Some believe Curtis Byers blew an extraordinary second chance to escape a world of violence and drugs.
Some believe Curtis never had a chance at all.
Curtis was 17 when he stood before a judge in September 2008 awaiting punishment for his role in a violent armed robbery. State Supreme Court Justice M. William Boller was hesitant. The teenager, who had committed both robbery and arson, was clearly on the path to ruin. He deserved to be behind bars.
But Curtis’ sister swayed Boller. She tearfully laid out the years of abuse she and her brother had suffered as children. She told the judge that if he just gave her brother one more chance, he would come live with her in Amherst, enroll in a good Williamsville school, and finally have a real chance to start over.
“I’m prepared to give him the chance he never had,” his sister promised.
Boller relented, sentencing Curtis to five years of probation and placing him on a strict curfew. The teenager enrolled in Williamsville South High School that fall, joined the wrestling team, made friends.
On Saturday, the bullet-riddled body of Curtis Byers lay on Sherman Street on Buffalo’s East Side. He was pronounced dead at the scene at the age of 25.
Now some wonder if Curtis, the city’s 40th homicide of the year, could have led a life that ended another way.
A Buffalo News photographer took a photograph of Curtis when he was 10. He was a summer camper at Cradle Beach, a camp that serves children with disabilities and living in poverty.
With swim goggles strapped to his head, Curtis reached from one overhead playground ring to the next, trying to make it across the obstacle. He looked like any 10-year-old on the playground. He looked happy.
But relatives painted a grim picture of Curtis’ life as an inner city child, a victim of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of his own family.
Within five years, Curtis was leading a life of crime and hurting others in the process.
He was 15 when, in June 2007, he agreed to set fire to a vacant house on Wende Street in exchange for $500. The fire nearly killed Buffalo firefighter Mark P. Reed, who lost his leg in the blaze and suffered permanent, long-term injuries when a brick chimney fell on him. Curtis was considered a juvenile offender for that crime and sentenced in Family Court to 100 hours of community service for the third-degree arson charge.
Firefighters were outraged.
Reed, who broke 40 bones and lost his right leg and sense of smell and taste in the fire, said he felt abandoned by the justice system. To this day, he refuses to utter the name of the young man who made his life “a living hell.”
Curtis turned 16 a month later. He was subsequently charged as an adult when he committed an armed robbery with another teen in August 2007, which involved stealing a gold necklace from a victim at a house party. In the struggle, prosecutors said, the victim was shot in the arm.
He faced Judge Boller with his wrists shackled to his waist, shedding tears with his sister as he awaited judgment. Boller was persuaded that his sister had a plan to redeem him and sentenced Curtis on youthful offender guidelines, giving him probation and the chance to start again.
When Curtis transferred to Williamsville South High School in September 2008, administrators said they had no idea about the young man’s criminal history. He joined the wrestling team, made friends with his teammates, and was generally considered by adults to be a quiet, polite and hardworking student, according to those who interacted with him then.
“He was always respectful to me,” recalled Edla Collora, who gave him rides home from school after wrestling practices and matches. “He was doing well in school. He got good grades. He had letters from his teachers saying he was a very good student. He was really trying.”
In March, however, Curtis and Collora’s son got into an argument in the cafeteria. Collora and her son said members of the wrestling team were gearing up for the upcoming team banquet and collecting money for the coach’s gift. When Curtis was asked for money, they said, he told them he wasn’t chipping in and would do something separately. This apparently led to an escalation of words.
When Collora’s son stood up and walked away, he noisily toppled a chair that may have come into contact with Curtis, Collora said.
Outraged by the show of disrespect, Curtis tackled her son from behind, repeatedly punching him, breaking bones in his face. It would take reconstructive surgery and four metal plates to repair the damage. Collora asked that her son’s name not be republished out of concern for possible retribution against him.
Ironically, her son considered Curtis a good friend and repeatedly pleaded with his mother not to pursue charges against Curtis. The two teenagers had been wrestling partners all school year until that point. Despite the violent incident, her son was convinced that prosecuting Curtis would extinguish his friend’s last hope for redemption.
“I don’t want to be the one who ruins someone’s life,” he said in 2009.
School officials were shocked and upset to discover Curtis had an extensive and violent criminal history.
As a “youthful offender” – a designation that a judge can give to 16- through 19-year-olds who otherwise would be treated as adults – the district would have been entitled to know that Curtis was on probation, but not the reason why.
Curtis fell into a legal category in which he was afforded leniency and the confidentiality of a younger person but not the full range of services, attention or mental health evaluations that he would have received had he committed the armed robbery even a month earlier, when he was still 15, court and probation officials said.
Criminal justice, school and social services groups acknowledge legal confidentiality requirements can harm some youngsters. Local participants in the juvenile-justice system said they have worked on the problem for years, but without changes in the law on confidentiality, their efforts are limited.
Curtis was sentenced to three years in prison in 2010. At his sentencing hearing, State Supreme Court Justice Penny Wolfgang told the 18-year-old, “The consequences are that you’re going to be incarcerated at a time when you are young and you could be out wrestling with the team and going to high school. And now you’re going to lose those years. And everyone is, at this point, just hopeful that you’re going to learn from this experience and come out a different person.”
It also became clear in court that despite Curtis’ 9 p.m. curfew, of which his teammates were aware, Curtis had still ventured back to the city at least once to meet with a friend who was a known drug dealer.
He was arrested and charged with both assault and violating the terms of his probation.
Shelly Schratz, Collora’s sister, said it’s no surprise Curtis had ventured back to the city while living in Amherst. That’s where his friends were, where his home was. Because his records were sealed, Schratz said she doubted Curtis got any of the counseling assistance he likely needed while attending Williamsville South.
“He needed help, direction,” she said. “This is a sad story. You saw it coming.”
A bad ending
Curtis was released on parole in December 2012. He did not make headlines again until Buffalo Police announced Saturday that a man died of multiple gunshot wounds on Sherman Street.
During the five intervening years, it appears Curtis returned to a street life headed in one direction.
His death was greeted differently by different people. Collora said Monday that her son did not stay in touch with Curtis after the assault, but he had long ago forgiven him. For Collora, her son and her sister, Curtis’ death is a sad story. It points to a broken system that needs to be fixed for the sake of kids like Curtis, victims who grow up to hurt others and die young.
For some in law enforcement and in the fire department, however, the fact that Curtis died is less remarkable than the fact that he repeatedly committed serious crimes and got second chances.
Reed, who suffered the most irreparable harm because of Curtis’ actions, said he still wakes up in pain every day and takes more than a dozen medications. There is no day that passes when he doesn’t reflect on how the actions of a 15-year-old teen, hustling for the money to buy a new pair of high-top sneakers, robbed him of his health and a working career he once loved.
When he learned on Sunday that Curtis Byers was killed, he smiled.
“You play the game, as they say, it caught up,” he said.
He won’t lie and say he’s sorry Curtis is not around to hurt anyone else, or that he forgives him after death. Some pain cuts too deep.
But as he talked through his emotions on Monday, it became clear he continues to process a mix of conflicting feelings. He lives in pain, he said, but he lives. Curtis is dead and faces his own judgment. Reed also said he felt bad for Curtis’ family, who he expects is also grieving.
A police spokesman said the death of Curtis Byers remains under investigation and that police are following some leads in the case. Police hope more people will offer tips leading to an arrest in the case.
When Reed was asked if he believed Curtis’ life could have gone in any other direction, he said people want to believe that everyone has the same opportunity for a good life, that they will make the same good decisions when faced with the same choices. That’s not how life works out.
He hesitated then, struggling for a charitable comment to make for a young man who has left his life a bitter struggle.
“I hope he’s in a better place,” he said at last. “I hope he’s in peace.”