Woman’s alleged killer in murder-suicide received Navy burial and honors; her family wants his body out of veterans’ cemetery
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Ser vice) — Courtney Renee Dwyer — a 28-year-old mother of three — was found shot to death on March 23 in the back seat of a car in Newport News.
A man who lived in that neighborhood, 54-year-old Gregory Lavon Curtis, was found dead on the pavement, just outside the sedan.
The evidence, police say, shows that Curtis shot Dwyer, then turned the gun on himself.
Although most murder-suicides are domestic-related — typically husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend — police have found no evidence that Dwyer and Curtis had met before March 23.
Police would not initially tell Dwyer’s family — or the public — who shot her, citing a Newport News Police Department practice not to identify suicide victims.
That led to weeks of speculation from Dwyer’s family and friends about who killed her. Adding to the mystery was that she didn’t live in the neighborhood where she was slain.
Dwyer’s family learned Curtis’ name from a Daily Press reporter several weeks later. They then found out, from Google searches and an online obituary, that Curtis, a U.S. Navy veteran, already had been buried at a veterans’ cemetery in Florida.
Her family then spent weeks pressing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to have Curtis’ body exhumed from the grave at the South Florida National Cemetery and sent to a non-military graveyard.
“Those grounds are for heroes, not for murderers,” said Dwyer’s step-grandmother, Lynn Jones, of Northern Virginia, who has spearheaded that effort.
Though the case is still technically under investigation with Veterans Affairs, Dwyer’s family has been told there’s no federal law that would block Curtis from being buried at the national burial ground.
Dwyer’s family now wants federal law changed to bar future killers from being buried at Veterans Affairs cemeteries.
“This has got to change,” said Jones, 62. “We’re not talking about somebody who killed somebody drunk driving. We’re talking about somebody who killed someone intentionally.”
She’s launched a website — preservesacredgrounds.org — and a petition to bar those who have committed any kind of murder from a veteran’s burial.
“We all, as taxpayers, paid for her assailant’s burial,” she wrote in the online petition, saying that “placing a murderer in the same soil where our American heroes rest is dishonoring the integrity of these very sacred grounds and the heroes who rest there.”
A murder-suicide in Newport News
Police were called to 1146 North Green Drive at 6:39 p.m. March 23. That’s in the Willow Green North apartment complex, off Old Oyster Point Road in Newport News, not far from the York County line.
Officers found Dwyer face-down, with a gunshot wound to the head, in the back seat of her boyfriend’s silver Mitsubishi Lancer. The car’s rear door was open.
Curtis was on the ground in the parking lot next to the car, with a gunshot wound to the head. A black and gold Glock handgun with an extended magazine was found nearby.
Police went to Curtis’ nearby apartment, and found several magazines for semi-automatic weapons on a shelf. Detectives also gathered and viewed surveillance footage from apartments in the area.
A detective wrote in court filing that the footage showed Dwyer was “moving items in and out” of the car at the time of the killing.
“I observed Ring doorbell footage on scene that shows Curtis fire a weapon in the direction of Courtney Dwyer, then turn the gun on himself and fire a single shot before falling to the ground,” a detective wrote in a search warrant affidavit filed on March 23.
Police withhold shooter’s name
On April 12 — nearly three weeks after the incident — police released Dwyer’s name to the public as a local homicide victim. But they said they were withholding the name of the man who killed her.
“The male will not be identified as we do not release the names of individuals who die by suicide,” said a news release from the department’s public information office.
Detectives also would not provide the shooter’s name to Dwyer’s family — with the family saying a detective told them several times that he still needed permission from his supervisors to turn over the name.
“The guy kills himself, and that’s bad enough that we can’t get justice, to make him pay for it,” said Dwyer’s mother, Karen Dwyer Jones, 46, a nurse who lives in Newport News. “But at least put a name to the person that murdered my child for no reason.”
“Her name was plastered all over the place,” added Lynn Jones. “But his name was protected.”
Karen Jones said the family spent weeks scouring obituaries and Facebook, looking for clues into who was responsible for the slaying.
“I couldn’t figure it out,” she said. “It felt like this just went by the wayside, and nobody cared that this happened.”
The Daily Press learned of Gregory Lavon Curtis’ name in mid-April from search warrant affidavits that were publicly filed and accessible at Newport News Circuit Court.
A reporter provided the name to Dwyer’s family on April 13.
“We deserve to know, and you’re the first person to tell me,” Jones said. “Thank God. Because we were going through obituaries, and we couldn’t find anything ... she had three sons that we have to take care of, and this is not OK.”
Curtis’ name, she said, didn’t ring a bell. “That hasn’t been one of the names that I’ve been given by friends and witnesses,” she said.
Dwyer, who worked as a bartender at Headlights in northern Newport News, leaves behind three sons, ages 11, 6 and 1, her mother said. The youngest son “won’t even remember his mom,” she said, while one of the older boys is autistic and needs lots of care.
Pushing for change in law
Karen Jones tracked down some of Curtis’ neighbors to learn more about him — and discovered from online obituaries that he had been buried at the South Florida National Cemetery, in Lake Worth.
Dwyer’s family called the veterans cemetery, she said, and the director there said they didn’t know anything about the slaying in Newport News before he was buried on April 13.
“The cemetery said they didn’t even know about any of it,” Jones said. A cemetery official, she said, told them that a Newport News funeral home had checked a box that indicted Curtis wasn’t involved in any serious crimes.
That’s when Lynn Jones began pushing the Florida cemetery to exhume Curtis’ body and move it to another graveyard.
The daughter of a 94-year-old World War II veteran, Lynn Jones said she’s been involved for decades in honoring soldiers at veterans cemeteries. “I’ve been to cemeteries all over the world,” she said.
“I’ve laid wreaths on these graves,” she said. “I’ve picked up wreaths off these graves. I don’t take what I’m doing lightly. And now I’m wondering, ‘Am I laying the wreath on the grave of a murderer?’”
According to the Department of 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.”
Relatives can be buried there in many cases as well.
Federal law bars former service members who have committed capital murder — even if they die before prosecution — from being buried at such cemeteries. That law was passed to block Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a decorated Army veteran, from being buried at a VA cemetery.
But that prohibition doesn’t apply to second-degree murder, the crime that Newport News police say Curtis would have been charged with. It wasn’t immediately clear from the language of the statute whether it also applies to first-degree murder.
“My mission is to have this code amended,” Lynn Jones said, saying she’s reached out to politicians in both Florida and Virginia in her quest.
“Her assailant deliberately, intentionally, and willfully chose to kill an innocent person with no remorse,” she wrote in the petition. “She was a mother, daughter, sister and granddaughter whose life was taken violently and needlessly by her assailant.”
Veteran’s burial not barred
Les’ Melnyk, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration, a division of the VA, said Curtis did not receive military honors at the cemetery, but did receive them at his funeral service.
“According to a funeral home representative, Mr. Curtis received military funeral honors from a U.S. Navy Honor Guard Team at the church,” Melnyk wrote in an email. “The honor team played taps and folded and presented the flag to the next of kin.”
Though the case hasn’t been closed, Melnyk said it does not appear that Curtis’ actions “meet the legal requirements to prohibit interment in a VA national cemetery” outlined in federal law.
“Therefore, at this time, the cemetery director will not advance the case to the official who would reconsider VA’s decision to inter Mr. Curtis,” he wrote in an email. That decision can be reassessed, he said, “if new information is discovered.”
According to his online obituary, Curtis retired as a Navy lithographer after more than 20 years of military service, then worked for 10 years as a document specialist for the Defense Logistics Agency.
He recently worked for the Army Publishing Directorate, the obituary said.
Curtis’ mother, reached last week Florida, declined to comment on the case or her son, saying it was still a difficult time for the family. “That was my only son,” she said.
“I worked with Gregory for several years,” a co-worker wrote on his obituary page. “He was always nice & easy going. Fun to be around, dedicated to his job. It was a pleasure to work with him.”
More details emerge in case
Courtney Dwyer grew up mostly in Naples, Florida, but came to Newport News in 2007 at age 14, attending Menchville High School.
The family moved here, she said, after Dwyer’s grandfather, David Dwyer, got a job working for W.M. Jordan on the design of the Monitor at the Mariners’ Museum. He also was a deacon at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, and died in 2014.
Karen Jones said Courtney Dwyer was living with her boyfriend at a local motel in March, when either she or the boyfriend parked the car in the neighborhood where Courtney was killed.
“That’s the only reason we could figure out why she was even in that neighborhood in the first place,” she said.
Jones said that following an argument between Dwyer and her boyfriend, two friends drove her to get clothes and other items from the car that Tuesday evening, waiting for her in a nearby car.
That’s when Curtis approached. Jones said police detectives told her he was intoxicated at the time, with the crime scene smelling like liquor.
“The detective said it doesn’t look like they were having any kind of disagreement or anything, that he just walks up and shoots her,” Karen Jones said. “They’re assuming that he was already feeling suicidal, and he just happened to take her with him.”
But Jones said one of the friends who drove Dwyer to the parking lot described a brief but tense exchange between her and Curtis immediately before the shooting.
After Curtis approached, Jones said, the shooter said something the friend couldn’t hear, followed by an inaudible response from Dwyer.
“You better watch out, little girl, you don’t know who’s suicidal,” Curtis then replied, according to the friend’s account. The friend said that’s when Curtis pulled a handgun.
“If you shoot me, you’ll go to jail forever,” Dwyer told him, with Curtis then shooting her twice.
Karen Jones said Curtis’ neighbors told her later he was odd and somewhat of a recluse, but also “kind of neighborhood watch-ish,” always keeping a close eye on who was coming and going.
“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. Her daughter, she said, likely said something in response that “was probably kind of smart-aleckish.”
Jones initially speculated, she said, that Curtis might have known her daughter from where she tended bar.
“It makes no sense, at least to me, that somebody would just hurt somebody for no reason,” she said. “We kept thinking that they have to know each other somehow. ... That since he was single, he might go to a bar where girls dance, who knows?”
But she said Newport News police detectives are “pretty insistent” that the two didn’t know each other at all.
“The way the police are saying it, this guy was just having a bad day and decided to kill himself, and he was going to take somebody with him,” Karen Jones said. “They told us that they could find zero connections between the two of them at all.”
Chief: Shooter’s name should have been released
Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew met with the family at their request in late April. The meeting included Karen Jones and her husband in Newport News and Lynn Jones connected via Zoom from Northern Virginia.
“At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘You give her whatever she needs,’” Jones said, saying Drew directed others in the department to cooperate with Dwyer’s family. Jones said the chief “seemed genuine” and concerned about the case.
The next day, a police captain sent the family a requested letter identifying Gregory Curtis as Dwyer’s killer, and the charges he would face if he were alive — second-degree murder and a gun count. Lynn Jones wanted the letter to share with Veterans Affairs as part of the family’s effort to get Curtis’ body exhumed.
“It was a horrible, horrible situation to have a family member have their life taken so abruptly like that,” Drew said Wednesday. “And what’s very, very hard for me emotionally is that I can’t tell them why. I can’t explain it to them.”
“I just feel a void that I can’t give that family some closure. I’m glad that we’re not looking for someone that is out there — but we don’t know what happened, and that’s frustrating.”
Drew also said that going forward, the families in such situations should be given the name of the person who took their loved one’s life as soon as possible. “I think the victim’s family should know who that individual is,” he said. “They should have it.”
He apologized that his department didn’t provide Dwyer’s family with Curtis’ name sooner. “I want to be as transparent as I can, and I think we’re obligated to give that to the families of victims,” he said.
As for releasing the name to the public, he added that although the department typically shields the names of suicide victims from the public, a murder-suicide is a different situation — and the name should be released.
“I think if someone has been involved in a murder,” they forfeit any expectation of privacy, Drew said. “If someone takes their own life after they have taken someone else’s, I think that the community and the public should know that.”
In recent weeks, Karen Jones received from police another item she had been pressing for — a necklace that Courtney Dwyer always wore as a keepsake.
The necklace contained the ashes of Dwyer’s stillborn baby, Sophie Lynn Dwyer, who died in 2016 from a blood clot in her mother’s umbilical cord. “I did get my granddaughter’s ashes,” Jones said. “That was the most important thing.“
”I had an urn necklace made with some of Courtney’s ashes, so now I wear both necklaces together to have them close to my heart.”
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