James Middleton slid up to the bar at the 3030 Club next to Lorna Sheats and Karen Spencer, a glass of cognac dangling from his fingers. He introduced himself as "Curtis," his middle name. That's what friends and family called him.
He stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 210 pounds, with wide shoulders, a lean, muscular body, and big hands. He wore silk shirts and leather coats. He said sweet things. But there was a devious twinkle in his eyes.
Sheats grew up near Curtis and even dated him for a short period. She knew this was his club act. He looked suave by night, but by day, Curtis worked at the Regional Transit Authority, mopping the lobby floor.
Karen Spencer didn't have to pretend anything. She was a young woman with a master's degree and a six-figure future as a CPA. She was pretty and petite -- elegant, even -- with a candor that could cut to the bone. Curtis had never encountered such a lady.
"She was a beautiful woman," he says now. "She was strong-willed, straight to the point, and I respected that."
She didn't need help buying drinks, but Curtis insisted. And though she was a tough, serious businesswoman, he slowly broke down her defenses. He doesn't remember what he said to her, but it made her smile. Ten years later, he still speaks wistfully of that first meeting with Karen, whose affection seemed a small miracle: "She had class -- and she liked me."
Karen should have been out of his league. Sheats told her that Curtis was a man who'd make a pass at anything perched on a barstool. She wanted Karen to hold out for a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer.
But Sheats could already see Karen swooning. Soon, the pair was slow dancing, Karen's little hands in his. It wasn't long, Curtis says, before they fell in love.
Karen Spencer didn't know it then, but she was in the arms of her killer. Those hands would eventually beat and choke her.
"Karen made only one mistake in her life," says her brother, James Spencer, "and that was Curtis."
Karen Spencer was never a shrinking violet, didn't look like anyone's victim. Smart and sassy, she got the last word in every argument.
"I always told Karen, 'You should've been a guy,'" laughs Ralph Simms, a Cleveland police detective who had known Spencer since grade school. "She didn't take shit from nobody. If somebody ticked her off, she'd belt 'em. She'd fight boy or girl."
She was one of Mary Bethune Elementary's feistiest -- and brightest -- girls. Like her siblings, Karen made good grades. Only she did so without breaking a sweat. "We used to work so hard for that honor roll," says Scheryl Mayes, her elder sister. "All Karen had to do was skim the book."
By her teens, Karen had charted her life. She'd be an accountant, or maybe a lawyer. She'd drive a black Mercedes, own a big house. After she was comfortable, she'd have kids. She went to Kent State for her undergrad, a small school outside of Detroit for her CPA. By the time she met James Curtis Middleton that night in 1991, she was the assistant director of finance at Robinson Memorial Hospital in Kent.
Curtis, on the other hand, didn't aspire to much beyond the RTA. And he wasn't really available, either. At the time he met Karen, he was involved with another woman, Leandra Poe, an RTA bus driver.
Poe, too, fell under Curtis's spell. "He was tall, handsome, outgoing."
But the couple wasn't a good match. She wore long skirts; he liked miniskirts. She was modest and discreet; he greeted her with a generous smack across the butt as she got off the bus.
She also saw glimpses of the rage inside him. Sometimes she would lock him out of her apartment for fear he'd hit her. She'd cry behind the door, hoping the deadbolt would hold. It never did. Curtis kicked through three or four doors at one apartment, she says. At the next, he kicked through three or four more. It was, she says, his "specialty."
In December 1989, she gave birth to his son, Curtis Jr. In the subsequent two months, she stayed home to nurse the baby. Her seclusion stoked Curtis's jealousy.
"He said he'd kill me if he ever found out that wasn't his son," Poe says.
That was early in their relationship, when she still had the temerity to argue with him. One day, Curtis dragged her off to a bedroom and sat on her, pinning her arms down with his knees. "He slapped me. He blacked out both my eyes."
After several broken doors, two black eyes, and assorted welts, Poe chose to let him win the arguments. But there were times a beating was unavoidable.
One day, a male friend, a Marine in town on leave, dropped by her home to say hello. Curtis happened to show up. He ordered the Marine to get lost.
"As soon as he left, [Curtis] came chasing me down the hall, and all I could do was go to the bedroom," Poe says. "I remember those hands around my neck." Their son, Curtis Jr., was howling. Poe believes that's what made him let go.
Curtis sent roses and candy the next day. He wept and begged for her forgiveness. She always took him back.
Still, the couple fought, and they split time with Curtis Jr. When the baby began to talk, he uttered, "I want Karen." That's when Poe knew Curtis was having an affair. She wanted to break up. He told her he'd soon leave Karen, so they could be together as a family.
Instead, he kept both relationships going. Curtis now says he wanted to leave Poe for Karen, but that Poe resisted. She tells it another way: She was terrified of Curtis and prayed he would leave her alone.
"I was crying, 'I want out!' for two years," she says. "All I thought of is how to get out of this relationship alive."
But as Poe yearned for her release, Curtis says he and Karen fell in love. He took her to Greenwood, South Carolina, to meet his extended family. Karen's family and friends met Curtis. "We liked him because Karen liked him," says James Spencer.
Curtis, however, would not commit wholly to either woman.
At one point, Poe and Curtis stayed apart for a year; then, for reasons she still can't explain, Poe started up with him again. He told her he was getting serious with Spencer -- close to an engagement -- but he'd try to rekindle their relationship anyway. She agreed, with one stipulation: He needed to break up with Karen.
He said he would, when the time was right. "I'm going to let her go," Poe recalls him saying. "I want to be with you, but if I'm going to do this, I have to do this the right way, because [Karen] is emotionally unstable, and she might commit suicide if I leave her."
Yet Curtis's attempt to juggle two relationships would take a dark twist. A friend of Karen's told Cleveland police that, on one occasion, Curtis tied Karen up, then left with Poe on a trip to Cincinnati.
His bond with Poe, however, was fraying. Even as Curtis showered her with gifts -- more flowers and candy, clothes, a stereo system -- she began to doubt that he could be a stable, loyal husband. And he still couldn't check his temper.
In 1995, Poe wanted to leave Curtis's apartment, rather than stay to eat the pork chops and potatoes he was cooking. He took her to the bedroom, grabbed her neck, and slammed her head into the wall. Poe felt his fury; it dawned on her that he might kill her.
She wailed, and the police came calling. They arrested Curtis, charging him with domestic violence. He pleaded no contest.
Curtis claims Poe was the aggressor, that she was angry because he told her once and for all that he was committed to Karen.
But Poe had finally realized Curtis wasn't worth fighting over. Their relationship faded, and they saw each other only because of Curtis Jr.
With Karen, Curtis was able to globetrot as few janitors do. The pair vacationed in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and anywhere else Karen had a seminar. "We'd see the sights, hit the bar scene, just be with each other," Curtis says. He dressed in fine suits, dined in ballrooms, and mingled with Karen's peers.
In 1995, Curtis moved into her house at 2414 South Green Road, north of Fairmount Boulevard. By this time, Karen's family had turned against him. They had listened to Karen complain about his continued relationship with Poe. A friend told them Karen had a black eye to show for one argument. But she told friends to keep word of her injuries from her brother, James Spencer, fearing he would take revenge. When he'd ask if Curtis had hit her, she'd say no.
Karen was in her mid-30s by then and trying desperately to conceive a child. Her body had great difficulty bringing a child to term. Giving birth "was like an obsession," says sister Mayes. "I lost count after three times -- it may have been five -- that she tried to have a baby and lost it."
When she finally gave birth, her brother and sister resisted the impulse to visit the hospital. They couldn't stand to see Curtis, and they knew the tension would bother Karen.
Curtis "always gave the appearance that everything was really fine, they were a happy family," says Mayes. "But we were sure that, if we were around for those moments, we would have put a damper on things, because she knew how we felt about him."
Julian, her new son, arrived in July 1996; it was Karen's proudest moment. No one had ever seen her as happy as when the baby was in her arms.
Karen approached parenthood with fresh vigor. She delighted in outlining Julian's future. He would have nice things, but would be raised to disregard brand names and trends. He'd develop his intellectual discipline early, have goals like she had when she was young. Karen knew what preschool, what grade school, high school, and college he'd attend. She could hardly wait for him to grow up.
These were Karen's best days. As her new son arrived, she had also landed a job as the chief of administrative services for the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Health. She bought a new black Mercedes.
Karen poured herself into her work, both at the mental health board and at home. She spent 12-hour days at the office, sometimes 15 or 16. She still managed to find time for Julian. Over breakfast, she'd quiz him with flashcards. But job and home made for 20-hour days, and she would collapse at the end to sleep through whatever was left.
Every two weeks, Karen afforded herself the brief luxury of a visit with Racine Noisette-Blair, her hairdresser of 17 years. The salon chair might well have been Karen's desk.
"It was nothing for her to bring her work in with her," says Noisette-Blair. "She would be looking over résumés, making quotations, doing paperwork, whatever she had to do." No one worked harder than Karen. And it frustrated her to have to wait for the rest of the staff. "She would complain about other people not doing what they were supposed to, because she was taking care of her business."
(The Mental Health Board barred staffers from talking with Scene about Spencer.)
The topic that really got Karen going, however, was Curtis. Noisette-Blair heard how Karen, after a long day at the office, would arrive home to cook steak for dinner, only to find that Curtis had devoured it for breakfast. She heard about Curtis's prodigious spending, how he begged Karen to co-sign his loans. She also heard of Karen's suspicion -- no, certainty -- that he was still seeing Poe and God knows how many other women.
But Karen didn't just vent to her hairdresser. She let Curtis hear it directly. Her cousin, Sheats, says the two would call her to arbitrate disputes. She could hardly get a word in between Curtis's booming voice and Karen's shrieks. Sheats finally told them she wasn't their counselor, but advised they get one or break up.
August 17, 1997, was the day it got physical, at least officially. A University Heights police report says that, in the midst of an argument, Curtis choked Karen, then slammed her head repeatedly against a wall. Karen refused to press charges, and since there was no visible evidence, police didn't hold Curtis.
But Karen lived in constant fear. That same year, she called Sheats to take her to the hospital because she was vomiting. Karen told doctors she suspected Curtis of poisoning her. Doctors found nothing suspicious.
On another occasion, she was at the doctor for lethargy. Karen found a syringe in the house and worried that Curtis was drugging her. Again, no evidence.
Friends and family say that, through it all, Karen never wilted, never altered her aggressive and resolute personality. This only intensified the couple's collisions. But at just 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds, she'd inevitably lose when they came to blows.
In April 1998, James Spencer got a frantic call from Curtis, who said Karen had broken her neck. There was some accident with the recliner, or Karen had tripped over her robe while playing with Julian. Whatever the story was, Karen's brother and sister didn't believe it. They were at the hospital the whole night, enduring Curtis's explanations. But Karen's clumsy attempts to cover it up were the most trying.
"There are some things you don't want to hear," her brother says. "When she told me where it happened, I didn't need to know, because I knew it was in the house. And I didn't want to hear how it happened, because I knew how it happened."
Her family would later learn that Curtis had pushed Karen into a chair, that the impact had snapped her neck back. It required a bone graft and a metal plate to correct. She was in the hospital for nearly two weeks.
When they spoke to Karen alone, her friends and family implored her to get rid of Curtis, or at least call the police. There was sanctuary in their homes, they told her. She could count on them to see her through a breakup.
But Karen's stubborn independence prevailed. "She told us she could handle it," James Spencer says. Somehow, Curtis had embedded himself in her psyche.
"Physical attraction, emotional responses to a partner, a lot of times these can overshadow other logical evaluations," says Sharon Martin of the Domestic Violence Center. "And the types of relationships that abusers garner really don't make much sense when it comes down to it."
In February 1999, Karen arrived home to find that Julian hadn't been picked up from day care. Curtis had gone out for drinks with friends. They argued. Karen threw on her coat and stormed past Curtis, muttering reproaches under her breath. He says she pushed him out of her way.
"And I pushed her back," Curtis says. "I admit I pushed her too hard, and it put her head through the wall."
James Spencer later inspected the hole. He's sure that, if Karen's head had slammed into a stud, rather than a hollow spot, the impact would have broken her neck again, this time for good.
Karen told police she didn't want to press charges, noting "that she is well educated, has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, and is well able to determine for herself when she is and when she is not in danger," according to a brief she filed.
But police pressed charges anyway. Curtis pleaded guilty to domestic violence and was ordered to enter a batterer's program. It wouldn't have happened if he wasn't a bit drunk, he says; besides, drywall breaks easily.
Curtis feels misunderstood. "I have never been an abuser of women," he says. "But if you look at my record, I look like one."
He pleaded guilty to beating up Poe in 1995 only to expedite the case, he says. In the 1997 altercation with Karen, he points out that she defended him to police. Her broken neck in 1998 was truly accidental, he claims, and the February 1999 fight was mostly Karen's fault. She was pregnant and in a foul mood.
"I remember she came up to me and said, 'Curtis, I know why I was acting like I was. I was pregnant,'" he remembers. "She felt so guilty about it." They made up and put it behind them, he says.
But Mayes remembers getting a call from Karen a few months later. She was deeper into pregnancy, and she and Curtis had clashed. Karen told Mayes he punched her in the stomach, and that she was afraid the child was hurt. When Mayes arrived, Karen was bleeding. She took her to the hospital. The baby was still healthy.
They did indeed fight. Curtis admits that. But the discord was rarer and milder than portrayed in court papers, he says.
Mostly, they were a happy, peaceful couple. He talks of barbecues in the backyard, Julian soaring on his swingset. Or he would be trimming the bushes, Karen planting flowers in the garden. They took Julian to Disney movies and the circus. Curtis says they had "quality time" on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when they watched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Law & Order, and The West Wing. (Law & Order and The West Wing air on Wednesday nights, when Karen typically had board meetings.) On Saturday mornings, they cleaned the house together and spent the rest of their weekend with the kids.
With her heavy workload, Karen was temperamental, Curtis says. He's the only one who could handle her fluctuations. "I could read her like a book and play her like a piano."
Neighbors saw Curtis in the front yard with the children, polishing his dark blue Cadillac, with its custom rims and license plate that read "CUDDA," his nickname. Even those who had heard Karen's tales of his angry, erratic behavior could find little evidence of it in their own meetings with him. Noisette-Blair, for instance, says Curtis struck her as a "likable character."
Detective Ralph Simms, who met Curtis through Karen, became a close friend. Several times Simms woke early on winter mornings to shovel his driveway, only to find that it was already plowed. Curtis, who had started a plowing side business, had done it for him.
But either Spencer's siblings don't have warm memories of Curtis, or they've banished them from recall.
When Karen's daughter Paige was born in August 1999, they avoided the hospital again. They say their conversations with Karen never reflected the marital bliss Curtis presented. They say Karen arrived each night to a home strewn with clothes and toys, to children running unsupervised with unchanged diapers. If Curtis hadn't polished off dinner, he'd finished off the baby's milk. Karen wasn't allowed on social outings without him; he'd hold her car keys and dresses till she relented. At one point, Karen, who owned the house, ordered Curtis to sleep on the couch. When he wouldn't leave her bed, she took the couch herself and slept there permanently.
Curtis offered gifts in the aftermath of fights. He knelt before her, weeping apologies and promises. But by August of 2000, she had stopped forgiving him. "I'm tired of him bringing me flowers and candy," she told her brother James. "He's got to go now. He's really got to go."
James says she talked to the University Heights police about kicking him out, and they told her the only way was to have him evicted. She served him notice around the third week in August.
A few weeks later, Detective Simms dropped by to pay Curtis for mowing and fertilizing his lawn -- work Curtis had taken up since being fired by RTA for missing work too often.
"We were talking about how I've been in my job for 20 years," Simms remembers. "Karen says, 'I bet you've seen a lot in 20 years.'"
Simms recounted the horror stories. The last one involved a man who killed his wife, dumped her in the trunk, and drove to the airport. He intended to park the car and get on a plane. By the time someone smelled the woman's rotting body, he would be long gone.
The man's plan was discovered only after he was pulled over for running a red light on the way to the airport, Simms said.
Curtis, who was in another room, popped his head out. "So, Ralph, you mean to tell me that, if the police would have never stopped his car, this guy would've gotten away with murder?"
"I said, 'Yeah,'" Simms recalls. "Then I started to say, 'Curtis, don't get any ideas.' But I didn't. It's always bothered me that I was going to say that."
On September 14, Curtis rolled into Simms's driveway. The detective was hosting friends over a case of Heineken. Everyone knew Curtis and liked him. But Simms says Curtis was in a bad humor that afternoon.
"Curtis, how's you and my girl getting along?" Simms remembers asking, as was his habit.
"She wants me out," came Curtis's reply. "But I'm not going nowhere. I'm going to make this work."
The other men in the room, who also knew Karen, took up the topic as Simms bounced from room to room of his house, cleaning. He wasn't in the room at the time, but his four guests told him afterward that Curtis said, "I'm going to kill that bitch."
Curtis says it's a lie. But Simms says the witnesses would have testified in court. He refused to provide their names.
Exactly one week later, on September 21, Curtis spent the day running errands. He says he took the kids to Forest Hill Park, drove to the grocery store, took his mother to the bus station, and dropped by work to see Karen.
He started cleaning when he got home. The couple was leaving to spend the weekend at a Toronto casino, Curtis says. "Karen was the type of woman that, if we were going out of town, she didn't want to come back to a dirty home."
At some point, Karen must have arrived at home, clicked the garage door opener, and parked her Mercedes. She even walked into the house, police believe, because she put down her keys and took off her heels and pantyhose.
But that's as much as detectives could piece together. The only thing they can say for sure is that, on the night of September 21, someone wrapped a strap around Karen's neck and pulled it so tight that the imprint was tattooed there. There were marks above that line, probably from Karen's fingernails, scratching desperately. But the person behind her held fast and didn't let go till her body went limp.
At about 11:45 that night, police got a call from a resident near the corner of Cormere Avenue and Haddam Road, near Shaker Square. A Mercedes had gone over the curb and sideswiped a light pole.
When police opened the trunk, they found Karen.
At 12:52 a.m., Ralph Simms got a call. It was Curtis. "Ralph, Karen hasn't come home from work," he said. "I think something's wrong." Simms told him she probably stopped to have a drink.
"Oh, you think it's OK?" he remembers Curtis responding. "OK, go back to bed."
Several hours later, Simms awoke to another call, this time from Curtis's sister. Karen was dead.
At that moment, one word struck Simms: "Curtis."
Police already had him in custody. Curtis didn't help himself in the questioning session that followed.
"Middleton tried to appear to be . . . real open-minded about not questioning his wife's whereabouts, even though he made dinner for them, cleaned the house, and was awaiting her arrival for their 'nice evening' together," summarized Detective Denise Kovach. "During our interview, he made it quite clear that he was a romantic, spur-of-the-moment guy who tried to make his wife happy."
Curtis was in a holding cell when Simms arrived. "I didn't do it!" he hollered. "All they have to do is check the forensics. They don't have my fingerprints. Check the phone records."
Simms says Curtis never once mentioned the loss of Karen. "That sent a red flag up."
Meanwhile, James Spencer awoke to the morning news as he always did. There was something about a dead woman left in her Mercedes near Shaker Square. "How sad. Someone's going to wake up without a mother or a sister," he remarked casually to his wife.
Then he took a collect call from Curtis, who was in jail. He was weeping and hysterical. Spencer had received these calls before, and it meant there was a fight, that Karen had been beaten up again. "You better tell me what you did to my sister, 'cause I'm going to hurt you," he yelled. Curtis said she was dead.
"And then I just freaked out," Spencer says.
Sheats got a call, too, though by that time she had already heard the news. Curtis made his case: "Lorna, you know me better than anybody. Could I have killed Karen?"
"Curtis, I didn't think you could break her neck, but you did that," she replied.
But he continued his plea, noting that only Karen's insurance would pay for the heart surgery their infant daughter needed. "Killing Karen would have been like signing Paige's death certificate," he argued.
A few weeks later, he was still professing his innocence. He maintained that he -- and his children -- were the victims. "I've got a four-year-old who woke up at four in the morning to a house without parents and full of police," Curtis cried.
An anonymous letter sent to Scene claimed Karen had recently discovered that executives were embezzling from the mental health board, and suggested that they were likely behind Karen's slaying. It also said that Curtis and Karen "were very much in love." Several months later, Curtis admitted that he and Clay Krcal, a home builder convicted of writing bad checks, had penned the letter together from the Cuyahoga County Jail.
As his case drew closer to trial, the full range of evidence against Curtis began to spell doom. He told detectives that Karen never came home that night, and that he never left. But investigators found that, though she had worn pantyhose to work, there were none on her body. And though Karen was not the type to wear clothes that clashed, she had on green heels with a blue business suit. Julian had picked up his mother's garage door opener -- another key piece of evidence -- and James Spencer, while cleaning out the house, found Karen's keys stashed behind a pile of bedsheets in the linen closet.
A neighbor saw a man fitting Curtis's description fleeing the Mercedes with a plastic bag. In the bag, detectives say, he carried Karen's credit cards, which were taken to stage the murder as a carjacking.
The car was parked a short distance from an RTA station. A train driver recognized Curtis as being aboard that night and said he was carrying a plastic bag when he got out at the Green Road stop. Finally, detectives say, Curtis drove home in his Chevy Blazer, which he had his brother park at the Green Road RTA lot.
There were also the men at Simms's party, who heard Curtis threaten to kill Karen, and copies of the eviction notice she served him.
If that weren't enough, Clay Krcal, Curtis's jailhouse confidant, suddenly appeared on the prosecution's witness list. He was prepared to testify that he had heard Curtis's confession.
Curtis decided it was time to make a deal. Just before trial, assistant county prosecutors Steve Dever and Brendan Sheehan were approached by Curtis's attorneys. Curtis would plead guilty if they reduced the charge to voluntary manslaughter and sentenced him to the Lorain Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison, where Curtis would be able to take visits from his kids.
Karen's family agreed to the deal, but they wanted to hear Curtis admit his deed. With his body shaking, tears pouring, he said he strangled her, put her in the trunk, and drove her to Shaker Square. Judge Kenneth Callahan sentenced him to 13 years.
But just two days later, Curtis reversed fields in an interview with Scene. "What you've seen on TV was not the truth," he said, referring to a video of his confession, which played on every evening newscast in Cleveland. He hadn't slept in two days and said he was tortured by shame.
He explained that there was an all-white jury (in fact, there were two black members) that would have certainly convicted him, based on past instances of abuse. He said he took the deal because the reduced sentence would allow him to see his children sooner.
"I did what I did for my kids, so I could see them again. But I did not kill Karen. I loved her. She was everything to me."
Curtis vowed to retract his guilty plea and force the state to try him.
The next day, he retracted his retraction. "The stuff I told you yesterday was a lie," he told Scene. Asked if he was again admitting to murdering Karen, he hung up. So far, he has not withdrawn his plea.
Poe and her son were in court when Curtis confessed. She wants Curtis Jr., now 11, to know that his father did something very wrong, that the system isn't punishing him for frivolous reasons.
Karen's death has made Poe contemplate her own mortality. Since Curtis left, she has found the church, and she's sure God saved her from death at Curtis's hands.
Simms wishes Curtis would have talked with him. He'd like to talk to him now, though their friendship probably died that September night. Simms was prepared to testify that he, too, believed Curtis was a murderer.
Mayes thinks about how Karen was going to take the kids to Six Flags, and how she would regret less her own death than the impact it might have on her children, to whom she was so devoted.
James Spencer has the Mercedes -- once the fulfillment of Karen's childhood dream -- parked outside the garage behind his home, its lustrous black coat littered with one-winged samaras that helicopter down from a maple tree. But the gloom cast by the Mercedes inflicts nowhere near the agony he gets from seeing Julian and Paige, who are now in his custody. Paige was barely a year old when her mother was killed -- too young to fully know her loss. But sometimes Spencer finds Julian, now 4, on the patio alone, speaking to the sky.
"Julian, what are you doing?" he asks.
"I'm talking to my mommy," says Julian. "She's with the angels."
There is another image that torments Spencer. Police told him it would have taken three minutes for Curtis to kill Karen with the strap. Her older brother, always her protector, the one from whom she hid Curtis's abuse for fear he would retaliate, wonders if she didn't finally call for him as the strap came around her neck.
"When he was strangling the hell out of my sister, was she screaming, 'Jimmy?'" asks Spencer, his voice cracking, hands trembling. "That's the question I live with every day. I couldn't be there for her."
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