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Curley's Sorrow

When two men murdered his 10-year-old son, Bob Curley led the cries for vengeance -- and for the revival of the death penalty in the state. Much later, though, he'd have a surprising change of heart. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, The Ride, Brian MacQuarrie follows this grieving father's journey from the nightmare's beginning, in East Cambridge, 1997, when young Jeffrey Curley disappeared.

By Brian MacQuarrie
May 10, 2009
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Bob Curley rolled out of bed, tossed a glance toward the Boston skyline 3 miles away, and dressed for another day's work at the Cambridge Fire Department. There would be no dawdling for Bob, a broad-shouldered, good-looking man with thick brown hair, glinting blue eyes, and the no-nonsense look of this edgy neighborhood, where grit was as embedded in its men as in its cracked and crumbling sidewalks.

Bob hustled out the door at 6:45 a.m., only a quarter-hour after waking up and less than 2 miles from the firehouse, where he and another mechanic repaired and prepped the ladder, hose, and pumper trucks that raced through one of the most densely populated cities in the country.

The morning was October 1, 1997, a warm, Indian-summer Wednesday when New England was awash in a season-bridging spectacle of color.

Bob, at 42, commuted to work in Inman Square on a battered bicycle, coasting down a steep hill from his new home in East Somerville. At the bottom of the descent, Bob blocked out the jarring sound of heavy trucks bouncing in and out of gaping potholes and banked hard into a right-hand turn.

There, he entered an unsightly stretch of ungroomed growth pocked by jagged, uneven pavement, honking, impatient traffic, and a hilly warren of narrow one-way streets. Focusing on the pedals, not the panorama, he passed a grimy repair shop, a Brazilian church, the tired facade of Buddy's Diner, and half-organized graveyards for used auto parts, where old mufflers and piles of rusting radiators lay stacked against the neglected sides of sagging buildings.

Just after a confusing slalom of twists and turns through Union Square, Bob rose from his bicycle seat, legs pumping like pistons, to scale a short, tough incline beside the commuter-rail tracks. Atop the crest, breathing hard, he cruised through a cheek-by-jowl neighborhood of modest two-story wooden homes, a well-tended place of front-yard Madonnas and corner stores that had yet to fall victim to the gentrification creeping through Greater Boston's blue-collar core.

Finally, after catching his breath, Bob could see the Renaissance design, graceful bay doors, and soaring bell tower of his century-old firehouse. Here, in Inman Square, Bob had matured from boy to man, fathered three children, and found a steady job among the people, sights, and sounds that had anchored him in good times and bad. The neighborhood was his turf and always had been, a cocky, changing crossroads of Irish pubs, upscale coffee shops, gay bookstores, and Portuguese social clubs that had managed to retain a spit-on-the-sidewalk quality from its immigrant past.

Whether it was the sports talk that attracted him to the bare-bones Abbey Lounge or the politically incorrect banter from third-generation firefighters, Bob loved this place as much as ever, even as the hard-drinking men's bars and bottom-dollar barber shops that had long ruled its unpretentious social life had all but disappeared.

The place remained a comfort zone that kept Bob grounded, even if trauma had distorted his childhood there. His father, John, a transplant from St. Joseph, Missouri, had been a gambler and serial womanizer who left the family when Bob was 12. Money was scarce, clothing could be shoddy, and domestic tranquility was seen only on television.

For family outings, Bob's father would cart some or all of his six children across the city to Suffolk Downs, a scruffy third-rate Thoroughbred racetrack in East Boston, where the desperate could bet on a miracle from an overused nag. And while John Curley tried his luck, something he did nearly every day of the racing season, the children amused themselves in the racetrack parking lot. If John won, the clouds lifted, and the family would stop for ice cream on the ride home or venture to Revere Beach for a roast beef sandwich at Kelly's. But if he lost, which was often, there were neither treats nor conversation. Bob, a quiet kid, thought this was how most people spent their summers.

On October 1, 1997, those days had long been consigned to the past. And at 7 a.m., Bob wheeled his bicycle into the landmark brick firehouse, home to Engine 5, where a hose-carrying truck and bright red pumper screamed through Inman Square more than 2,000 times a year. The men of Engine 5 called the company "The Nickel." And like firefighters everywhere, their camaraderie was a palpable, living thing that bound them with an intimate communal history, where shared worries and hopes, successes and failures were often felt more intensely than within their own families.

Life had taken an upward trajectory for Bob. He loved the firehouse and now had a spacious Somerville home bought four months before, thanks to the financial resources of a petite, attractive, and effervescent psychologist named Mimi, a native of Colombia with whom he had been living since late 1995.

Bob was separated from his wife, Barbara, who lived a half-dozen blocks from the firehouse in a small East Cambridge condominium that Bob had helped buy before he left. His two oldest boys, Bobby Jr., 19, and Shaun, 17, were in good health. And his youngest son, Jeffrey, a precocious 10-year-old, was a constant, frenetic presence in the neighborhood, a boy who often whiled away his time at the firehouse, bantering with the men, riding to fires in the trucks, and peppering everyone within sight with a never-ending barrage of questions.

Bob had seen Jeffrey the previous day at Barbara's condo, where Shaun had badgered him into helping repair his Oldsmobile Regal, an abused, decade-old dinosaur that Shaun had bought for $400 a few weeks before. The car, Shaun's first, wouldn't start. So Bob drove his mechanic's truck to the house, charged the battery, figured that a little gasoline would prime the carburetor, and sent Jeffrey scurrying into the house to find a small plastic cup to pour the fuel.

Jeffrey did as he was told, always eager to help his brothers and father negotiate this fascinating men's world of tools, lawn mowers, weed whackers, and snow blowers. Despite his age, Jeffrey -- a 4-foot-6-inch, 77-pound tornado -- had a fearlessness and urban street smarts that made him seem much older.

Bob used the occasion to lecture his youngest boy about the hazards of gasoline.

"This is dangerous stuff. Be very careful how you use it," Bob said, cleaning his hands before hopping back in the truck to continue his rounds of the city's firehouses.

"OK, I will," said Jeffrey, a broad smile exposing his crooked front teeth. "Nice going on the car, Dad."

Two days later, Bobby Curley Jr. and his friend Elvis Gonzalez rang the doorbell for Salvatore Sicari, a neighbor known as "Salvi." The sound woke Sicari, who, rubbing his eyes, answered the door dressed only in boxer shorts.

"Where were you last night?" Gonzalez asked.

"I was out drinking with a couple of girls. I just got in," answered Sicari, a 21-year-old who had trouble finding friends and also staying out of trouble.

"Where's Jeffrey? You seen Jeff?" Gonzalez said.

Sicari paused for a few seconds, stunned by the question and wondering how anyone could have connected him to the disappearance of Jeffrey Curley, who had vanished the previous afternoon.

"Who's this Charles Jaynes character?" Bobby asked, referring to a large stranger who had begun hanging out in the neighborhood with Sicari. "What's he look like? How do we get ahold of him?"

Sicari mumbled that he had seen Jaynes around the neighborhood but did not know how to reach him.

"All right, put your stuff on," Bobby snarled. "Let's go."

Sicari dressed quickly, pulling his Georgetown Hoyas sweat shirt over his head as he stumbled back downstairs, where Bobby and Gonzalez walked him to the front of the Curley condominium. As Bobby pondered his next move, Sicari immersed himself in the volunteer effort to locate Jeffrey. He grabbed dozens of fliers, handed 20 to a Cambridge police detective, and stood in the middle of Hampshire Street to flag down passing cars.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, entered the house, where he told Francine Downey, Jeffrey's aunt, that he and Bobby had spoken with someone who saw the boy the day before.

"Ask him to come inside," Francine said.

Clutching a fistful of fliers, Sicari joined Downey at the Curleys' kitchen table, where he told her he had seen Jeffrey with the family Rottweiler before Sicari met a friend, Charles Jaynes. He and Jaynes then drove to the Boston Public Library, Honda Village in Newton, and Jaynes's apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire. There, Sicari said, they met two girls and drank until the early morning.

Why is he telling me this, Downey wondered. Still, she was grateful for the information. Across the room, Barbara sat dazed and drained, fighting a losing battle to maintain hope. Shaun Curley spotted Sicari and introduced him to his mother.

"Ma, this is Salvi," Shaun said. "You know Salvi. He's been passing out fliers for Jeff."

"Oh, thank you," Barbara said softly, just as she had thanked dozens of people that morning. As she turned back toward the window, Barbara noticed a fresh cut on Sicari's left palm.

Sicari returned to the Curley driveway, where family members, volunteers, news media, police officers, and the merely curious mixed in a crush of concerned and angry people. Bob Curley stood on the single concrete step that served as the household "porch," watching the surreal scene swirl around them.

As he did, Sicari approached.

"I'm sorry what happened. I hope Jeffrey comes home," Sicari said, leaning forward to hug Bob. "Whatever I can do, just let me know."

Then, as in his conversation with Downey, Sicari began spewing unsought information. Not content with a few simple words of consolation, Sicari launched into a diatribe about Jaynes, someone Bob had never seen or heard about.

"You know, a lot of people have talked about Jaynes and me being queers," Sicari began. "But there's no way that Jaynes could be queer. Because when we're driving down the street and he sees a girl that he likes, he says, 'I'd like to do her,' you know?"

Bob was dumbfounded and an unnerving discomfort began to envelop him. Sicari's statement about Jaynes, following his awkward embrace, had been so bizarre that Bob immediately became suspicious.

Sicari turned toward the street to hand out fliers, passing Shaun Curley on the way. Shaun was exhausted, and he approached his father for reassurance.

"Dad, Jeff's coming home, isn't he?" Shaun asked. "He's gonna be all right, isn't he?"

Bob hesitated. "No, Shaun. Jeff ain't coming home," he answered, his eyes narrowing. "Something's wrong here, and I don't know, but I think Salvi's got something to do with it."

Bobby Jr. already had relayed similar suspicions about Sicari to law enforcement officers, who assured him they would take care of the police work. But this was Bobby's brother, and no one was going to tell him what to do.

Bobby consulted with Gonzalez. "OK, forget the police, forget everything," Bobby said. "We're gonna figure this out." As Sicari picked up a stack of fliers, he heard his nickname from the head of the driveway. Bobby Curley, Gonzalez, and another friend beckoned to him from Curley's car, a year-old Toyota Camry.

"Hey, Salvi," Bobby yelled. "We're going over to Somerville. We're gonna hang up some of these fliers. Come on!"

Eager to appear helpful, Sicari quickly worked his way through the crowd and took a seat in the rear. To Sicari's left sat Gonzalez.

In the front passenger seat, staring straight ahead, loomed Manny, an older friend of Barbara's whom everyone called "the Portugee." Bobby, cocking his head toward the rearview mirror, locked eyes on Sicari and asked, "Who's this Charles Jaynes? Where is he? Do you have his phone number?"

"I only got a pager number," Sicari mumbled. "That's all I got."

Bobby, Manny, and Gonzalez looked at one another, then at Sicari, unconvinced that he had told the truth. Bobby stared again at the mirror. By now, he'd shed any pretense of calm, considered restraint. The time had come to find Jeffrey as quickly as possible -- and by whatever means necessary.

"Salvi, listen," Bobby said with a short sigh, the menace in his streetwise voice as clear as the anger in his eyes. "You're gonna take us to Charles Jaynes or you'll wish you were dead."

Bobby maneuvered the Camry through heavy afternoon traffic toward the Cambridge courthouse, where he knew of a sidewalk pay phone that accepted incoming calls. Sicari was told to page Jaynes and wait for a reply. He also was given strict instructions not to mention Jeffrey during the conversation.

Finally, the phone rang. It was Jaynes.

"Hello. Who's this?" Jaynes asked.

Sicari, in a nervous staccato, blurted out a warning. "They think we had something to do with Jeff," he said, his rushed words cascading into each other.

Gonzalez lunged, but Sicari slammed down the phone before he could grab the receiver. Gonzalez, livid, slapped Sicari hard across an ear. "Salvi, what are you doing?" he screamed. "What is going on? We told you not to say nothing about Jeff."

Gonzalez pushed Sicari back into the car.

Brian MacQuarrie is a member of the Globe staff. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Excerpted from his new book, The Ride, to be published next month, by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

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