Murder in a small town

In sleepy Kentucky, the slaying of a teenage girl did not go unnoticed. But while the residents of the close-knit town of Mayfield speculated about who had killed Jessica Curran, the police got nowhere - until our investigative reporter Tom Mangold came to visit. Here, he tells a tale of cover-ups and cack-handedness, and reveals why the culprits are still at large
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The Independent US

At first, Tim Fortner thought it was a discarded mannequin. The shape on the grass a side entrance to Mayfield Middle School was bald and looked as if it had begun to melt in the hot sun. Then he saw the flies.

He retched as he came closer. In front of him was the fast-decomposing body of a black teenaged girl. Her clothes and skin were badly burnt, blisters covered her arms, her underwear had been ripped off and lay beside her. Her face was a dreadful death mask of pain, her eyes bulging, her entire tongue forced out of her mouth. There were deep bludgeon marks to the back of her head; another blow had broken her nose. The charred remains of a black belt were tight around her throat, a plastic bottle smelling of petrol was at her feet.

Jessica Currin, 18, the daughter of Mayfield's local fire chief had been beaten, stabbed, strangled and set on fire. The precise cause of her death has never been determined.

Fortner, 31, was a lowly patrolman with the town's police department. He stared down at the body for several minutes. He had never seen anything like it. A deputy jailer before joining the force, his police background was minimal and he had completed his education without a degree. So he was surprised when he was told by his superiors that he, a man who had not had a day's training as an investigator, would be in charge of the case.

"I didn't have a clue what to do next," recalls Fortner who is still mystified why he was chosen to lead the case. "I had no idea how to organise a crime scene or look for forensic evidence. Frankly, I was scared stiff."

Mayfield, Kentucky, is curling at the edges. There's not enough work for a largely blue- collar population. A Wal-Mart the size of Wembley Stadium recently opened near town and Mayfield traders are already shutting up shop. General Tyre, once the biggest employer in town, is down from 2,000 staff to 800.

Cycle round Mayfield and absorb its semi-rural, light-industrial flavour; the smell of newly mown hay mingles with the smell of frying waffles coming from the handful of eateries; see what it is that really holds America together - the flag and the church. Mayfield has no shortage of either. There are 41 places of worship in town, one for every 243 citizens, and on Sundays their carparks are packed.

Faith and the flag, an awful lot of very overweight people, friendly waves on summer nights from locals sitting in the recliners on their front porches - and great bluegrass music; that's Mayfield.

Despite the feast of forensic evidence at the crime scene, Fortner's investigation meandered on. Fortner's boss, assistant police chief Ronnie Lear, seemed unconcerned. If Fortner was a bit of a new monkey, Lear was the organ grinder, an experienced detective who says he "kept a close eye" on Fortner's efforts. The truth is, from its inception, Mayfield police's Jessica Currin murder investigation made the Keystone Cops look like Scotland Yard on best form.

A substantial swatch of hair, seemingly torn from a human head, lay 20ft from Jessica's corpse. It was labelled as item nine by Fortner but it never reached the police station. The materials that did make it downtown - DNA from her nails, strands of hair in her hand, the plastic bottle with petrol in it - revealed not a single useful fingerprint, not a single clue... nothing. And once inside Mayfield police station, the boxes of evidence that were gathered became contaminated with evidence from other cases, more of it was lost or misplaced, two rape-swab tests from other crimes found their way into the Currin boxes.

The attractive Currin had been murdered on the night of 30 July 2000, yet even with the plentiful forensic evidence that was not mislaid or misfiled, there was no breakthrough. There was no immediate suspect, no clear motive, the body was such a mess and the pudenda so burnt that whether Jessica had been sexually assaulted or raped could not be established.

Not that there wasn't plenty of local gossip to help the inquiry along. In Mayfield, Kentucky, small-town bible-belt America, a place of 10,000 people, it is difficult to keep secrets.

Currin had a son called Zion. She had told her mother that the child was the result of a rape by a young white man called Jeremy Adams. Adams is a petty criminal, small-time drug user with, according to one psychiatric evaluation, a sociopathic personality disorder. The word in Mayfield was that Currin had been threatening to tell Adams's current girlfriend that he had fathered Zion. This, it was suggested, might have been a motive for Adams to kill Currin.

It took six months for Fortner to speak to Adams, who was by then in jail on unrelated matters. In an unheard-of investigative ploy - given that Adams would always be a logical suspect Fortner showed him the scene-of-crime pictures "to see if it would help his memory". Having seen the horrific pictures, Adams, in a state of shock, described them to his cellmate, Jessie Roberts, another small-time crook and known police informer.

Within days, Roberts informed his jailer that Adams had talked about the murder in a way which suggested he knew a great deal (which, of course, having seen the pictures, he did). Mayfield detectives, with Fortner in tow, descended on the small county jail and Roberts helpfully made a series of statements now claiming Adams had effectively confessed to the crime.

On the basis of this lone piece of evidence, evidence that any L-plate detective-constable would have seen as insufficient, a grand jury was convened and duly recommended the indictment of Adams for the murder of Currin. On 15 February 2001, the 20-year-old was charged with murder, tampering with physical evidence and abuse of a corpse.

A year later, the Adams trial began - and promptly collapsed. It turned out that Fortner and the Mayfield police had withheld 18 pieces of evidence from the defence. The judge was so angry that he threatened to jail Fortner for his ineptitude. Even the prosecuting Commonwealth (District) Attorney told the judge that, if he hadn't stopped the trial then, the prosecution would have called for dismissal.

Mayfield police station was not a happy place. In the preceeding years, staff turnover had been as high as 70 per cent; morale was as low as the pay; officers moonlighted; an inadequate experience base led to poor policing practice and under-developed procedures. The Currin murder had shown Fortner to be what he has since admitted to be: a man without the skills, abilities or knowledge to handle the case. But it gets worse.

In February 2001, the man nominally in charge of Fortner, Assistant Police Chief Ronnie Lear, was suspended for 33 days after being found guilty of selling a video recorder and stereo which were police evidence in an active case. Lear said it had been an honest mistake.

The following month, Lear resigned saying, "My heart's just not in the job anymore" and citing the arrest of Adams for the Currin murder as the high point of his career. Unknown to anyone else at the time, Lear's fine investigative techniques had involved hiring a psychic to help find Currin's murderer. Did it work? "A bit, yes, a bit no," a deeply embarrassed Lear says today.

That June, Fortner, who just 10 months earlier had been a patrolman, was given Lear's post of Assistant Police Chief of the City of Mayfield. In 2003, after the humiliating collapse of his case against Adams, Fortner himself resigned.

As Mayfield's scandal-ridden police department began the slow process of picking itself up, the Currin murder investigation was, wisely, taken over by the Kentucky State Police. Even so, nothing moved on.

Then, a few months ago, I received an unsolicited e-mail from a concerned Mayfield resident asking if, as an investigative reporter, I would look into the Currin case. The word was that Adams had been wrongly accused by a jail-house grass with the help of Mayfield's police and that the real killers were still at large.

It didn't require great reporting talent, just a lot of shoe leather - to visit the parties, read depositions taken by Fortner, talk to lawyers and the main witnesses - to reach the conclusion that the local rumours were well-founded.

Shockingly, the main lead came from damning evidence "hidden" from the defence during the Adams case. It showed that Fortner had, in his lumbering and inexperienced way, been running a parallel investigation into Jessica's murder and had found a pair of likely suspects. Fortner suspected that these two men, free to this day, had picked up Currin on the night of the murder, sexually assaulted her and, when she protested, one of them had bludgeoned, stabbed, strangled and burnt her to death, probably in a cocaine-induced rage.

So what did happen to Jessica on that terrible night? Much of what was believed to have taken place turns on the evidence of a friend of Currin's, Vinisha Stubblefield.

Stubblefield reported that on the night of Currin's murder, she had spent the evening with Jessica playing cards and having a rather dull time. The two parted company in the early hours of Sunday when Jessica set off to walk the mile and a half back to her apartment. Stubblefield is the last person to admit seeing Jessica alive.

Fortner, however, then heard a wholly different story from another young girl, a friend of Stubblefield's called Victoria Caldwell. Caldwell claimed that Stubblefield had told her that after she and Currin had parted company that night, a white car with two men in it had picked up Stubblefield who in turn directed the car towards where Jessica was walking home. The car then picked Jessica up, but there was an argument between Jessica and the occupants, so, claims Stubblefield, she got out because she didn't want to be involved.

In one of his few neat pieces of detective work, Fortner took the trouble to interview several tenants of the apartment block where Currin had lived. The tenants spoke about Stubblefield apparently knowing that Currin had been strangled with a belt and stabbed with a knife before this was made public.

Fortner believed then (and still does) that her knowledge of the murder details suggest that Stubblefield may have been somehow involved in the killing of Jessica. He determined that she had been criminally deceptive by withholding facts that only a suspect, witness or investigator would know and, nine weeks after the murder, arrested Stubblefield and charged her with hindering the prosecution case and "criminal facilitation to commit murder" (similar to being an accessory before or after the fact).

Soon after, Caldwell started receiving death threats advising her not to give evidence against Stubblefield. Caldwell and her mother were placed in police safe houses but, just before Stubblefield's trial, Caldwell recanted her original statement and the family fled Mayfield for California and have never resurfaced. The case against Stubblefield could not now be heard.

The same Saturday night of Jessica's death, over at 597 Chris Drive, at the hinge of a street where ill-kempt front gardens give way to neat strips of mown lawn, Greg Starks was holding a house party. In fact, there were several parties taking place in the mixed-race street on that hot summer's evening.

Starks's party had ample supplies of alcohol and there is evidence of cocaine use. Some guests were sober, most drunk, often comatose, frequently in bedrooms... it was that kind of party. Of the seven young people who have admitted being at the party, one, Quincy Omar Cross, a 25-year-old black man from out of town, caught everyone's attention.

Cross's behaviour at the party was at times bizarre. "He kept saying he wanted to find women, he said it over and over," Starks told police. "He was wired and never stopped talking."

Starks's testimony is neither fluent, nor full, nor always reliable - but, if true, it is damning. Through the blur of witnesses' failing memories, a picture emerged of an evening of sleep, drug and alcohol highs and lows, during which Cross moved in and out of 597 Chris Drive and was often on the phone. At around 5am, the priapic Cross suddenly asked Starks if he could borrow his car, a blue Pontiac, because: "I've got to see one of my girls."

We don't know what Cross did then, but at 7.50am, the Pontiac, with Cross at the wheel, had the misfortune not only to break down but to be spotted by a deputy sheriff, Mike Perkins. Perkins questioned Cross and says he noticed immediately that the driver's trousers reeked of petrol. Cross gave Perkins a false name, false date of birth and false social-security number. Perkins also spotted that Cross wore no belt. There was a small red petrol can on the back seat of the car. According to Starks, the owner of the car, it did not belong to him and had not been in the car when he loaned it to Cross.

Perkins allowed Cross to leave the broken-down car and walk back to Chris Drive (where he was later arrested for a drugs offence).

Starks says that Cross returned stinking of petrol. Starks is certain that Cross was no longer wearing the black leather belt he had been playing with before the car ride and has said that the belt is precisely like the one found round Currin's neck. Starks description of Cross, as wired and talking incessantly about wanting a woman and walking around the house without real purpose, suggests a sexual predator on cocaine.

Shortly after Cross's return, a second man, Austin Leech, arrived at the house. In his statement, Stark says that Cross and Leech had a long whispered conversation, and Leech left. Later it transpired that Leech had a white Cadillac which, for reasons still not properly explained, was driven by Leech and apparently hidden behind Starks's house that night.

Cross and Leech and their two cars are at * the centre of what police now believe happened to Currin. The evidence is forensic and strongly circumstantial, but far more convincing than the absurd case against Adams.

Cross was subsequently questioned once by Fortner. He gave nothing away and refused (as is his right) to be questioned again. Leech similarly gave one statement of no value to the police and has since refused to be questioned. (The law requires suspects be arrested and charged before they can be obliged to respond to questions.)

In the course of my investigation, I have discovered that, to deal with road-rage problems, Starks kept a small souvenir hardwood baseball bat under the front seat of his car. That bat has gone missing since Cross borrowed the vehicle - it was not there when Perkins searched the car. I have informed the police accordingly. They have had, until now, no clue as to the weapon that was used to bludgeon Currin.

Police are today certain Jessica's body was burnt in order to destroy any DNA evidence. The main difficulty remains in placing two men and two cars on that night in such a way that all the dots join up. No one, but no one, believes any longer that Adams committed the murder.

Stubblefield, a slight 20-year-old with big eyes that grow larger behind pebble-lens glasses, does not object to being the centre of attention. Very cool for her age, she has an instant answer for everything to do with the case, sticking to her original story like glue. No matter how close the questioning becomes, nothing fazes her.

While in Mayfield, I discovered that a CD with her name on the cover had been found by Mayfield police in the blue Pontiac that Cross had borrowed. (I told the Kentucky State Police who were very interested.) When I asked her how on earth had that got there on that night, Stubblefield betrayed no emotion. "I don't know," she answered levelly, "I have no idea." Could it have been a disc she loaned her friend Currin, which could mean Currin had been in the car at some stage? "I don't think so," she answered. And that was that. She asked me no questions and changed the subject.

I visited Adams in Mayfield city jail. Behind the bulletproof glass and on the intercom Adams looks and sounds the archetypal small-time crook - shifty, inarticulate, twitchy, but he's not a murderer. He confirmed my suspicions that once Fortner had shown him the gruesome crime-scene pictures, he had indeed talked to his cellmate about them. He denies ever having raped Currin ("I don't need to force myself on any woman") but admits they had intercourse just once (he claims she picked him up) and that he is probably the father of her child.

Adams is the classic police patsy, forever in and out of jail, vulnerable, suggestible. I have checked every word of every statement his cellmate Roberts, the jailhouse snitch, ever made implicating Adams. Whatever Roberts claims Adams told him can easily be attributed to Adams having seen the crime pictures.

So was Adams set up? Was Roberts induced or bribed to give evidence against him? "Oh no," everyone tells me, "definitely not", says David Hargrove the Commonwealth Attorney. "Of course not," snaps Lear. "Not to my knowledge," says a hesitant Fortner.

I have discovered otherwise.

The last formal interview between Fortner and Roberts was both video and audio recorded. It was one of the tapes that Fortner "didn't think it worth giving to the defence". Now I know why.

The audio tape from which the written deposition was made reveals nothing about a deal between the police and the jailhouse snitch. But the video is a different matter.

The camera was switched on moments before the audio. In those telling few seconds, which have never been transcribed, Lear is heard concluding a deal with Roberts by which the snitch is absolved of serving some outstanding jail time in one county, and obligingly moved to a jail in another county to be nearer his family. And this in return for helping the police nail Adams. These deals are legal only if they are declared to the court. This deal was never declared.

When we tried to speak to Roberts about the affair, he panicked and told us to speak to Hargrove, and then fled.

When I spoke to Hargrove in his lush Mayfield office, I asked the disc jockey turned lawyer if he recalled the Roberts deal. There was a long, long silence. "I don't know," he answered slowly, "I can't answer that, I can't remember." E-mails sent by me to him since, in which I have asked more pointed questions about the deal and why it was never declared, remain unanswered.

Lear, who was the lead interviewing officer when the deal was made, wouldn't even confirm to me at first that he had interviewed Roberts. "I can't remember," he said staring at the wall over my right shoulder. "I don't think I was there."

"But I've seen you on the video."

Very long pause. "Well, if I'm on the video I'm on it," Lear, who is now training to be a Methodist minister answers, "but I don't remember anything about an inducement, if anything was done I had no knowledge of it."

Later in our interview, Lear's memory takes a turn for the better. "You know, this case will stick in my mind for ever... I think only God can pass judgement."

The hard truth remains that once the investigation focussed on the framing of an innocent man, the heart went out of the inquiry, and the trail went very cold, leaving the actual murderers unpunished and at large.

Jessica's dad, the proud fire chief of Mayfield, has struggled from a humble background to become a popular and respected member of the community. He and his wife Jean live in a comfortable middle-class house just out of town. The couple are religious. Holy images share shelf and display-cabinet space with pictures of the daughter who will never grow up. An attractive little boy with his mother's big eyes runs into the room. Jean scoops him up. The grandparents have formally adopted Zion. They will not allow a DNA parental test on him as neither wish to know the answer in case any parental rights are awarded to the supposed father. They don't need Adams as a son-in-law.

Fortner is today a security guard at the local hospital. He works for small money. The case haunts him and he believes his life is in danger. He has bought, and has permission to carry, a concealed weapon.

Cross and Leech are the objects of a new and intense police investigation. Leech's white Cadillac was examined several weeks after the crime (the car yielded nothing of value, the detective in charge of the examination tells me: "That old car had been cleaned up to factory-new standards by the time we got to it."), the blue Pontiac has only now been found in Louisiana and Kentucky State Police have recovered it for a long overdue detailed forensic examination. They have found, I understand, some positive results.

Cross and Leech remain an uncomfortable presence in a town that seems unable to come to terms with itself. This really is heartland America; there are so many good people here; many of their young men have gone to serve in Iraq, hopeful ambassadors of a way of life they are proud to export. But Mayfield, so typically American, will remain a stained standard for the American way of life as long as it fails to answer some of the questions that surround a small-town murder.

Following my visit to Mayfield, the Jessica Currin case was given renewed impetus by the Kentucky State Police. Detective Jamie Mills, a no-nonsense cop, has worked unceasingly on the new leads. As a result, a warrant for indictment on murder charges in the case, bearing the names of two males, is to be presented within weeks to a Mayfield Grand Jury.

Additional research Susan Galbreath