This week, Walter Currie, Jr. had to face the young man who doused him with gas and set him on fire for the first time since the attack took place June 13, 2009, in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
The 16-year-old charged with the attack appeared in a preliminary juvenile court hearing August 5, 2009, presided over by Butler County’s Associate Circuit Judge John Bloodworth, who will decide if he will tried as an adult or a juvenile.
Winona Currie, Walter’s mother, seemed anxious as she and the family were getting ready for the hearing. Walter is 15 years old, and still has a youthful appearance. He smiles easily, but is soft spoken and shy. His face shows no signs of the attack, but heavy scarring and discoloration peak out from his collar and stretch up his neck.
“I’ve lived in Poplar Bluff all my life,” said Walter Currie Sr., Walter’s father, as the family prepared to leave for the courthouse. “But after this, I don’t know if I want to stay here.”
On June 13, 2009, Walter, who is African-American, was walking with his cousin on a street near downtown Poplar Bluff, a small city of about 17,000 residents in Southeast Missouri. After Walter exchanged a few words with his alleged assailant, who is also one of his classmates, the young man doused Walter with gasoline and set him on fire. A 16-year-old white youth carrying a lighter and a Gatorade bottle filled with gas was arrested at the scene and charged with the crime. The burn injuries to Walter’s stomach, chest, shoulders, and neck put him in the hospital for nine days, and he has had one skin graft surgery, so far.
The racial connotations of this case, and the legacy of lynchings where African Americans were burned to death, are still painfully present for many people. After reading reports from Kansas City and St. Louis on the case, we reached out to Walter’s family and learned how alone they’ve felt in coping with this tragedy. Our film crew decided to go to Poplar Bluff to meet Walter and his family, talk to local law enforcement, and join a group of Kansas City ministers traveling to the town to witness the hearing for Walter’s assailant.
Before the court proceeding, I met with Poplar Bluff Police Chief Danny Whiteley and his Deputy Chief Jeff Rolland. We talked about the Curries’ concern that the police were not adequately investigating the crime, and that the possible racial motivation for the attack was not in the police report. The local authorities told us they’ve found no evidence that the attack was racially motivated, but say that they are cooperating with the Department of Justice on its inquiries into the crime.
“We also sent everything we had to the FBI, so they could look it over,” said Deputy Chief Rolland.
“Our hands are tied on some of this because it is a juvenile case. We may be able to say more after this hearing, if the accused is tried as an adult,” Whiteley said.
According to the department leadership, the Poplar Bluff police department presented evidence to Butler County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Barbour that would enable him to charge Walter’s attacker with first-degree assault, a Class A felony. If the accused is tried as an adult, such a felony in Missouri carries a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.
Before the court hearing, Chief Whiteley and Deputy Chief Rolland went to the Currie family’s home and drove Walter and the family to the courthouse.
MAKING THE CASE TO TRY WALTER’S ASSAILANT AS AN ADULT
The small courtroom was packed, mostly with Walter’s supporters, from family, friends, and local clergy members, to a group of eight ministers who drove from Kansas City, MO, to attend the proceedings.
“As preachers, as ministers, and as pastors, we wanted to lend whatever weight we could just by our presence,” said local Pastor Gregory Nichols, Walter’s uncle. “Young Walter needs to know that people care about what happened to him, and about what happens to him in the future as we move forward.”
The Butler-Ripley County Juvenile Office petitioned the court to have Walter’s attacker tried as an adult. The office’s representative, Drew Million, presented witnesses who indicated that if the nearly 17-year-old accused was tried as a juvenile, he would face a maximum sentence of one year and three months. The witnesses testified that the short period might not be enough time to “rehabilitate” the offender.
The defendant’s attorney, Danny Moore, a seasoned local litigator, argued that his client was acting in self-defense against Walter. The juvenile court officer indicated that the youth is accused of carrying a Gatorade bottle filled with gasoline, spraying it on Walter and then igniting him with a lighter.
Although Walter was the victim in this crime, the Currie family was forced to hire their own attorney. Almost a month after the attack, Walter was charged with assault based on an altercation that took place several days before he was set on fire.
Walter’s mother, the last witness called to testify, had a calm demeanor as she spoke about her son. While her answers to questions were brief, at one point, she wiped tears from her face as she spoke. She says that Walter will face multiple surgeries and treatments over the next several years and will be required to wear a burn vest. “Walter is so different since this happened,” she said. “He doesn’t want to be alone. He is jittery and he has a hard time being still. He cries out in the night.”
Judge Bloodworth accepted the defense attorney’s motion for a continuance. He will reconvene the hearing August 19, 2009, and hear final evidence then on whether to try Walter Currie’s accused assailant as an adult.
THE CURRIE FAMILY
Police Chief Whiteley said they have been working with a local clergy member who has consulted with the Department of Justice on similar cases. Preacher Bobby Dean says he believes that the crime against Walter was racially motivated, but that misinformation and rumors have to be dispelled in order to get to the truth. Dean reported that initially there was talk that more than one person was responsible for the attack on Walter. “Only one person set Walter on fire, and we don’t currently have evidence that racial epithets were used at the time of the attack,” he said.
Dean believes the manner of the attack hearkens back to an earlier time when lynching occurred not just in Southern Missouri, but also across the country.
“You think about this kind of thing happening in the early 1900s when lynching was a way of life — even the 1950s and 1960s,” says Dean. “But to fast forward, in this day and time, to know that a human being was doused with gas and set fire to, it was very shocking, very appalling.”
Surely, there are good citizens who must be shocked and appalled by what happened to Walter and would like to do something to show their support. Some local leaders report that the town is working at opening up interracial communication.
But until this Wednesday, Walter and his family say they have felt very alone. Winona Currie says she would like to see more public outcry about what happened to her son. And she would have welcomed other expressions of support: if someone had brought over food to the hospital in St. Louis where Walter was treated for his wounds, or even joined her as she sat beside Walter’s hospital bed. “It’s hard having a child injured in such a hateful way,” she says. “And to have him lay there in pain, and there’s nothing you can do but hurt with him, cry with him. Sometimes, you just need people to talk to.”
In the documentary Not In Our Town, union leader Randy Siemers tells us, “In Montana, when one of your neighbors is under attack, you run out there and protect them. Don’t they do that in other parts of the country?”
Sometimes people laugh when they hear this question in the film. It’s an uncomfortable laugh, because I think so many of us wish we could be the kind of neighbors we know we ought to be. I hope the Curries will soon find that their Poplar Bluff neighbors are there for them as Walter struggles to heal from the burning wounds caused by this crime.