Part Four:
On the Internet, Terri finally finds the help she seeks
By ANNE SAKER, Staff Writer

     Terri Hinson spent hours on the new computer. When she wasn't setting up programs to help her fiance in his construction company, she was searching the World Wide Web. She looked for universities that might have put North Carolina's laws on line, but th e General Statutes weren't available over the Internet yet.
     She had better luck when she typed the word "fire" into a search engine one night. Thousands and thousands and thousands of hits came back, and the Web browser displayed them in groups of 10.
     Terri clicked on one -- someone was fired from a job. She clicked on another -- all about brush fires. Another -- someone else fired from a job. Click -- a volunteer fire department. Click. Click. Click.
     For 12 to 14 hours a day: Click. Click. Click.
     One night, she clicked on a page entitled, "Is It An Accidental Fire or Arson?" Tony Cafe, a fire investigator in Sydney, Australia, published the April 1989 article to describe the use of scientific techniques to study fire. Terri read the whole page. T hen she read it again.
     "A thorough investigation of any large-scale fire, be it accidental or deliberate, is warranted," Cafe wrote. "Chemists have expertise which can be used in an on-the-spot investigation and in the analytical laboratory."

     The page concluded with Cafe's electronic-mail address. Terri sent a message all the way to Australia to pose a question: Did Cafe know of any cases when a fire investigator got it wrong?
     Cafe responded the next day. Sure, he wrote, they're always getting it wrong.
     Terri's next e-mail explained that a friend was in trouble because of a fire, and she wondered whether Cafe could recommend any experts in the field.
     Cafe sent her the name and e-mail address of Gerald Hurst of Austin, Texas.
     On Oct. 9, 1997, Terri wrote to Hurst, typing, "A lady's life is in jeopardy."
Staff Photos By Robert Willett
Terri Hinson's computer was her link to the world while she was under house arrest. It enabled her to find Gerald Hurst -- not only an expert, but someone willing to listen to her side of the story.
     In an office in the basement of his home, Hurst read the e-mail and leaned back in his orange desk chair. Stacks of papers defended his fort of a desk. Old microscopes perched on shelves. The casings of computer monitors and the innards of hard drives la y in a corner.
     Born on a farm outside Davis, Okla., in 1937, Hurst earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge University and spent his career developing rocket propellants and explosives. An inventor as well, he developed the trade secret formulas for Liquid Paper and patented an explosive called Kinepak. He also patented the Mylar balloon and spent untold thousands of dollars defending his patent in court.
     Later, defense lawyers in civil cases hired Hurst to study fire scenes and testify about them, and over the years he came to believe that many fire investigations were sloppy, cursory and founded on "junk science." Hurst didn't care for investigators' pr ofessional organizations because he believed a good number of their members relied on old wives' tales about fire. Besides, he didn't need the brownie points.
     He had worked on one criminal case, of a Texas woman sentenced to 99 years in prison for a fire that killed an uncle. Hurst considered the prosecution's evidence slim at best, perhaps even manufactured. He consulted by e-mail with experts around the worl d -- including Tony Cafe -- and he still hoped to get the woman out of prison eventually.
     Now, someone in North Carolina needed his help. No money, of course. Not that it mattered.
     Hurst sat up in his orange chair. Preserving Terri's privacy, he responded to her e-mail: "I'd be happy to hear more about your lady's case."
     Terri then identified herself and told him what happened. Hurst replied: "A very moving and tragic story. Please send me the name and telephone number of your attorney so that I can contact him."
     In e-mail over the next few days, Hurst asked Terri about the house, the weather conditions, the fire's movement. On Oct. 20, exactly a year after her son died in the house fire at 101 Wall Street in Tabor City, Terri sent Hurst copies of all the documen ts she'd collected from her lawyer, and Hurst studied them.
     From more than 1,000 miles away, the fire looked accidental to Hurst.
     Terri's response telegraphed her joy.
     "I hope to get to meet you one day," she wrote. "After having so much negative going on around me, I find it difficult to believe someone from as far away as you are would care. It means more than I could ever express. Thank you."

In lengthy, daily e-mail correspondence, Gerald Hurst and Terri Hinson collaborated on her case. He coached her on dealing with her new computer and software, and together they began building the case for her defense. And along the way, before they had met face-to-face, they also became friends. Read extensive excerpts from their e-mail correspondence (with some personal or unrelated materials deleted): 
  • "A lady's life is in jeopardy" (October 9-15, 1997) 
  • "A lot of power in your hands" (October 16 - November 18, 1997)
  • "And this isn't fair" (November 20-22, 1997) 

  • "The moral is: GET PUSHY" (November 24, 1997 - January 5, 1998)
        At first, Terri's lawyer, T. Craig Wright of Whiteville, seemed receptive to Hurst. But October became November, and Wright did not invite the chemist to join the case. Hurst urged Terri to speak to Wright.
         "To be frank, I'm afraid to," she wrote. "He has been so determined for me not to talk to anyone about this, including the press, that I'm afraid he will quit the case."
         So, with the trial set for January, Terri and Hurst went forward together to build a defense. Hurst coached her through the vagaries of Microsoft Word for Windows as they composed a time line of events, exchanging drafts with her corrections in yellow type, his in blue.
    Staff Photos By Robert Willett
    Terri got her computer after Rodney Strickland, now her husband, asked her to help with his construction business and she found she needed something more powerful than her word processor.
         "You have taken to the computer very quickly. Congratulations," Hurst wrote to Terri. "It puts a lot of power in your hands."
          In mid-November, Terri told Hurst of a new development:
         "I did a home pregnancy test, and it came up positive. I don't know how to feel about it. Rodney is happy. I am scared. I had hoped it would be down the road, but I guess God chose now."
         Hurst responded: "You should give Rodney some of the credit :)"
         Though Terri had carried five babies to term, she considered herself a high risk. She was a teetotaler, but she smoked at least a pack a day, drank coffee constantly and suffered from migraines. 
         Terri's lawyer was not happy for her. Wright feared the local newspaper would find out about her pregnancy and splash the news across the front page. He called Terri irresponsible.
         "You are not irresponsible," Hurst told her. "This is your personal life, and you have an undeniable right to live it without having to meet anyone else's arbitrary standards."
         Rodney's divorce came through in early December. Engaged for nearly two years, Terri and Rodney finally set a date: Dec. 23. A Tuesday. A Brittany-visitation day.
         Terri's sister Ann sent a beige dress long enough so that the maid of honor, now 5, wouldn't see the ankle monitor on the bride's left leg. Mother and daughter carried blue silk daisies saved from one of Josh's funeral arrangements.
         A week later, Terri started bleeding. She asked her doctor for a referral to a specialist; he ordered bed rest. Hurst counseled her to be aggressive.
         "Three years ago," he wrote, "they sent me home from the hospital because I was certain to die and was just taking up space. They told my wife to call hospice because there was no chance I could live for more than a few weeks. I went home after firing my doctors. My son lobbied me into the Baylor transplant facility with the help of a doctor I had never met until he made a house call. Baylor gave me a new liver. The moral is: GET PUSHY."
         But as 1998 began, Terri didn't think she had the strength anymore.
         On Jan. 2, she miscarried.
         On Jan. 3, her mother suffered a stroke.
         On Jan. 5, Terri asked the Department of Social Services to place Brittany with Terri's sister Linda, who now lived in Monroe. DSS said Brittany instead would go into foster care.
         Terri and Rodney moved in with Terri's mother to help her recover.
         "For the first time, I think I am finally losing control," she wrote Hurst.
         "It sounds to me more like you're taking control," he replied. 
    Part Five
    Terri's Fire
    Truth in Justice