James Curtis was just 16 years old when a friend called him one night in May 2006 and said his house was on fire.
Curtis, who was visiting relatives with his mother at the time, didn’t believe his friend at first. “I said, no my dad’s home,” he recalled on Thursday. It wasn’t long until the teen knew the house fire on East Fairview Avenue was true, and he learned his father, 41-year-old Robert Curtis, had been stabbed to death.
Thursday afternoon, Curtis listened as a jury convicted Poncho Delgado, 44, of first-degree murder and arson for killing Robert Curtis on May 25, 2006.
“We were like this,” James Curtis said, crossing his index and second finger. “We did everything together.” It was just by chance the teen and his mother were not home when Delgado killed the elder Curtis and set the house on fire. Curtis was stabbed more than 30 times in the heart and lungs, according to the evidence.
Jurors heard two days of testimony in the case this week, including Delgado’s assertion that he didn’t know Robert Curtis, was not at the man’s house and had nothing to do with his death.
Delgado told the jury he was high from drinking and smoking crack cocaine that day and had been walking along the railroad tracks near Dalewood Drive when a pack of dogs chased him, and he broke his flip flops. That’s how he ended up at Tyler Apartments, so he could get a pair of shoes from his cousin, James Hale. It was there Hale and another Tyler resident, Bonnie Peck, said they saw Delgado and he told them he’d killed a man that night.
Peck, who said she had married into the family through a cousin, said when she first saw Delgado, his clothes and shoes were covered with blood. Her brother let him clean up and gave him clean clothes to wear but didn’t have shoes for him.
Delgado’s sister, June Little, testified her brother showed up at her home on Winter Street the next day and also told her he’d killed someone. She already knew about the homicide from local media coverage.
During closing arguments, defense attorney Jim Bowman told the jury that all three witnesses — Peck, Hale and Little — had something to gain from telling lies on Delgado. But Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks rejected that and said the three were actually biased toward Delgado because they were family.
Delgado turned himself in to police on May 27, 2006, but didn’t give an official statement. He told officers he wanted an attorney, so Johnson City Police Investigator Jason Abernathy didn’t ask Delgado any questions about what happened.
Delgado told Abernathy he hadn’t eaten in two days, so Abernathy got him a baloney and cheese sandwich. As Delgado ate, Abernathy sat with him and chatted about things unrelated to the stabbing. Eventually, Delgado made a couple of statements about the case.
“I didn’t intend to kill that guy. I can tell you that right now,” Delgado said. He also mentioned not wanting to incriminate himself.
Brooks said Abernathy’s technique was legal and there was nothing unconstitutional about it.
“It was masterful … he followed the rules. They should take that and train officers how to talk to people,” Brooks said.
Early in the case the prosecution had more witnesses, Brooks said, but as the years passed some died, some disappeared and others moved away.
As the years passed for Robert Curtis’ family, things changed as well. James Curtis, now 23 years old, is a Unicoi County sheriff’s deputy. He said he’d thought about a law enforcement career prior to his father’s death, but the murder spurred him to actually do it.
After the jury delivered its verdicts, Judge Robert Cupp sentenced Delgado to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the murder and three years for the arson. The sentences will run concurrently.