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Three decades later, a family still reels from a killer's reach

Kimberly Brown holds a picture of her murdered brother Curtis McGhin. The 13-year-old boy was slain in 1979.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Kimberly Brown holds a picture of her murdered brother Curtis McGhin. The 13-year-old boy was slain in 1979.

PALM RIVER — Raymond McGhin, 40, remembers the day he heard his grandmother cry.

He remembers running outside, where his sister, Kimberly, and the rest of the family had gathered to hear what they already guessed: Their brother, Curt, had been killed.

"He's gone to be with Jesus," their grandmother said.

That was in December 1979.

The siblings didn't know it, but this moment was just the beginning of their sorrow.

For decades, they would be left to wonder who had taken the life of a 13-year-old boy. And, as much as they struggled, they would not heal.

• • •

Kim was 11 and Raymond was 9 when Curt disappeared on Nov. 8, 1979.

Curt had stayed home from Dowdell Junior High School, feigning illness.

In the afternoon, he redeemed empty soda bottles for cash at a Shop N' Go and walked away, according to a 1979 news report in the Tampa Tribune.

Where he went remains a mystery, though multiple witnesses later reported seeing him that day in the Palm River area.

His family reported Curt missing just before 5 p.m., according to Maj. Harold Winsett, chief of the Hillsborough County sheriff's criminal investigations division. The division includes the cold case unit, which last week made an arrest in a 1992 murder.

Curt was last sighted at 5:50 p.m., when some of his schoolmates said they saw him "near or inside" a gray-colored Volks­wagen, Winsett said.

Kim Brown, Curt's sister, recalls the fear at home.

"The night he was missing, I remember Mom and Dad driving around to different friends' houses to see if he was there," she said. "They felt like they had to do something."

Then, on Dec. 19, 1979, two bakers set out to harvest palmetto fronds for Cuban bread. In a wooded field near 24th Avenue and 54th Street S, they found a skeleton. The bones appeared charred.

Dental records confirmed the body belonged to Curtis James McGhin.

Raymond refused to believe it.

"I was numb," he said. "I ran away from the house. I just stayed away and told myself it wasn't my brother."

• • •

Inside the McGhin house, less than half a mile from where the remains were found, there are no visible reminders of Curt. Family photographs of grandparents and aunts sit on tables or hang on walls. But photos of the boy who died remain tucked away.

Raymond and Kim both live in the house with their father, Dan McGhin. Their mother, Gladys McGhin, died of a stroke in 2008.

When Gladys died, Dan asked Raymond to move back home.

The following year, when a lifelong battle with depression caught up with her, Kim quit her job as an administrative assistant at the University of South Florida and joined them. She lives on disability payments.

Kim has suffered three pronounced periods of emotional pain so severe that she couldn't get out of bed, she said. The first came in her senior year at Brandon High School, when her illness kept her home for weeks. She has been hospitalized more times than she can count.

"I had a lot of survivor's guilt," she said. "I felt like (Curt) should have been the one to survive."

Life wasn't always this difficult. When she graduated from high school in 1986, she joined the military and served as a flight operations coordinator at Fort Rucker in Alabama. There, she met her husband, Bryan Brown.

She was pregnant with her third child when the depression returned. After the baby came, she attempted suicide three times, she said.

Twice, she overdosed. The third time, she said, she tried to poison herself by locking herself in a bathroom and burning a set of propane lanterns.

Kim and her husband divorced in the late 1990s. They share custody of the children.

She would like to know who killed her brother. She would like to see that person put on trial.

Even after 30 years, her emotions are frail.

"I would be there every day," she said, sobbing. "It would bother me, but I would be there every day."

• • •

At 6 feet tall, Raymond has a heavyset but powerful build. When he speaks, his voice is soft, carrying a tone of shaky confidence. He rarely raises it, but talk of Curt's death brings out the frustration and anger.

Depression has also been a constant in his life. He doesn't attribute all of his problems to his brother's death. But he knows that something went wrong.

For years afterward, each family member became distant from the others, he said.

"I felt unloved because Curt wasn't there and the family withdrew from each other," Raymond said. "I didn't have someone I could talk to if something was wrong. I had self-esteem issues … and it all just compiled into this pathetic person."

When he was 23, he got in trouble for having sex with a mentally handicapped teen.

He pleaded guilty to sexual battery charges and did prison time. He's a registered sex offender.

He doesn't like to talk about those years.

He meets with a therapist.

"I'm trying to rebuild my life," he said. "I made some poor choices, and I made some wrong decisions. It's a chapter of my life that I have closed."

Kathleen Heide, a University of South Florida criminology professor, says it is not unheard of for family members of homicide victims to later commit crimes.

Heide, who has studied homicide's effect on families, said survivors will often display a psychological need to address the matter if a case is unsolved.

"Often what happens without professional help is everyone thinks they shouldn't talk about it, so it eats away inside of them and everybody suffers privately," Heide said. "And when people do that, some people may find very destructive ways."

• • •

Curt's family longs for justice, but after 30 years, members don't expect it.

They say they've heard little from investigators since the early years of the investigation.

One memory stands out.

"I remember one call in my mid teens," Kim said. "And I remember thinking, 'I hope he gets the chair.' "

The call came in 1983. Authorities had charged a Tampa man with an unrelated murder. He was once considered a suspect in Curt's death. The man was convicted of the 1983 murder and did time in prison.

The St. Petersburg Times is not identifying the man because he was not charged in the McGhin case.

"(He) was looked at, but not because there were clear suspicions," said Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Chris Fox, one of the sheriff's two cold case investigators. "I would never refer to (him) as the suspect. The investigation did not lead to charging him or anyone else."

Reached at his home on a recent morning, the man said he doesn't remember much about Curtis McGhin. He knows he was a suspect and remembers being questioned, but little else.

• • •

There is one place where Curt's photo is not kept hidden away.

He is in the second row of faces on the Sheriff's Office unsolved homicides page.

There are 91 cases shown.

Curt is the among the youngest.

He sits there with Carl DeLong Jr., beaten to death in 1956 in Temple Terrace. And Betty Sue Foster, found shot in 1983 at the Progress Village sewage treatment plant. And 15-year-old Frances Hernandez, shot in 1989 outside her Tampa home.

"Are you going to solve all of them? Probably not," Winsett said. "But that doesn't mean we're not going to try."

The McGhins want the killer caught, not so much for punishment, Raymond said, but just to know who did it and why.

"He will face the ultimate judge one day," his sister Kim said. "It would be nice if he had to face it here on Earth, but whether he does or not, he will face the ultimate judge."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (813) 226-3321 or dsullivan@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

Active status

Number of Hillsborough cold cases: 165. The Sheriff's Office website's unsolved homicides page summarizes 91 of them.

The investigators: Sheriff's Detective Chris Fox and Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent Sandy Noblitt work the cold cases. They get help from a volunteer group of nine retired law enforcement officers, forensics experts, attorneys and others, who comb through old files and provide suggestions. Since 2006, the team has reviewed 41 cases, including the McGhin file.

The oldest Hillsborough cold case: Carl DeLong Jr., 1956.

A solved case: Last week, a death unsolved for 18 years netted an arrest. The agency filed first degree murder charges against Rocky G. Juarez, 43, in the 1992 murder of Rachel Guiles, 32, of Tampa. Investigators used DNA to link Juarez to the crime.

Learn more: To learn more about Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office cold cases, search for "unsolved homicides" at the sheriff's website, www.hcso.tampa.fl.us.

How to help

Anyone with information regarding the death of Curtis McGhin should contact Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Chris Fox at (813) 247-0553.

Three decades later, a family still reels from a killer's reach 09/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 12:16pm]

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