One evening in December 1985, Curtis Brown, a 21-year-old black
man, left his home in Atlanta, Georgia, to purchase a package of cigarettes.
Five hours later, when an unidentified corpse was discovered in Dean Rusk Park,
no connection was made. Stripped of I.D., his pants pulled down, the victim had
been shot several times in the head, and .38-caliber bullets were recovered in
fair shape for ballistic identification.
Curtis Brown's body was not identified until four days later, when his girlfriend filed a missing person report with police. With confirmation in hand, detectives examined his final hours, tracing the victim as far as a neighborhood tavern. Employees remembered him there, on the night of his death, and they thought he had left with another black customer, known -- for the sake of his 300 pounds -- as "Big Mike."
From there, the trail went cold, and homicide detectives had no time to spare for chasing shadows. Six years earlier, Atlanta had been "honored" with the title of America's murder capital, boasting the nation's highest per capita homicide rate, and matters had scarcely improved in the meantime. Three sensational outbreaks of serial murder had captured the national spotlight from 1980 to 1984, and overworked police had many "ordinary" slayings on their hands, as well.
Ten months elapsed before authorities resigned themselves to yet another monster in their midst. In mid-October 1986, the decomposing body of a young black man was discovered in an abandoned building; he had been shot several times in the back of the head, the body left with pants pulled down around his knees. It took several days to identify the victim as Daryl Williams, a 21-year-old drifter from Ohio. Last seen alive in a bar, on October 5, there was no trace of his movements from that night on.
Ballistics tests confirmed a link between the Williams murder weapon and victim George Willingham, a local family man who left his home on an errand, October 5, and never returned. Found the next day in an alley, he had been shot in the back of the head, execution style, with the same pistol used on Daryl Williams. The connection of two similar cases sent detectives back to their files. In short order, they compiled a list of further victims. Curtis Brown was added, on the basis of his killer's M.0., along with Richard Williams, of South Carolina; Alvin George, 31, from Columbus, Ohio; and 18-year-old Jason McColley, a native of Atlanta. The last three all had reputations as street hustlers or male prostitutes; all had been slain execution-style, with a pistol or knife, during the past year.
There were other striking similarities between the unsolved murders. Five of the six victims were found with their pants down, apparently slain after sex. George and McColley were murdered a month apart, but in the same alley, each stabbed in the neck with a similar knife. Two unrelated victims named Williams, the first and last, had each been killed in abandoned buildings a short distance apart. Richard Williams and Curtis Brown had been shot with the same pistol, but not the one used to kill Daryl Williams and George Willingham. Brown and Richard Williams had each suffered post mortem wounds from a short, sharp blade. If further connections were needed, a witness recalled seeing Jason McColley with a hulk matching "Big Mike's" description on the night he died. Renewed investigation led detectives to the rooming house where Michael Terry had lived for the past year, collecting numerous guns and pawning a few when he ran short of cash. Arrested at work, in a tire-capping shop, Terry was relieved of a hidden .357 magnum and hauled in for questioning.
In his eventual confession, Terry stated that he met his several victims in saloons, adjourned to other sites for homosexual relations, after which the smaller men allegedly had threatened him with robbery or worse. The killings, he alleged, were simply self-defense. "I didn't want to hurt anyone," Terry insisted, "but they took advantage of me." A jury thought otherwise, and on February 22, 1987, Michael Terry was convicted of murdering Richard Williams and Curtis Brown. He was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment without parole, four other cases held in reserve, against the possibility his sentence might be shortened on appeal.