Oct 192009

Sunday night, June 12 1983, at around 11:20 p.m. I was walking eastbound on 3rd street in Missoula Montana. I turned right at the South end of the Higgins Ave Bridge, and started walking Southbound on Higgins. This was the end of finals week at the University of Montana, and a Sunday night, so the downtown area was mostly barren of students, who would have compromised the majority of people downtown that night.

Suddenly I heard a huge “boom”, which came from downtown, on the other end of the Higgins Ave Bridge from me. Believe it or not, I didn’t think too much of it at the time, as I figured it might be an M-80 or some such tossed out the window of a pickup truck by some redneck from Dillon as he sped away from Missoula. I continued walking Southbound, and got a block or so before I began to hear numerous emergency vehicle sirens blasting. Suddenly I became interested! I turned around and ran Northbound across the bridge, and soon came upon the scene at the corner of Higgins and Broadway. Even though I waited several minutes, I was still one of the first civilians on the scene, as the police had just cordoned off the area with plastic tape.

A small sedan was in the Northbound lane of Higgins at Broadway, blown apart. The driver was obviously dead, being blown about halfway out of his car. His legs were still inside, but his upper torso was hanging out the driver’s door.

Soon I was joined by my friend Mike, who had been playing cards at the Oxford. We walked around the area, outside of the police perimeter. We began to notice tissue from the victim. Mike declared it was brain, but brain is characteristically gray, and shaped kind of like macaroni. No, this was adipose tissue; human fat. Yellow and runny, with blood included.

We walked around the area for a while, gawking. But then what else could you do but just go home? It wasn’t too late in the evening to expect that the event would be covered the next day in the Missoulian, the local paper.

Indeed, the front page of the Missoulian Monday, June 13 1983 included this story:

As you can tell, the original text is virtually unreadable, being that it was scanned onto microfilm, then printed out at the public library, then re-scanned by me. Here is a transcription of the story:

Blast in car kills 1

By Mike McInally and Laurie Mason of the Missoulian

A man was killed late Sunday night when the car he was sitting in exploded with a fury at the intersection of Higgins Avenue and Broadway Street.

The man – who was apparently killed immediately  –  had not been identified as of 12:30 a.m. Monday, about one hour after the explosion.

No one else was apparently hurt. Police on the scene were sure that some sort of explosive device had detonated in the car as it sat in the northbound lane of Higgins. But they were uncertain what sort of explosives were involved.

The explosion tore out the inside of the car, a brown Ford Maverick with Ravalli County plates. The roof was found about 100 feet behind the car on Higgins. The rear of the car was intact, and its hazard lights were blinking.

The windshield was found almost a block in front of the car.

The sound of the explosion could be heard for blocks.

Dan Norman, 34, was standing around the corner on Pine Street when he heard what he thought was a sonic boom just before 11:30 p.m.

Then he heard people screaming.

“I ran around the corner to see. There were a lot of hysterical people there at the time,” he said.

“Within two minutes the fire truck was there. The police were there in in three.”

“One very dead person was laying just outside the driver’s door. It was very gory, with about half his clothes blown off.”

There was an acrid smell in the air, like gunpowder.

The car, he said, “looked like someone had lifted the top off like a sardine can.”

Officers cordoned off the area and removed for questioning people who said they saw the explosion. Emergency vehicles clogged the intersection of Broadway and Higgins.

Norman, a self-employed Missoula salesman, said he was in the area because he wanted to get a newspaper off the press.

Another witness said he saw the explosion from about a block away, at the intersection of Main Street and Higgins.

Before the explosion, the witnesses said, the car was stopped at the intersection, with its hazard lights flashing.

The lights were still flashing when emergency personnel arrived at the scene.

Another witness said he was in the bus depot, on Broadway, when he heard the explosion.

“It sounded like this whole side of town blew up,” he said.

Medic 5 ambulance removed the body to the Missoula County Morgue.

As of 12:30 a.m., police were still on the scene of the explosion, gathering and marking evidence.

(photo caption) Officials examine the remains of a vehicle destroyed in an explosion late Sunday at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Broadway Street. The driver of the vehicle died in the blast.

Photo credit; Curt Walters.

Wow! What an utterly violent, anomalous, and unexpected event, especially for a town the size of Missoula. I did what everyone else did, which was wait for more news. Was this a suicide? Was the victim a contract killer, and his bomb went off accidentally? Was he the victim of a bizarre and calculated homicide? Was it a “time bomb”, or was the bomb remotely detonated, perhaps chosen for this very central location. Was this a mafia hit? Was the guy a “mad scientist” type, whose experiment went horribly awry? Any one of these explanations was sensational in and of itself.

Indeed, the next day’s Missoulian had more details, and on the front page of course:

Vehicle blast remains under investigation

Missoula police Monday had many questions – but few answers about the Sunday -night explosion that killed an Anaconda  man and gutted the car he was sitting in at a downtown intersection.

Edward Ellsworth Curry, a 48-year -old former smelter worker, was killed instantly in the explosion , which ripped off the top of the car, a Ford Maverick with Ravalli County license plates.

Police were still uncertain that sort of explosives were involved. But it was clear, they said, that the explosion  had come from the car’s passenger compartment.

In an attempt to piece together the cause of the explosion, police were going over the car inch by inch. And an autopsy was performed on Curry’s body Monday afternoon. Officials hoped that the autopsy would shed some light on the type of explosive used.

It was tedious work. But it is a case that could hinge on the smallest detail.

A law-enforcement officer not involved in the investigation speculated that the blast must have had the force of about three sticks of dynamite to achieve the effect it did.

An agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms – a bureau with expertise in explosives – was assisting in the investigation Monday.

According to Lt. James Oberhofer, police had not been able to determine whether the explosion was a homicide, a suicide, or an accident.

But there were indications that the homicide theory was not being given the same weight as the other two theories.

Missoula County Attorney Robert L. Deschamps III said no inquest into the death had been scheduled.

Deschamps said an inquest would not be called unless “something develops that suggests foul play.”

If the accident theory prevails, police will want to know why Curry was carrying explosives in the car.

Police said they did not know why Curry was in Missoula on Sunday night. There was also no certain explanation why Curry was driving a car with Ravalli County plates.

Anaconda-Deer Lodge Police Chief Jim Connors said Monday that Curry had no criminal record and no reputation as a troublemaker.

A neighbor of Curry’s, Warren David, described him as a man who kept to himself, but was well-liked by his close neighbors.

Union-members estimated Curry worked at the smelter for about five years. They said they could remember little about him.

Wire services Monday reported rumors than (sic) Curry was somehow connected to an alleged extortion attempt aimed at the Safeway store in Hamilton. Connors said later in the day that no evidence supported those rumors.

Connors said that the rumors had been circulating in Anaconda and that he did not know how they began. Reached by telephone Monday night, Curry’s wife, Sandra, vigorously denied the rumors. She declined to comment further.

A regional officer for Safeway in Spokane, Jim Beavers, said there had been an extortion attempt at the Hamilton store. But Beavers also declined further comment, saying the matter had been turned over to the FBI.

Curry was born in Iowa City, Iowa, on Feb. 11 1935, and has been a resident of Anaconda for 12 years. He had also lived in Hamilton and in California. He had been employed by the Anaconda Minerals Co. as a foreman and in Peru for the South American Copper Co.

More recently he was employed by Sach and Lawler Novelty Items in Colorado.

He was a veteran of the U.S. Marines, and was a sergeant in the Korean War. He was a member of the Anaconda Catholic community.

Survivors include his wife, Sandra Brill Curry, Anaconda: one son, Bryan Curry, Hamilton: a daughter, Bridget Curry, Davis, Calif., stepchildren, Konnie, Darren, Gregg, Leslisa, Marilyn and Matthew Bessler, all of Powell Wyo.: and parents, Mrs. (sic) and Mrs. O.W. Curry, Hamilton.

Mass of the Resurrection for Curry will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Wednesday in St. peter’s Church, Anaconda.

Longfellow Finnegan Funeral Home, Anaconda, is in charge of arrangements.

Well, at this point the intrigued individual like myself still has questions. At least the story puts a human face on the victim, as he had a wife and family.

You can see how multiple law enforcement agencies are now becoming involved; Missoula police, Anaconda police, the FBI, and the ATF. Would this hinder a smooth investigation?

No mention is yet made if any sort of containment of the explosives occurred. Was this the classic “pipe” bomb? If the explosive was ordinary gunpowder, it could be set off with a simple fuse, but that would make it an obvious suicide. If the explosives were “high” explosives, they would still require a blasting cap, which would need an electric current to initiate. If initial witness observations were correct, the hazard lights were flashing on the vehicle before the blast occurred. Could this have been coupled to the detonation? Yet this again points to suicide, unless Curry made an egregious error in hitting his hazard lights. Was he turning onto Broadway from Higgins? Did he hit his hazard lights instead of his turn indicator? It’s of course also possible that the witnesses were mistaken about what events preceded what, as this is common in abrupt and unexpected events.

For a bit of perspective, here is a photograph I took in September 2008 of a car in the position that Curry’s was in at the time of the explosion. My memory is that Curry’s car was in the left lane, but I’m not positive of that. This perspective is looking north on Higgins, with Broadway as the cross street:

Another view of the Intersection; looking east on Broadway with Higgins as the cross street. The red sedan is in the location of Curry’s vehicle:

We awaited more newspaper stories. The next day’s story was off the front page, and now appeared in the “local” section:

Car blast clues sought

By Mike McInally of the Missoulian

Investigators on Tuesday continued to piece together  the Sunday-night explosion that ripped apart a car in downtown Missoula and killed its occupant but answers proved elusive.

Although officials have not yet determined what explosives caused the blast, they are beginning to believe that dynamite was not involved. Investigators have been unable to find traces of paper in the car’s wreckage – paper that would have been used to wrap sticks of dynamite.

The explosion at the intersection of Higgins Avenue and Broadway Street killed Edward Curry, 48, of Anaconda. The inside of Curry’s car – a brown Ford Maverick with Ravalli County license plates  – was gutted.

The explosion scattered pieced of the automobile over Higgins Avenue, and windows in the Montana Building – at the corner of Higgins and Broadway – were shattered.

The car belonging to Curry – an Anaconda resident – but was registered to the address of his parents in Hamilton.

On Tuesday, city police and an agent from the Federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms went over the car, using tweezers to pull out possible pieces of evidence. FBI agents also are assisting with the investigation, said police Lt. James Oberhofer.

Evidence found in the search – along with evidence found in a five hour autopsy performed Monday on Curry – will be examined by an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms laboratory in Californian. Police may not know what the explosive was until the results of those tests are in.

Also on Tuesday, police were unable to say whether the incident was an accident, a suicide, or a homicide. But they said, the homicide theory was not being given the same weight  as the other two theories. And no new evidence has surfaced that might add credence to the homicide theory.

And – assuming that the incident was an accident – police said they do not know yet why the explosives were in Curry’s car or why the explosives detonated. They admitted Tuesday that they might never have the answers to those questions.

“We’re hoping that the lab can give us something.” said city police detective Scott Graham. “It’s like an arson case.” he said, “in that you work your way back to the point and then get what you can.”

“Whatever hit that car wasn’t a firecracker,” he added later. Police have ruled out the possibility that the explosion was caused by any failure of the car’s mechanical system.

Well, this is still not getting to the bottom of the mystery. No doubt chemical analysis would be performed on the car or Curry’s body, or both to determine the nature of the explosive. As far as dynamite goes, other kinds of common explosives use different kinds of containment. I remember taking a “fires and explosives” class way back in college, and seeing plastic cases that contained ammonium nitrate. I believe nitromethane and a blasting cap was added to arm the explosive.

Again, no mention is made of any kind of containment of the explosive. Would you drive down the street with a brick of C4 in the passenger seat?

As you might imagine, the local rumor mill began to become active. The best rumor I heard was from a cab driver friend of mine. He claimed to have heard that there was a roll of dimes between the explosive and Curry, and that Curry’s body was riddled with dimes…

Even if the explosion was an accident, it doesn’t answer the question as to what Curry intended to do with the explosives. What he had obviously goes way beyond the youthful lets-put-some-dry-ice-in-a-pop-bottle-and-watch-it-blow-up kind of prank. At 48 years old, it’s safe to assume that Curry was well beyond blowing up stuff for simple recreation, though you can never really rule out something like this out… What was he going to do with the stuff…?

And now we come to the final Missoulian story on this strange saga. The story is again off the front page and in the “Community” section. As far as I know, the following article dated Thursday June 16 1983 is the last one about Curry’s car bomb.

Blast called accident

By Mike McInally of the Missoulian

Police said Wednesday that they are increasingly inclined to believe that an explosion that tore apart a car and killed its occupant Sunday night was an accident.

Police again emphasized, however, that their inclination was just speculation. They said that they had not been able to definitely rule out the other possibilities –  that the explosion was a suicide of a homicide.

But, they said, they have not been able to find evidence to indicate foul play. And the evidence for suicide is also skimpy.

The explosion, at the intersection of Higgins Avenue and Broadway, killed 48-year-old Edward Curry of Anaconda. It gutted the car he was in, a Ford Maverick, which was sitting in the northbound land of Higgins.

Curry’s funeral was held Wednesday in Anaconda. In another development Wednesday, Anaconda Deer Lodge Police Chief Jim Connors said that police had found blasting caps Tuesday at Curry’s home.

Connors said the caps could be used with either a plastic explosive or dynamite and would require an electronic detonating device.

He said that the caps have been sent to the state crime lab in Missoula for testing.

Connors said his department is still working with Missoula authorities on the case.

But those Missoula officials said Wednesday that they’ve interviewed just about al the witnesses they can find in the city.

Most of those interviews, according to Lt. James Oberhofer, were conducted with people who either saw or heard the explosion at 11:20 p.m. Sunday.

And, he said, police may now have to wait for results of laboratory tests before they make any progress on the case. He said he did not know how long those tests would take.

The tests also may provide police with a clue as to what sort of explosive device was involved. Investigators have been unable to find residue typically associated with a dynamite blast, leading to their hunch that dynamite was not involved.

Police said that federal agents are continuing to investigate the case.

Toby Harding, the FBI agent in charge of operations in Montana and Idaho, said Wednesday that the agency is interested in the case. But, he said the agency with primary responsibility for bombing incidents is the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

That bureau is part of the Department of the Treasury. An ATF agent helped city police go through the wreckage of the car, piece by piece, Tuesday.

Well, there you have it, slim pickings for anyone interested in what really happened. This bit is interesting:

But, they said, they have not been able to find evidence to indicate foul play. How can a guy possessing blasting caps and the equivalent of 3 sticks of dynamite in his car not be involved in “foul play” either sooner or later! If they guy was an old time miner, blasting out hard rock, I could see it, but there is no indication here that Curry was a miner.

So for me as a former Missoulian, who saw this incident when it happened, the newspaper coverage never left any kind of resolution. Various Internet searches I’ve done about this odd and violent event come up with nothing.

What was really going on with Edward Curry?

 Posted by on 10/19/2009 Growing Up In Montana

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