap before the party,' I told the detective now, as I finished my account of the morning.
‘S-so they can't be dead,' I sobbed, my throat raw.
But they were, and they'd been killed in the most horrific of ways.
And it was Michael who'd made the grisly discovery when he'd returned home from his electrician job around 5.30pm. Apparently, he'd run from the house screaming so loud, the neighbours had been the ones to call 911.
Just like that, his whole family had been wiped out in an instant.
According to the police, Ann had been struck across the throat by a bush axe. The intruder hit with so much force that she'd nearly been decapitated. Bruises on her arms showed that she'd tried to block the blows, probably in an attempt to save her family. Her unborn son would have died soon after.
Ryan's tiny body was found near his mother's in the living room. He'd been struck on the head. His little fingers were still gripping the carpet when he was found, as if he was trying to claw his way out of the nightmare.
Erika had also been struck about the head and face with the axe. Her teeth and glasses were found scattered across the kitchen floor.
‘My poor babies,' I shrieked, as the sheer horror of it all became crystal clear.
‘But the intruder didn't take anything?' Jim quizzed the detective, his face ashen. ‘So what was the motive for it?!"
‘And why kill Ryan?' I persisted. ‘He'd have been too young to tell anyone anything.'
We had so many questions that the police couldn't help us with. But I had a terrible feeling about who did have all the answers we wanted...
Michael. He was mean, manipulative and clearly didn't love his family. Had he gone one step further and become a murderer?
It seemed so to me and Jim. A couple of days after the murders, Michael came to see us. It was obvious he didn't want to be there and, a couple of times, I caught him off guard and saw a look in his eye... it was filled with such hate.
‘His grief doesn't ring true,' Jim said afterwards.
I nodded, sobbing. ‘He's behaving so weirdly. Like he's putting on an act.'
He played the grieving husband and father role so well, though. At their funeral at Columbus Church, he shook hands and wiped away tears. But to us, it was fake.
Even though me and Jim were convinced Michael had played a part in their deaths, the police had no evidence to tie him to the crime.
‘Michael left work at 9.40am to buy a fan for his office. He didn't return until 1.10pm, but a receipt shows he made a purchase at K-mart at 12.55pm,' the detective explained time and time again. ‘If Ann left your house about 12.30pm as you said, there wouldn't have been enough time for him to kill his family, then clear up the mess.'
It was like the police knew this robbery had been staged - yet there was no evidence to prove it.
Had I let my daughter's killer escape justice? I hadn't even looked at the clock when she'd left, had no idea what time it had been, had blurted out the first thing that came into my head.
Over the next few years, that question haunted me the most. If I'd said a different time, would the investigation have gone another way?
Soon, Michael left town. He fled to Florida to start a new life.
‘Good riddance,' Jim said, as we went to lay flowers at the cemetery one day. Yes, he'd certainly never made our daughter happy. Problem was, I'd made it so obvious I hated him that she'd stopped talking to me properly about him. Of course, I'd heard rumours he'd had affairs. And he'd made it clear he wasn't happy she'd be having another baby.
I knelt down now and tidied some of the weeds - we'd buried the three of them next to each other, so they'd always be together. Suddenly, I recalled a telephone conversation I'd had with Ann not long before her death.
‘So, how's the money situation at the moment?' I'd asked.
Ann had been training as a nurse before meeting Michael, aged 18. But then she'd fallen pregnant with Erika, and they'd rushed to get married. Now, she was a full-time mum - so only one of them was a wage earner.
‘Not too bad,' she'd said, before falling silent.
‘Actually, Michael increased all our life insurance payments recently,' she'd said suddenly. ‘Funny really, I'm almost worth more dead than alive!'
I'd snapped at her then. Told her off for saying such a thing.
Except it was true. And now Michael was reaping the benefits from her death.
Years passed, the latest Jim and I had heard, he'd moved again. Now, he was on his second or third wife, living off the £30,000 life insurance cash... it was sickening.
But as time passed, we realised it wouldn't do us any good to concentrate on our hate.
So we created VOCAL, a local support group for victims of crime in their memory. For the next 12 years, that became our purpose.
It was completely unexpected when a police officer called in 2007 to say they were looking into the murder as a cold case review.
‘We can't get our hopes up,' Jim kept telling me.
‘Technology has changed since 1985,' I insisted. If there was a chance we could get justice for Ann, Erika and Ryan, I'd hold on to that hope.
Two years passed before they'd compiled the case.
On May 20, 2009, we were told Michael - who'd been living a quiet life in Dalton - had been charged with their murders.
In court, a few months on, we finally came face-to-face with this traitor again. But when I looked him in the eye, he couldn't hold my gaze. It was like he knew his time was up.
Much of the questioning centred around a broken pane of glass in the window of their back door.
At the time, police thought it was just a simple break-in. Now, they believed it had been staged, because most of the glass shards from the smashed back window were standing upright against the bottom of the door. If someone had smashed it, then reached through and unlocked the door, they'd have scattered across the room, certainly wouldn't have been upright.
And, after re-examining crime scene photographs, it turned out a white bin was left overturned in front of that rear door, blocking the exit. The killer would have had to leave by the front door - which again needed a key to open it from the inside.
Turning to Jim, his eyes said it all. Gotcha!
Importantly, nothing had been stolen in the so-called burglary. The cupboards and drawers hadn't even been rifled through. And why would an intruder need to kill a 20-month-old child who couldn't identify them?
Our legal team pointed out that only a father who wanted to eliminate his entire family would kill such a small child.
Michael had been having financial difficulties, too. He'd even spoken to a female colleague he was sleeping with about how he'd wanted to get a divorce. ‘I can't afford a divorce,' he'd often told her. Had he slayed his own flesh and blood to save a few pennies?
Sadly, much questioning also focused on the timeline of events.
Prosecutors pointed out that I was probably flustered when I'd given 12.30pm as the time Ann left my home that day. It's likely she left much earlier, giving Michael time to murder his family, then get back to work.
I felt Jim tightly grip my hand at that part. He knew exactly what I was thinking. It was what I'd worried about all these years.
Had I been the one to help our daughter's murderer go scot-free?
But then, as we waited for the verdict to be announced, I knew I had to let go of that guilt, whatever the outcome.
Finally, on April 27 this year, a jury found Michael Curry, 53, guilty of his family's mass murder. He then received three consecutive life sentences.
Me and Jim, now 83, had waited 25 years to hear those words so, when they came, I felt such mixed emotions. There was relief and jubilation that justice had been served at last, but also sadness that it had taken so long.
‘We got him,' Jim sobbed, holding my frail hand.
Of course, it will never really be over. We'll grieve for Ann and the kids for as long as we live. But now, at last, we can rest in peace.
Bernice Johnston, 84, Columbus, Georgia, USA