Terri is free and vindicated, but triumph is bittersweet
|By ANNE SAKER, Staff Writer
On the morning of April 17, Terri Strickland answered the telephone and heard the voice of her lawyer, T. Craig Wright.
Well, Terri, it's like this, he said. They've dropped the charges.
After nearly 17 months, Terri was no longer under house arrest. As soon as she hung up with her lawyer, she found a pair of scissors and cut off the ankle bracelet.
What a time to be home alone.
She danced around the house. Then she hurriedly changed into street clothes and jumped into her car. Wright had told her to bring the house-arrest gear to his office right then. She dashed to Whiteville, free for the first time in 512 days. It was a beautiful morning.
Lee Bollinger, the prosecutor in the case, placed a call to Austin, Texas, to tell Gerald Hurst about the dismissal. In the subject line of his next e-mails to Terri, Hurst wrote: "freedom!!!!"
"Go. Enjoy yourself. You have earned it. Again, don't worry about calling me until you have time on your hands. Thank you for giving me your trust and for providing me with the opportunity to do something worth doing."
When Terri called Hurst, she said: "You saved my life."
| When she got to Whiteville,
Terri circled the Columbus County courthouse and parked in front of Wright's
small brick office. She turned off the car and felt a bolt of panic.
"I hope I heard him right," she said to the steering wheel.
Wright congratulated Terri and handed her the dismissal papers. Though he wasn't her lawyer anymore, he advised her not to say anything about the case. The prosecutor could take the case before another grand jury if he wanted to, Wright said.
Terri said goodbye and left. She had something more important on her mind.
She had to get her daughter back.
In the afternoon, Terri went to the Whiteville office of the Department of Social Services and said she wanted Brittany -- now. The DSS officials said they could do nothing without a hearing before a judge.
Furious, Terri went to the office of her court-appointed custody lawyer, who made some calls and told DSS that a judge was willing to sign the papers that day. DSS said no.
Staff Photo by Robert WillettTerri and Brittany return together to 101 Wall St. for the first time since the fire. Everything inside had been removed, a bitter disappointment to Terri, who had wanted to enter the house to find a memento of Josh.
| Terri shouted loud enough to be heard over
the phone: You only needed five minutes to take her from me! You've got
five minutes to give her back!
Can't do it, said DSS.
Terri had no choice. She had to wait.
Her sister Linda Smith brought Brittany from her home in Monroe to Meemaw's house for the weekend. As she had for nearly 18 months, Terri said nothing to Brittany about the case.
It took all day Monday for DSS to prepare the documents returning Brittany to Terri. The judge signed the release order Tuesday morning, then Terri raced to Monroe and pulled up at Union Elementary School. Linda met her there, and together they went to the school office to sign the papers.
Somehow, word of what was about to happen got out. As she walked outside to the playground, Terri could see a face in every window.
Brittany was hanging from the monkey bars. She turned to climb higher, then stopped.
She spotted Terri.
She jumped down and ran across the playground into her mother's arms.
"We're going home!" Brittany yelled.
"Yes, baby," Terri said, as she swung her daughter around and around. "Home."
On the way, Terri asked Brittany where she wanted to eat. When they got back to Columbus County, they stopped at a Whiteville McDonald's for cheeseburgers.
Hurst reminded Terri to send word to Tony Cafe, the fire expert in Australia who had given her Hurst's name and e-mail address six months before. Terri wrote a long message to Cafe and closed with "THANK YOU!!!!!"
"I'm so glad my Web site would be of use to someone, and isn't the Internet great when it is used for something like this?" Cafe answered. "Enjoy your life, and all the best."
| Not everyone in Columbus
County was delighted with the news, and some didn't keep their unhappiness
The Tabor City fire and police officials couldn't understand the thinking behind the dismissal. They believed the prosecutor had plenty of evidence and got fooled by some slick hired gun from out of town. Folks in Tabor City expressed dismay to O. Richard Wright, one of the landlords of 101 Wall St., who remained convinced the house was the scene of a crime.
"They had quite a file on the mother," he said.
James Coman, director of the State Bureau of Investigation, praised Special Agent Matt White's work on the case, and White said he was continuing his investigation. He still considered the fire to be arson.
USF&G paid the $30,000 claim on the house, even though its own investigator maintained that the fire was set. The landlords planned to fix up the house and rent it out again.
For Terri, the jubilation of freedom did not completely erase her fear. She still had nightmares of fire. Sometimes, every car going past her mother's house looked like a government sedan. Every once in a while, she thought she heard the click of the monitor for the ankle bracelet.
People were still checking on her. One summer day, Terri's mother, Bernice, interrupted Terri as she worked on the computer. A DSS worker was in the living room to report that a neighbor had called and complained that Brittany was riding her bicycle in the street in front of Bernice's house, unsupervised.
Terri listened. Then she told the DSS worker to get out of the house.
Terri turned to her mother and asked, "Is this what we have to look forward to?"
Early last month, Brittany, now 6, asked to see the house at 101 Wall St. again. Terri worried that a visit would frighten her daughter, but if Brittany wanted to go, she had the right. One day after school, Terri and Bernice pulled up to Fair Bluff Elementary School, and Brittany ran to the car with a bulletin: She'd lost a tooth. After promises that the tooth fairy would come that night, Terri told Brittany where they were going.
"OK," Brittany said.
The house looked much the same from the outside. Smoke damage was still visible on the siding, and a hole in the roof had not been patched. Plywood covered the broken window in Josh's second-floor bedroom.
Brittany skipped around the house. She remembered playing under the big tree in the back yard. Under Josh's window, she picked something up.
"Look what I found!" she said. She opened her hand to reveal a piece of glass nearly as big as her palm. Brittany gave the shard to her Meemaw and said, "Let's keep it, so we can always remember what happened."
The house had been sealed since six days after Terri was arrested in November 1996. Recently, she had asked the landlords to allow her into the house to collect whatever was salvageable. The landlords said the house was still under seal, and they didn't know when it would be released.
As Brittany played in the back yard, Terri looked in the windows and saw that all her belongings had been removed, the walls whitewashed and the floors cleaned.
It was all gone. Everything that had belonged to Josh was gone.
Terri knew there probably wasn't much to save. All she wanted was a piece of his crib.
She kicked the tire of her car.
That night, when Terri told her husband what she had found at 101 Wall St., Rodney Strickland said he would sell some land and with the money, they would take Brittany and leave Columbus County for good.
The next week, Terri's civil attorney filed a wrongful-death suit against the landlords and the insurance company USF&G.
On the afternoon of Oct. 20, the second anniversary of the fire, Terri drove alone on the short lane from her mother's house to the cemetery in Fair Bluff, past oak trees turned golden by the autumn sun. She parked and got out of the car with a pot of yellow chrysanthemums. She walked past generations of Hinsons, some born before the turn of the century.
She stopped at the grave protected by the short picket fence painted baby blue. She knelt, put down the flowers and gathered the trash. She pulled out a trowel and dug a hole. She dumped in some fertilizer and nestled the flowers into the earth. She told Josh she missed him, she wanted to hold him, she couldn't believe he was gone.
Then Terri went home.
She spent every minute of the evening with her daughter. They talked about school and laughed about the lost tooth. Brittany labored over an angel in a coloring book. They had dinner together and watched TV.
It was a school night, so at 8 p.m., Brittany collected her doll, got into her pajamas and hopped into her little twin bed. Terri read the 23rd Psalm aloud and tucked in the covers.
Then she kissed her child good night.