NEWPORT NEWS — Gregory Lavon Curtis was laid to rest six months ago at a national veterans’ cemetery in South Florida.
A Navy honor guard played taps at his funeral, presenting a folded American flag to the family of the 54-year-old Navy veteran.
“Devoted son and father,” said the epitaph on the white headstone, also mentioning Curtis’ service in the Persian Gulf.
But a day after Curtis’ burial, cemetery officials learned that he was the accused shooter in a murder-suicide nearly 1,000 miles away, in Newport News.
Police detectives say he shot and killed Courtney Renee Dwyer — a 28-year-old mother of three — during a chance encounter in the parking lot of a residential apartment complex off Old Oyster Point Road. Then, police say, he turned the gun on himself.
Investigators say the two had not met before that day.
In late April, the Newport News police told the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that if Curtis were still alive, he would have been charged with second-degree murder in Dwyer’s death. Under federal law, that charge isn’t enough to strip a veteran of a military burial.
But all that changed in recent months after Newport News’ top prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn, weighed in. He told the VA he would have charged Curtis with first-degree murder, Virginia’s highest criminal charge, punishable by up to life in prison.
“The facts of this case will not change,” Gwynn said Wednesday. “This is a first-degree murder case.”
The prosecutor said the evidence — including video footage obtained from Ring cameras — shows Curtis shooting Dwyer in the back seat of a car from which she was retrieving items. Then, Gwynn said, Curtis “took a step back, fiddled with his gun for approximately 25 seconds,” and shot Dwyer a second time before shooting himself.
“In Virginia, first-degree murder is the willful, deliberate, and premeditated murder of another,” Gwynn wrote in an email to the VA in September. “The murder of Ms. Dwyer certainly fits that definition.”
A Veterans Affairs attorney told Gwynn in an Aug. 30 email that based on the prosecutor’s analysis of the case and his upgrading it to first-degree murder, the federal agency has decided to disinter Curtis’ remains from the Florida burial grounds.
Though a VA spokesman said the decision isn’t final, the preliminary recommendation has spurred elation from Dwyer’s family and a last-ditch appeal from Curtis’ family to keep him where he is.
“Those grounds are sacred,” said Dwyer’s step-grandmother, Lynn Jones, who has spearheaded the push to move Curtis’ remains. “They’re for our national heroes. And I don’t feel like somebody who commits murder is a hero.”
Jones, 63, the daughter of a 94-year-old World War II veteran, has volunteered for decades to lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere.
When she learned of Curtis’ burial at the Florida veterans’ cemetery, she launched a website — preservesacredgrounds.org — and petition to bar the national graveyards from interring those who have committed second-degree murder.
“She was a mother, daughter, sister and granddaughter whose life was taken violently and needlessly by her assailant,” the petition said of Courtney Dwyer, with 937 people signing it as of Saturday morning.
“It’s still a kick in the gut to know that this person had a folded flag, that the taps were played, and that he was buried in a national cemetery among all the veterans that are so deserving to be there,” Jones said. “We can’t unfold the flag, and we can’t unplay the taps … The only thing we can do is to fight to have him removed.”
Curtis’ mother, Luedell Curtis, of Broward County, said Thursday that she was too distraught to talk about the possibility of her only son being disinterred.
“I’m very heartbroken about this, and I don’t want to discuss it,” said Luedell, 76.
She referred a reporter to the attorney handling the family’s appeal, Michael Shawn of Miami Beach. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Les’ Melnyk, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration, a division of the VA, said it’s “very rare” for the agency to disinter a buried veteran, though the numbers on how often it happens weren’t immediately available.
Melnyk declined to say where the Curtis case stands.
“NCA can confirm that it is taking appropriate action in accordance with (federal law) in reviewing the interment of Gregory Lavon Curtis at South Florida National Cemetery,” he wrote in an email Friday. “A formal decision has not yet been made.”
The ultimate decision, Melnyk said, will be made by Matthew Quinn, the VA’s under secretary for memorial affairs.
Gregory Lavon Curtis served 20 years in the service, the Navy said last week. He retired in 2005 as a Lithographer 1st Class, a non-commissioned officer of the E-6 rank.
The Florida native served on two aircraft carriers, the USS John F. Kennedy and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, among other warships, the Navy said. He worked at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina and other duty stations.
Curtis was awarded 27 medals and decorations over his 20 years, to include a Navy Commendation Medal, four Navy Achievement Medals, and five Good Conduct Medals. The Navy also listed him as a “pistol expert.”
Information on the South Florida National Cemetery’s website lists Curtis as serving in the Persian Gulf “war period.”
After leaving the Navy, Curtis worked for 10 years for the Defense Logistics Agency, and then for the Army Publishing Directorate, his obituary said. A coworker who wrote on his obituary page described him as “nice and easygoing, fun to be around, and dedicated to his job.”
Curtis had one son, who is now 21.
Lynn Jones said she understands the Curtis family’s loss. “I get that they’re in pain,” she said. “They’re innocent in all of this. But at the same time, it’s not going to discourage me from my mission.”
Courtney Renee Dwyer grew up mostly in Naples, Florida. She was 14 when she came to Newport News with her family, and attended Menchville High School. She had three children who are now 11, 6 and 2, her family said.
Her mother, Karen Dwyer Jones, 47, of Newport News, said Dwyer tended bar at Headlights, in northern Newport News, and was living temporarily with her boyfriend at a local motel.
In late March, Jones said, Dwyer’s boyfriend parked his car in a neighborhood not far from the hotel: The Willow Green North neighborhood, off Old Oyster Point Road and near the York County line.
When the couple got into an argument on March 23, Jones said, two of Dwyer’s friends drove her to the car to retrieve some clothes. But as Dwyer was moving items in and out of the sedan, police said, Curtis — who lived a few apartments down — walked up.
“Our assumption is that he thought she was taking something out of the car that she shouldn’t have been, or asking her why she was there,” Jones said. (Neighbors told Jones later that Curtis kept to himself, but also closely monitored who was coming and going in the neighborhood).
One of Dwyer’s friends, who was waiting for her in a parked car, told Jones that she witnessed a brief but tense exchange between Curtis and Dwyer, though she couldn’t hear how the conversation began.
“ ‘You better watch out, little girl, you don’t know who’s suicidal,’ ” the friend alleges Curtis said at one point as he pulled out a gun.
“If you shoot me, you’ll go to jail forever,” Dwyer then replied, according to the friend’s account. Then Curtis shot her, paused, and shot her again.
Police responding to 911 calls just after 6:30 p.m. found Dwyer face-down in the back seat of the sedan. Not far away, Curtis was found shot on the ground — a handgun with an extended magazine nearby. Detectives told Jones they believed Curtis was drunk, with “the whole crime scene smelling like liquor.”
Newport News Police released Dwyer’s name to the public a couple weeks later. But the department would not release the shooter’s name — either publicly or to Dwyer’s family — with a police spokesman citing a department practice not to identify suicide victims.
That frustrated Dwyer’s family. “It felt like this just went by the wayside, and nobody cared that this happened,” Karen Jones said in June. “At least put a name to the person that murdered my child for no reason.”
Gwynn called the police department’s decision to withhold Curtis’ name from Dwyer’s family “unfortunate.” “I think that’s what got this whole thing rolling,” he said.
“I get that you want to protect the victim’s family in a suicide and not expose their grief publicly,” Gwynn said. “But this was a murder-suicide. And for me, that was quantitatively and qualitatively different.”
The Daily Press learned Gregory Curtis’ name in publicly filed search warrant affidavits in Newport News Circuit Court. A reporter relayed his name to Karen Jones on April 13 — the same day Curtis was laid to rest in Florida — with the family expressing relief at getting the information.
Though Curtis’ name didn’t ring a bell, Jones said, the family soon learned from Internet searches that he was buried at the South Florida National Cemetery, south of West Palm Beach.
Lynn Jones called the cemetery on April 14, with a director there telling her they didn’t know anything about the March killing in Newport News.
If the police had released Curtis’ name, the Dwyer family contends, the VA would have learned of the murder-suicide before the burial, which they believe would have put the interment on hold.
Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew met with Dwyer’s family in late April, saying his department would re-examine their practice on naming suicide victims. The chief told the Daily Press later that the normal rules on shielding the names of suicide victims should not apply to those who commit murder first.
“If someone takes their own life after they have taken someone else’s, I think that the community and the public should know that,” Drew said.
After the Daily Press ran a story about the case in June, Gwynn got in touch with the family through a reporter, telling them he’d help as much as he could. Lynn Jones gave him contacts to call at the VA.
“But quite frankly, before I reached out to anybody, I got an email from the General Counsel’s Office at the VA,” Gwynn said. “They wanted to know what my opinion was about the situation.”
According to the Veterans Affairs’ website, “burial in a national cemetery is open to all members of the armed forces who have met a minimum active duty service requirement and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.”
But a federal law, passed in the late 1990s to block Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh from a military burial, bars former service members who have committed state or federal “capital crimes” from veterans’ cemeteries.
A “state capital crime,” the federal statute says, includes “the willful, deliberate, or premeditated unlawful killing of another human being for which a sentence of imprisonment for life or the death penalty may be imposed.”
With Virginia having abolished capital punishment earlier this year, Gwynn pointed out that first-degree murder is now the most serious charge on the state’s books.
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“If the objective is to prohibit a military member from being buried in a military cemetery who has committed the highest form of homicide in any particular state, then first degree murder should qualify for that,” he said.
Karen Jones said she has appreciated Gwynn’s involvement. “I was blown away because he didn’t have to do any of that,” she said. “He didn’t have to help us, or speak on our behalf.”
Lynn Jones, for her part, is confident Curtis’ remains will be disinterred in the coming months. But, she said, there’s far more work to do to remedy such problems going forward.
She’s planning to meet with federal lawmakers — and hoping to testify before House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees — about adding second-degree murder and other crimes to the prohibition list for veterans cemeteries.
“This needs to never happen again,” Jones said. “I don’t want to leave wreaths on the graves of murderers and rapists and child molesters.”