Patricide. Fratricide. Madness. Redemption. Retribution.
Two lives ended. Three lives threatened. A life seemingly damaged beyond all possibility of repair mended and begun again. Then, without warning, arrest and recommitment to the state mental hospital just five days before the state planned to grant the young killer permanent freedom.
Franklin Curtis' story contains all the classic elements of an ancient Greek tragedy, but today it is working itself out in the courts of Ravalli County and in the halls of the Montana State Hospital. And while everyone agrees that murder and mayhem took place, no one seems to have a clear idea of what should-or will-happen to Franklin Curtis in the future. College, prison, or the state hospital? Complete freedom, life-long restrictions or something in-between?
Franklin Curtis admits he killed his father and brother on Aug. 16, 1993. In a sad and horrible telephone interview from the state prison a month after the murders, Curtis explained how he was commanded to shoot them by the voices within his head that had been plaguing him more and more over the days leading up to the deaths.
Demons swelled from his father's head and his brother's stomach, he said then-demons intent on killing him. Instead, he killed the demons (and with them his family) and then fled the isolated rural home he shared with the other two men on Skalkaho Creek, southeast of Hamilton.
But, he says, the Franklin Curtis of six years ago is not the Franklin Curtis of today. The 21-year-old Franklin Curtis was in the depths of paranoid schizophrenia, aggravated by severe alcohol abuse-a lost soul in the grip of internal demons, who killed two men and tried to kill three others.
"I was a drunk," Curtis says bluntly, speaking in a telephone interview last week from the forensic unit at the Montana State Hospital, where he is once again undergoing a 30-day evaluation to determine his fitness to stand trial. "I was a drunk from the time I was a kid and that made everything else worse."
Curtis says he is neither a drunk nor mentally ill any longer. For the past year, since September 1998, Curtis has lived in a Billings group home operated by the state mental hospital. For that year he worked and attended college part-time. He lived in the community, coming and going independently to work and school. He attended AA meetings on an almost daily basis. He avoided temptation and remained clean and sober.
"I could have had booze or drugs at almost any time in the past six years," Curtis says. "They were available if I had wanted them. I could have had them any day in Billings. But I didn't. I haven't had a drink in six years. Without drugs and alcohol in my life, I'm a completely different person."
Curtis worked full time for a construction company all summer. He volunteered at the local food bank. He was enrolled in college for the fall semester in Billings. On Aug. 16, 1999, he was to be released from the custody of the state hospital, having been judged "no longer a danger to himself and others." For the first time in six years, he would have been on his own. But instead, five days before his release date, he was arrested. Charged for the second time with two counts of deliberate homicide and three counts of aggravated assault, he was returned to the Ravalli County Jail.
Curtis was arraigned on the charges and sent back to the state hospital in Warm Springs for a court-ordered evaluation to determine his fitness to stand trial on the six-year-old charges. Despite the state's determination that he was no longer mentally ill, Ravalli County Attorney George Corn asked for the further evaluation to establish a legal record that Curtis is now fit to proceed to judgment.
So for the next month he will live in a locked-down, security wing of the hospital-unable talk to family and friends except through a reinforced viewing window or by telephone. He cannot even walk the grounds of the hospital which was his home for five long years.
Encounter on the Bluff
Curtis speaks openly about the deaths of his father and brother. He calls the incident "the tragedy" and says, "The loss of two loved ones who will never be replaced is horrible. I went through a long grieving process in the hospital as part of my treatment."
The path that brought Curtis back to the state hospital on Sept. 9 began six years ago in the sweltering dog days of August 1993. Curtis and his half-brother, Lloyd, were living with Curtis' father (Lloyd's stepfather) also named Frank. Frank Senior ranched and worked logging jobs; Frank Junior logged and worked construction. Lloyd had recently returned to Hamilton after completing school and had opened a small optometric business, grinding prescription lenses. He was living with the others to save money as he worked to establish his new business venture.
The day before the murders was a Sunday, the last day of the Western Montana Fair. All three Curtis men went to the fair's draft horse show that afternoon to help a long-time neighbor, Charley Rogers, hitch and unhitch his teams of horses.
Working beside them were another set of Ravalli County teamsters, Jack and Helen Eden, who had known the Curtis family all their lives. "We were all busy with the teams, so I didn't pay much attention," Helen Eden says. "I remember the impression of three large, dark men [dark in mood] helping hitch. When we heard the news on Tuesday, I told Jack we had been working next to a time bomb and never knew it."
Monday was a day that started with the purchase of a pistol, escalated into an unprovoked attack on two innocent bystanders and ended before midnight with the senior Frank Curtis shot dead with the pistol he had purchased just hours before.
Sometime in the early afternoon, the two Franks stopped at Angler's Roost, a sporting goods store two miles south of Hamilton. Frank Senior bought a 9 mm Makarov pistol at the store and then the men drove south.
The Rye Creek canyon intersects Highway 93 at the base of a rattlesnake-infested rock bluff a few miles south of Darby. The creek and canyon meander due east, climbing to the Rye Creek-Skalkaho divide. In August the creek is a weary trickle and the road is a dust-spewing washboard. The hills above offer relief from the summer heat.
As the Curtises bounced along the Rye Creek Road, they met two men on horseback leading a pack string. Norm Jackson and Buck Buckingham were headed for Gibbonsville, Idaho. They planned to travel over the hills along dirt logging roads to stay away from the highway Their trip almost ended with that chance encounter.
The Curtises stopped to visit briefly with the riders, saying they were going higher into the hills to shoot for awhile. Frank Senior had shod a horse for Jackson the previous morning. Jackson and the Curtises were friends. The Curtises often stopped by Jackson's Grantsdale-area home. Jackson introduced them to Buckingham, a minister from the Stevensville area who was accompanying him on the journey.
It was perhaps an hour later, as the skies clouded up and rain started falling, that the Curtises returned down the road and stopped for a longer visit with the riders.
Both men got out of the pickup. The older Frank talked to Jackson about the pack trip. Franklin walked to the rear of the truck carrying the new automatic pistol in his right hand and a single-action pistol in his left, crouching slightly to lean against the vehicle.
"Can you shoot that automatic as good as you can your old .357?" Jackson asked pleasantly.
"I can put a slug right between your eyes," Franklin replied-and touched off a shot at Jackson from the single-action pistol in his left hand.
Jackson's horse was restive, skittering sideways as Jackson struggled to put on a rain coat. It was that sideways movement that probably saved his life. The shot missed.
"His eyes were wide open. He had a gleeful look on his face," Buckingham remembers. "He looked right at me then and started dry-firing the same pistol. It was evident he was trying to shoot us."
The senior Curtis was looking at Jackson and did not even turn around to see what his son was doing when the shot rang out. Buckingham said the father casually told his son not to shoot around Jackson's horses because they were not accustomed to the noise.
"It was obvious he was proficient with firearms. He knew what he was doing. He could have reloaded or fired the other one," Buckingham says. "That he didn't has to be divine intervention. It wasn't my time."
The Curtises drove away moments later. Jackson and Buckingham, who were miles from their vehicle and even further from a telephone, continued their journey through the mountains but were deeply troubled by the brief incident. That night, over the campfire, they discussed it.
"We did realize the severity of the situation. We agreed that if we had been trained police officers in that situation, we would have returned fire," Buckingham says. "At one of his court appearances, he testified he was planning to kill us as they drove back toward us."
Jackson has debated many times what would have happened if he had turned around and reported the incident to the authorities that afternoon. Would Frank Curtis and Lloyd Curtis still be alive? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Even if the men had ridden back to their truck and sought help, the two others might have already been killed. The exact time of death has never been established; the only witness to the murders was Franklin, who has no idea what time they took place.
The Seeds to Tragedy
The seeds to tragedy were sown years earlier. Franklin Richard Curtis married his brother's widow who brought her firstborn child, William Lloyd Curtis into the family. Franklin Thomas Curtis and three sisters were the result of that second marriage. So the four younger children were not only half-sisters and brother to young Lloyd, they were also his cousins.
The older generation of Curtises were known as hard-working, hard-drinking men. No one was surprised when Frank's wife left him, taking the girls with her. No one was surprised that the boys stayed, living a rough, bachelor existence with the senior Frank. No one was surprised that both Lloyd and Frank got into trouble as juveniles. Although Lloyd turned his life around and did well in school, eventually returning to open a business in Hamilton, Franklin slid from one potentially life-threatening incident to another. He received his first DUI after a major traffic accident when he was only 14. Big for his age and clever, Franklin was able to bluff his way into bars years before he was legally old enough to be there.
"I always thought sports would be my future," Curtis says. "The alcohol got in the way. I became a drunk. I'm sure I hurt a lot of people through the drinking and the drugs."
Franklin was known locally to be following in his father's footsteps-a hard worker, a hard fighter, a hard drinker. He was a man to avoid crossing but a good friend to those who treated him fairly. Some family friends speculate that the deaths were precipitated by sibling rivalry. Lloyd, who had broken away, gone to school and returned with a strong career potential, had been given a substantial loan by his step-father to establish his business.
"Franklin [Junior] loved them both, but he was jealous too," says a friend who asked not to be identified. "They loved each other but they fought a lot, especially when they were drinking, and that was all the time."
No one but the three Curtises was present the evening of Aug. 16, 1993. Sometime that night, according to Curtis, both his father and brother became possessed by demons and, when the demons turned toward him, he killed them. Then he left the house in his father's pickup, driving higher into the Skalkaho mountains. When the truck ran out of fuel, he walked away from it. It was found about 4 p.m. on Aug. 17, abandoned at the Rock Creek Road intersection high in the mountains, the door open. Lloyd Curtis' wallet, and guns and ammunition lay on the seat of the vehicle.
After the vehicle was discovered, the Ravalli County Sheriff's dispatch center received a call from Granite County Sheriff Don D. Kennedy. He had gotten a report from a concerned citizen about 1 p.m. The man had given a disheveled hitchhiker a ride as he was driving the Skalkaho Road between Ravalli and Granite counties. The man's bizarre behavior and remarks frightened the driver and he asked the man to leave the car but had problems convincing him to do so.
Sheriff Kennedy had driven the Skalkaho Road, found Franklin Curtis walking back toward Ravalli County and had taken him into custody based on the earlier complaint. Curtis gave a number of false names and was largely uncooperative. When the abandoned pickup belonging to Franklin William Curtis was reported a short time later, Sheriff Kennedy called and asked Ravalli County law enforcement to do a welfare check on the senior Curtis. By that time, he had discovered who Franklin Thomas Curtis was and had charged him with misdemeanor criminal trespass to a vehicle and misdemeanor obstructing a peace officer.
Ravalli County Sheriff's Deputy Clint Eckhart was dispatched to the Curtis Ranch. He knocked on the door but received no reply. He looked through a window into the living room and saw two men-one in a recliner and one on a day bed. They were both dead.
Frank Curtis was on his back in a recliner with the Makarov pistol lying on his chest. His hand was resting on the pistol. He had one visible gunshot wound to the head. Lloyd Curtis was on the daybed. He had been shot four times in the head and neck.
Ravalli County Sheriff's Detective Jim Bailey was sent to Philipsburg, the Granite County seat, as the investigation began at the house. By 9 p.m. he was interviewing Franklin Curtis and had obtained a confession.
"In that first interview he never said anything about demons," Bailey remembers. "He talked about being a 'made man,' like in the Mafia. He said he shot his father in the chair. When I asked him about his brother, he looked at me and said 'I shot the shit out of him.' In that first interview he didn't sound freaky at all."
Bailey does believe Franklin Curtis was mentally ill, but he sees a different timeline behind those tragic events.
Bailey and another detective brought Curtis back to Ravalli County a day or so later. Curtis was calm when they put him in the car in Granite County. The climbed Skalkaho Pass and started back toward Hamilton. "When we went past the house, Frank started howling and acting really weird," Bailey remembers. "At the time, we thought he was putting on an act. But he never stopped acting that way. He just kept going the whole time he was in the jail. I saw his eyes, his behavior. There's no faking that."
Bailey believes that Franklin was sane at the time of the murders but that the act pushed him over the edge. "It's my opinion that the killing itself made him go nuts," Bailey says. "It tweaked his brain and the mental illness was his way of escaping from what he'd done."
Bailey saw Curtis in court a number of times for hearings after those first hectic days. He is now retired but will be called back to testify-if and when Curtis ever stands trail for the events of Aug. 16. He is sorry for Curtis but does not believe Curtis should ever be free.
"If he could just go off and kill his father and brother, what about regular citizens?" Bailey says. "I don't think he should ever be released."
Closing the Case
The investigation was still underway on Aug. 24 when Jackson and Buckingham returned from their pack trip, learned of the murders and filed a report about the shooting incident. That same day, Curtis attacked a jailer as he was being taken to the showers. The jailer required stitches and Curtis had to be subdued with pepper spray and handcuffs.
Was Curtis sane at the time of the murders? When did his mental illness begin? Was it evident in the afternoon encounter with Jackson and Buckingham? If Curtis is sane now, how should those incidents-and the attack on a jailer which led to the third felony assault charge-be used to judge him now?
"When I went to the hospital the first time, I thought the world was ending," Curtis says. "I heard voices all the time. I could attack someone with no reason. That took a long time to change."
And one of the reasons it took so long was that for more than a year after Curtis was diagnosed as mentally ill and placed in care at the state hospital, his court-appointed attorney, Donald Spadone, fought to keep the doctors from medicating Curtis. Medication was indicated, based on the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. In fact, his doctors testified that the longer Curtis went without treatment, the stronger the chance that the illness would be irreversible and that he would remain in a psychotic state for the rest of his life.
But Spadone fought to prevent court-ordered medication, arguing that the state did not have the right to force medication on Curtis so that he could be found competent to stand trial for murder.
As the issue was argued in the courts, Curtis remained in the state hospital. His condition improved slightly but he suffered from elaborate delusions and continued to hear the voices that had commanded the killings, according to testimony in court from the doctors who were treating him.
At one point during that year, Curtis asked to be treated with anti-psychotic drugs. A hearing was scheduled to determine if he was well enough to make that decision for himself. The tension of the approaching hearing was too much. Curtis relapsed and the hearing had to be canceled.
The Montana Supreme Court eventually ruled that Curtis could not be involuntarily medicated while the charges were pending against him. On October 13, 1994, a year and a month after the murders, the charges against Curtis were dismissed and civil commitment proceedings were instituted instead. Curtis was civilly committed to the hospital with annual reviews of his progress. Each year since he has been recommitted until this year. With that commitment finally came permission to treat him with the drugs that had been withheld before.
And Curtis did improve slowly. His recovery took years. Each year there was another hearing and another recommitment. Much of the testimony at those hearings has come from Dr. Virginia Hill, one of the staff psychiatrists who has treated Curtis since he was hospitalized. Curtis credits Dr. Hill for his recovery. He is quick to praise Hill and the other staff members at the hospital.
"Dr. Hill does whatever she can for each patient," Curtis says. "I have to deal with the fact that I killed my father and my brother. I loved them. I went through a long grieving process at the hospital. It was part of my treatment. The rest of my family is completely supportive. They understand it was my illness that caused the tragedy."
Curtis says he believes he would have been freed from the state hospital's control sooner, if it had not been for the charges that waited in abeyance in Ravalli County.
"The hospital staff believes I can manage now. I've been in Billings for a year and I've done well," Curtis says. "I have my tuition paid and I'm going to college. I had been told that they wouldn't reinstate the charges."
But Ravalli County Attorney George Corn says the charges have always been there, waiting for Curtis' release from the hospital.
"I understand he is doing well and I'm pleased to hear it," Corn says, "but two people were killed. Two people were shot at. A jailer was assaulted. These charges are too serious to let go by the way. There needs to be some accountability."
Surprisingly, Curtis does not disagree with Corn. "I know I did what happened," he says. "I know justice must be served and I will get what I get. But I have to build strength from the old weakness for a positive future."
Curtis says he knows he must remain on medication for the rest of his life and that he can never again drink alcohol or do drugs. A year facing-and resisting-temptation is a good indicator that he won't, he says. "I've been offered drugs and alcohol many times and I've turned it down every time," he says. "I've got all the negative things out of my life now by the grace of God."
Corn says he is willing to consider a variety of options in the Curtis case, but did not specify what the option might be.
"Public safety has to be my major concern and for everyone's sake, this case needs to be resolved," Corn says. "The case has so many tragic aspects and I have a lot of empathy for Frank and his family, but I also have to be concerned about the safety of the surviving victims."
Corn has kept Jackson and Buckingham apprised of each turn of events. They have been present at the court hearings and were told that Curtis had been sent to Billings.
"I have no malice toward him," Buckingham says. "I know the chaplains at the state hospital and have asked them to look in on him. I've considered going to see him, but I haven't yet. I don't know how he feels about us. He's never said. My personal opinion is that he should have a life sentence. Regardless of how he felt when he killed his father and brother, it was a crime-a punishable crime. But it's not up to me."
At his most recent arraignment, Curtis was granted a new public defender, Larry Mansch of Missoula. As of last week, Curtis had not heard from his attorney. He said he might not hear from him until the evaluation was over and he was returned to the Ravalli County Jail. And that worries him.
"I know what I did was wrong but that person is not the person I am now. I want to fight for my rights " Curtis says. "It's a little better here at the hospital but I was getting pretty uptight in the jail. I don't think it's a good place for me. I have too many bad memories. Now I guess it's up to the attorneys and the judge."
But Curtis is not giving up hope. "If you look at the past and learn to work with it, you can change things in the future," he says. "I want to go back to college and get on with my life."
Whether he is allowed to do so will not be decided for some time to come. Whether he has the strength for what is to come, only Franklin Curtis knows.