The expert's tests unlock the mystery of the fire's origin
|By ANNE SAKER, Staff Writer
Terri Strickland sat up in bed, yelling. Another nightmare. Even when good things were happening, she still had nightmares of fire.
It was still dark outside when she got up and turned on the computer. It was weird, after five months of almost daily exchanges, not to get any e-mail from Gerald Hurst.
But she had something better now. Hurst was in Columbus County, making her case.
Maybe it would all end today.
For their April 1 meeting with Assistant District Attorney Lee Bollinger, Terri's lawyers asked that Special Agent Matt White of the State Bureau of Investigation be present. White was the chief investigator on the case who had charged Terri with capital murder and arson.
But when the defense team arrived at the grand jury room of the Columbus County courthouse in Whiteville, White was not in attendance. He didn't show all morning.
Hurst wasted no time, monopolizing Bollinger with an education on fire in general and the fire at 101 Wall St. in Tabor City in particular. Hurst's partner, Ken Gibson, and Wyman Sox, the South Carolina electrician Terri's mother had hired, spoke up to underscore Hurst's points.
Just before the gathering broke up for lunch, Bollinger telephoned White and advised that he'd best come to the Columbus County courthouse -- now.
The special agent arrived about 3 p.m. Hurst asked for permission to question him, and Bollinger agreed. For the next two hours, the Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge University engaged the state police investigator in a Socratic dialogue.
| Why did you think it was arson?
Because of the fire pattern in the closet.
Did you look in the attic? That was not the point of origin.
How do you know that? The point of origin was in the closet.
The conversation was polite as Hurst and White went back and forth. Near the end of the day, White made what Hurst considered to be a startling acknowledgement.
|• E-mail excerpts: "He did not even consider the wire" (April 9 - 17, 1998). As they wait for the prosecutor to reconsider the case in light of the new evidence they have presented, Terri Hinson Strickland and Jerry Hurst critique the SBI's initial investigation.|
| White insisted that the V-shaped burn pattern in
the closet of Josh's bedroom indicated that the fire started there. But
he also agreed that if the fire had started in the closet, it would have
gone through the half-inch plywood closet doors and destroye d Josh's bedroom
before eating through the 1-inch pine tongue-and-groove closet ceiling
to go into the attic.
Bollinger said nothing through the exchange. To Hurst, the prosecutor appeared agog.
Terri had steaks on the grill when Hurst and Gibson arrived from the courthouse. As they recounted the meeting, Terri could not stop laughing. She threw her arms around them and thanked them over and over.
The next morning, the Texans went home, and Terri waited for a phone call.
It did not come that day. Or the next day. Or the day after that. Or the day after that.
Bollinger wanted to make darn sure, if he was going to be the first prosecutor who dismissed a Columbus County capital murder case in who knows how long, that he was right.
He studied the fire investigation guide NFPA 921. He had White bring him a piece of 1-inch pine tongue-and-groove and set it afire so he could see how long it burned.
Bollinger also went to Raleigh to talk to the private engineer hired by the insurance company USF&G to look at 101 Wall St. after the fire. He told the engineer that someone had cut a section of wire over the closet ceiling and taken it. No one knew wher e it was.
Oh, do you want to see it? the expert asked, and he showed the wire to Bollinger.
In his office, the prosecutor read all the documents once more and considered what he had. He could take the case to a jury, but even for Bollinger, there was reasonable doubt.
For Terri, the silence from the prosecutor's office was maddening. She was distracted during visits with Brittany. In her e-mail traffic with Hurst, which resumed when he returned to Texas, she was full of worry. When is he going to call? What's taking s o long?
At least once a day, she heard the monitor for her ankle bracelet click. They were checking on her.
Staff Photo by Robert Willett
Terri spruces up the area in the cemetery near her home where family members are buried. Joshua's grave is prominent with its white cross and baby-blue picket fence.
| As she passed the days wishing
for the phone to ring, Terri thought about everything she and Hurst had
accomplished. She had learned a lot from that man. But no question, the
most valuable lesson Hurst taught her was that if she wanted to win, she
had to put aside anger and look at things unemotionally, scientifically.
If she wanted to save her own life, she had to GET PUSHY.
She went out to the cemetery and decorated Josh's grave for Easter.
On Thursday, April 16, Terri's lawyer T. Craig Wright called to schedule a meeting in his office for 4 p.m. Monday. Wright said he hadn't heard from Bollinger, and since jury selection was scheduled to begin May 26, it was time to prepare for trial.
When Terri relayed that news to Hurst, he replied, "Take good notes."
| The next morning, Terri sat at the kitchen table
as another pot of coffee brewed. She was alone. Her husband was working
on a job at the beach, and for the first time since her stroke, her mother
had gone out for a drive.
Terri lit a cigarette and gazed out the window.
At 10 a.m., the phone rang.