A Fatal Breakup
RachellÃ© Curry, just one day short of 35, was eager to start a new life with her new love. But the Mount Vernon resident never got to celebrate her birthday. Instead, her body was pulled out of the frigid waters of the Grassy Sprain Reservoir in Yonkers. More than a year later, tired of waiting for a criminal case to commence, her family is poised to file a civil suit against the man they believe is responsible for her death.
According to her friends, RachellÃ© (pronounced rah-sha-LAY) Curry couldn’t have been happier. Dressed in a frilly white top and a smart black suit with high-heeled boots, Curry and her friends—Marsha Alleyne, Danielle Brown, and Lisa Bass—were sitting in a red leather booth at City Lobster in Manhattan near Rockefeller Center, having what everyone recalls as a really good time. They’d gathered that blustery February night to celebrate Curry’s upcoming 35th birthday. Good food. Good company. Good times.
Curry, a petite (only 5’1” tall) 34-year-old, started the evening with an Amaretto Sour—a favorite drink from her college days at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “The Girls,” as they called themselves, chatted happily over fried calamari and lobster mashed potatoes. Bass shared some very exciting news with the group: she was pregnant. “This baby is going to be so spoiled,” Curry teased, “with all of us as aunts.”
Curry was looking forward to turning 35. She had just received her MBA from New York University and recently had been promoted to an investment representative at Morgan Stanley, the brokerage firm where she’d worked for the past seven years. “I’m living out my dream,” her friends recall her saying. “This is going to be my year.”
As they ate, drank, and gossiped, Curry’s cellphone kept vibrating. She would check the number and groan. “I’m not getting it right now,” her friends recall her saying. “I don’t want to bring down the mood.” Finally, after the phone convulsed for what seemed like the 20th time, Curry excused herself to take the call. When she returned, she seemed terribly upset.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Brown asked her friend.
“James,” Brown says Curry answered flatly. “Same old, same old.”
Curry had met her live-in boyfriend, James Callahan III, who until recently had been a school psychologist at the Claremont Elementary School in Ossining, while they were both college students at UMass. Although they had been friends
for 15 years and a couple for the past eight, Curry’s friends say she rarely spoke about him. She alluded to difficulties with Callahan—the romance had been over for some time she told them—but didn’t elaborate. This time the friends pressed and, the usually reticent Curry opened up.
“This is it,” her friends say she announced. “I’m not going to let this go on any longer.” First on the agenda, she told them, was to move out of the one-bedroom co-op she and Callahan owned in Mount Vernon. It was a tough decision, she told them. She still loved Callahan “as a friend” but wasn’t in love with him anymore. For months, her friends had heard her talk of another man, someone she’d met on a business trip and who lived in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. Curry said she was in love with this new man, and that she had broken the news to James the night before. “We were up until three am talking about it,” her friends say she told them. “He asked me if I felt guilty for f—ing someone else.” She also explained that James had been sleeping on the couch for the past 10 months.
Brown and Bass left the restaurant around 9 pm. Curry and Alleyne then headed over to the 40/40 Club, rapper Jay-Z’s trendy nightclub on West 25th Street.
The scene at 40/40 was bustling, and the two settled in the cigar lounge with mango martinis and mini-burger appetizers. “Everyone was a little buzzed,” Alleyne recalls. “And â€˜Shell’ was the happiest I’ve ever seen her. She was dancing on the table!” By 1:30, the two had called car services, hugged, and went their separate ways. Curry arrived home a half hour later, and Callahan was outside their building, reportedly waiting for her in his car.
Five and a half hours later, New York State Police towed a black 1997 Ford Explorer from the Grassy Sprain Reservoir in Yonkers, its roof and part of the passenger side smashed in. A high-heeled boot was stuck in between the seats. RachellÃ© Curry’s body was inside. She was pronounced dead on arrival at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. Her family says they were told the cause of death was asphyxiation due to drowning and hypothermia and that the manner of death was pending investigation.
That fatal incident occurred a little more than a year ago—on February 24, 2006—and RachellÃ© Curry’s death is still under investigation. “Active” investigation, Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore says—and will say no more. The police, too, are mum. But Curry’s friends and family are not keeping quiet. They believe Curry’s death was not an accident—and fear that the man whom they suspect killed her may financially benefit from her death.
The family has retained high-profile litigator John Kelly and intends to bring a wrongful-death action against Callahan. “We want the court to find him culpable in the civil case to add to the criminal case, which is the ultimate goal,” says Tanya Curry Hoffman, RachellÃ©’s sister.
James Callahan, who did not return numerous calls from Westchester Magazine seeking comment, is named the beneficiary on Curry’s life insurance policy, 401K savings, and stock options at Morgan Stanley, worth roughly $500,000. He has retained the services of McCullough, Goldberger & Staudt in
An accident reconstruction has been completed that “contradicts what Mr. Callahan told us as to the events which led to the accident,” says investigator Joseph Becerra of the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
What were those events? What exactly happened the night that Curry died?
When the police, including investigators Becerra and Shannon Morrison, arrived at the scene, they did what police officers always do in such circumstances: they asked questions. And
Callahan, bruised and distraught, told the police that he and his fiancÃ©e had gone for a drive to discuss wedding plans and to get a bite to eat. He also said that they were out looking at homes for sale. Callahan said he was traveling north on the Sprain Brook Parkway around 4:30 in the morning when another car cut him off, causing him to swerve. His Ford Explorer, he told police, then crashed through a guardrail, went airborne, then plunged into 15 feet of near-freezing water, flipping over in the process. Callahan, 6’4” and husky, managed to get himself out of the vehicle, swim to shore, climb up nearly 20 feet of loose rock to the
, then walk in the dark, soaking wet and freezing, down the narrow shoulder looking for help. He told police there were no cars on the road. When he finally reached the BP Amoco gas station about a mile away on Tuckahoe Road, he collapsed on the floor, suffering from cuts and hypothermia. A manager called 911.
The police believed that a tragic accident had just occurred, according to one account—until they began to talk to Curry’s friends and family.
“Talking wedding plans? That’s bull,” Curry’s friend Brown says. “She was leaving him!”
Her brother-in-law, Eric Hoffman, was suspicious from the outset. “The day of the accident, I went in to see James,” he recounted. “He had his head in his hands, and he was crying. I noticed he had abrasions on his forehead. I had just seen Sis and she didn’t have any abrasions on her face or her hands, no signs that she tried to break out of her seatbelt. No signs that she tried to fight her way out of the car. Right then, I knew that this was no accident.”
The place where RachellÃ© Curry died would, under other circumstances, be considered a lovely spot. The Grassy Sprain Reservoir is dotted with islands lush with greenery. Looking down the long straightaway of the Parkway, it appears likely that only a sudden swerve of Callahan’s car at this precise spot would land it in the reservoir.
“James drove that same highway every day to work,” says Eric. “I believe his plan was to gun it—there were no skid marks, no evidence of braking —and the car went into the reservoir in the one spot where there were no trees or shrubs to impede it. The way the car landed, when James got out, he would have been able to stand on the car and be halfway out of the water. Why didn’t he just take a breath and then go back for RachellÃ©?”
“Shell could swim like a fish and would have fought to get out,” adds Tanya. “If they were so much in love, as James kept saying, how could he just leave her there in the car?”
The relationship between the two had cooled in the last year or so, RachellÃ©’s family says, admitting that they had never warmed to Callahan. “We were accepting of his presence only because Shell wanted him in her life,” Tanya says.
In the early years of the relationship, her family says, Callahan seemed to dominate and was always trying to “better” her. “James pressed her to get her MBA,” Eric says. “If he saw her reading People magazine, he would tell her she should be reading the Wall Street Journal.”
Of course, urging someone to strive for higher goals is laudable. But it was when Curry attained those goals and became more independent, her family says, that trouble began. “James had standards he was grooming her for,” Eric says. “He would always tell us about his other girlfriends, how one had graduated from Harvard or another was a doctor. It was really verbal mud-slinging. But as Sis became more independent and successful, he lost his power over her. In the months preceding her death, James knew he was losing control.”
His whole demeanor toward the family started to change, her family says. Where Callahan had been once distant (when he visited RachellÃ©’s family he usually brought along a book to read or journal to write in), he became highly emotional. “He never showed any emotion before,” Eric says, “but the last time we were together he broke down in tears, said he was at a loss of what to do about the growing distance between him and RachellÃ©. He didn’t know what was going wrong with their relationship. It was a one-hundred-eighty-degree flip.”
Eric also reports that, in the final months, when friends called and Curry wasn’t there, Callahan would say to them “She’s always busy—everything is about her clients and not us. I can’t reach her.” He continues: “One night, I took Sis out to dinner and he called her all night long—he wouldn’t let her be.”
Months before that dinner, Tanya says her sister had talked to her about moving in with her family. “Of course, I said yes,” she recalls. Eric, too, let RachellÃ© know she was always welcome. “I told her that when she was ready to leave, she should just grab a few things and go, don’t worry about getting a U-Haul—just leave and buy everything new. I told her he had the potential to be confrontational, but she wasn’t scared of him. She never thought she had to worry about him.”
It has been 14 months since Curry’s death and the pain her loved ones feel has not eased. The family is no longer in contact with the man she told everyone she loved, who, they point out, had flown in from Tortola to surprise her for
her 35th birthday—but instead attended her funeral. Her 36th birthday has come and gone, commemorated by her family and friends at her grave. Curry’s nephew graduated from kindergarten and her niece danced in her first recital, without their favorite aunt in attendance. Lisa Bass had a baby boy, Aidan Xavier, on September 10, 2006. Danielle Brown moved into a new condo. Marsha Alleyne still works in the same office as her friend had but is considering taking a mental-health leave. “Every Monday I hate going to work,” she says. “I’m still coping with the loss of my best friend.” And the Curry family has established a scholarship in RachellÃ©’s name at Choate Rosemary Hall, the prominent Connecticut prep school from which she graduated. Her father, who used to talk to RachellÃ© every day, now calls the State Police every week, asking if any progress has been made. “He’s a broken man,” Tanya says. “He even walks differently now.”
The family says it just wants to know what really happened the night a young and happy RachellÃ© Curry set foot in that Ford Explorer for the final ride of her life.