Mobile (Alabama) Register
December 11, 2000
Eighteen years after his high-profile drug trial in Mobile, Glen David Curry considers himself absolved at last, and he has a presidential signature to prove it.
On Nov. 21, President Clinton issued a full pardon to Curry, who as a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama was convicted in 1982 of arranging cocaine deals for fellow Vietnam veterans.
Clinton's rare move validated a difficult quest by Curry, whose conviction hinged on the testimony of an undercover agent who eventually was convicted of murder.
Although the official certificate was still en route to him, the soft-spoken Curry, 51, who lives and teaches now in St. Louis, said the knowledge of the pardon had soothed his spirit.
"The first thing I did was cry a lot," he said of his reaction to the telephone call from Washington, D.C., informing him of the pardon.
Curry, a West Virginia native now bearded and graying, came to Mobile in the 1970s after finishing an Army tour of duty in Vietnam.
He had led protests against the war long before he was drafted but didn't dodge service when his number came up. He pulled a two-year stint working counterintelligence and left the military with captain's bars. He said he also left with psychological wounds that have continued to plague him.
Having earned advanced degrees, Curry began teaching sociology at USA, a relatively new university at that time. He stayed busy outside of class, helping fellow veterans who had drug addictions. Eventually, he took a leave of absence from his teaching post to head the Vietnam-Era Veterans Counseling Center in Mobile, an arm of the Veterans Administration.
"This was back in the days when not too many people cared about Vietnam vets, and he did a lot of work with them," longtime USA faculty member Glenn Sebastian said in a recent interview. "I think that's where a lot of his problems began."
Federal prosecutors in Mobile and Birmingham heard reports that VA employees at counseling centers in the two cities were using drugs in the course of their jobs and launched an investigation. Seeking an agent to infiltrate the centers, the government selected Grady Gibson, a Vietnam vet and an undercover officer for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation.
According to court testimony and news accounts, Gibson entered the Birmingham center posing as a vet with a chemical-dependency problem. The pose wasn't much of a stretch, Curry and his co-defendants would claim later - they said Gibson did more drugs than anyone he was investigating, a charge Gibson denied.
Gibson gained the confidence of Don Reed and Tom Ashby, two men who directed the Birmingham center, by suggesting he could help the clinics financially if they would just help him fight his abuse problem, according to testimony.
Ashby began counseling Gibson and introduced him to Curry. Gibson soon asked Ashby and Curry to help get him get cocaine, a quarter of an ounce here, a half of an ounce there, witnesses said.
As Gibson pressed Curry for more of the drug, Curry thought of Paul Charles Sierke, a student of his at USA. Sierke, a Mobile native who was in his early 20s, had come to admire the professor as a mentor. They'd also used cocaine together, both men have said.
"It was just one of those relationships where we liked each other and became friends outside the classroom environment," Sierke, now 42, said.
Gibson and Curry went out one night in February 1982 to Bojangles, a bar and restaurant on Azalea Road, according to testimony. After several rounds of drinks, Gibson persuaded Curry to take him to Sierke's house, unannounced.
"It was so bizarre," Sierke said. "David kept calling and wanting to come over and wanting to bring this other guy with him. I didn't want any part of it."
According to Curry and Sierke, they and Gibson snorted cocaine together at the house. Sierke and Curry later said that the agent consumed far more than either of them.
"The guy was out of control," Sierke said in a recent interview. "He snorted up cocaine that night to beat the bell. ... You would not have had a clue that in actuality he was an undercover policeman."
After the trial, Curry would plead for a federal judge to go easy on Sierke. Looking back, he said, "I'm really sorry I involved Chuck in it in any way. He was just a nice guy trying to do me a favor."
As Gibson reported back to his superiors, the authorities closed in. The VA closed the clinic in Mobile and suspended Curry, Ashby and several other employees, who in turn felt they were being singled out by the Reagan administration for criticizing the government's treatment of Vietnam vets. Curry held a news conference on the steps of the federal courthouse to denounce the investigation as a political vendetta.
Eventually, grand jurors in Mobile indicted the veterans' counselors and Sierke.
Reed and others at the Birmingham center were convicted in a separate trial there.
The Mobile trial "was a spectacle," as U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, who prosecuted the case as the U.S. attorney in Mobile, recalled the event.
The defendants admitted taking part in transactions in which Gibson bought cocaine through them, but they disputed the government's charge of a conspiracy. Curry's lawyer, Arthur Madden, noted during the trial that the counselors never attempted to profit from arranging the deals.
Midway through the trial, Sierke took his lawyer's advice and pleaded guilty to one count of cocaine possession. U.S. District Judge Brevard Hand sentenced him to five years in prison but suspended the sentence in favor of probation. Sierke did hundreds of hours of community service, and Hand eventually set aside the conviction, striking it from the record.
"Judge Hand is a wise man. He did that for a reason," Sierke said. "I had never been in trouble before, and I've never been in trouble since."
Jurors convicted Ashby and Curry of distributing cocaine and conspiring to distribute cocaine. Hand initially gave Ashby 30 years; Curry got 34.
After a three-month psychiatric evaluation at a federal corrections center in Tallahassee, Fla., Curry and Ashby returned to Hand for resentencing. He gave them five years each, plus probation.
Ashby went to a federal work camp at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. Curry went to Chicago to do computer work at the University of Chicago for a year while he fought the conviction. When his appeal was denied, he was sent to a prison facility at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., then to a prison in downtown Chicago. Curry and Ashby were paroled after serving about 14 months each.
Gibson left the ABI some time after the trial. He went to California but came back to Alabama and found himself the lead suspect in the fatal beating and stabbing of the 19-year-old wife of a drug informant in Butler County.
In 1987, Gibson was sentenced to life in prison - he could have received the death penalty - for killing the woman for insurance money. He remains in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections, according to the agency, which did not provide further details.
Sessions, R-Mobile, said he has no regrets about the cocaine prosecution, regardless of Gibson's role. He pointed to other testimony and to wiretap recordings that implicated the defendants.
Sierke, Ashby and Curry said in separate interviews that they felt some levels of resentment about the prosecution, but all said they have long since acknowledged poor judgment on their parts.
After his court experience, Sierke tried to go back to school at USA, but he did not finish. Today, living in the Mobile area, he is a sales representative, husband and father of a son who's old enough to be thinking about college.
"It certainly got me back on the right road," Sierke said of the trial. "I've always been brought up to tell the truth and be honest. I made a mistake and paid for it, and I've been a valuable person to the community and a good parent."
Ashby went back to Tuscaloosa, his hometown. He, too, is married and a father. Today, he is a substitute teacher with the Tuscaloosa County school system. The Alabama Board of Education has not decided whether to certify him, he said, but the local board liked him well enough to fashion a waiver for him and allow him to work.
As for Curry, he said his life since the trial has been defined by what he learned from it, as well as by his continued activism and his thirst for the university environment. He has served as a national board member for the Boys and Girls Club of America, as well as a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
He published a book on Vietnam War deserters prior to his trial and wrote another a few years afterward dealing with youth violence. He has studied and taught criminology and sociology at four universities, including his current post at the University of Missouri's campus in St. Louis, where he resides with his second wife and the daughter they adopted.
In some ways, Curry said, he is grateful for the trial. In part because of psychological analyses required by the courts, he was diagnosed with and began treatment for chronic depression. Recently, he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and now gets treatment for that as well.
The trial "actually helped me reconcile things a little bit," Curry said. "Up until that point, I had felt a bit guilty for the work I had done in the Army, investigating different Vietnamese and fellow military personnel. Actually, I've come to feel not as guilty as I once did about Vietnam."
Curry began the pardon process about two years ago in the face of a high likelihood that his petition would never reach the president's desk.
According to Roger Adams, the U.S. pardon attorney, Clinton pardoned fewer people - 53 - during his first four years than did any president this century. That pace has picked up somewhat - the recent additions of Curry and 10 others brought Clinton's eight-year total to 196, including 52 this year. But the number still constitutes a tiny fraction of the applicant pool.
Typically, the president does not reveal his motives for granting or denying a pardon. Adams declined to comment specifically on Curry's case, citing federal policy.
Adams' office, a tiny branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, handles more than 1,000 requests annually, summarily dismissing most. Curry said that as part of the process, he had to solicit character references from three fellow professors. In later stages, Curry said, FBI agents interviewed his neighbors and co-workers, telling them that Curry was being "considered for a position of high responsibility" - in other words, once again becoming a full-fledged citizen.
Ashby said he was pleased to hear that Curry received the pardon but said he has not sought one and does not plan to. "I chose not to do it because it connotes guilt, and I'm not guilty" of any conspiracy, he said. "They offered us a deal early on, and I refused to take it."
Sessions said he did not disagree with Clinton's choice to pardon Curry, although he saw political undertones. "I'm sure that since he was a war protester and all that, the Clinton Administration would be more favorable to him than they would have been otherwise," Sessions said. "But it's been 18 years, he's apparently done well since, and it wasn't a violent crime, so I don't object to this."
Curry said he rests easier knowing that when the time is right for his 6-year-old daughter to know about her father's past, she will also know that he and the law have reconciled. "I wanted her to know that even if I had been totally guilty, I had been forgiven."
© 2000 Mobile Register.
CHECK OUT DOM SOTO'S HOMEPAGE