Curtis James McGhin, also known as “Curt,” was 13 years old when he was murdered. His burned body was found in a wooded field in Tampa, Florida, more than 40 years ago, and the person responsible for his death has yet to be brought to justice.
On Nov. 8, 1979, Curtis, an eighth-grade student at Dowdell Junior High School, asked his mother, Gladys McGhin, if he could stay home from school.
He claimed that he had become indisposed that morning.
Gladys told The Tampa Tribune in 1979 that it was rare for Curtis, who was the oldest of three children, to miss school. She said he told her that “he felt hot like he had a fever. He never missed school unless he was sick.”
After she gave her son permission to stay home, Gladys went to work as a teacher’s aide at Palm River Elementary School.
Between 11:15 and 11:45 a.m., Brenda Hyatt, the dean at Dowdell Junior High School, called Curtis at his home to check on him. He answered the phone, but what was said during their conversation is either unknown or has not been released to the public.
Sometime around 12:30 p.m., Curtis, described by friends and relatives as “quiet and well-mannered,” left his home on South 48th Street and went to the Food Mart with empty soda bottles in his hand.
He walked to the register and asked the store clerk, Margaret Smith, if he could cash in.
She told him that they didn’t accept bottles, but Smith suggested he go to Shop ‘N Go on 22nd Street Causeway and Sagasta Street.
Smith said, “I watched him walk to Shop ‘N Go through a wooded path. I was out back taking the garbage out and looking for customers who drink beer on the side of the store.”
When he arrived at Shop ‘N Go, he asked the store clerk, Loretta Coley, if they took bottles.
Coley said yes.
She told the authorities she thought it was a bit peculiar that he would ask that question. Most children in the area were cognizant of the fact that the store accepted bottles.
Coley cashed in his bottles and watched him leave the store on foot. He didn’t have his bicycle, and most people who knew him stated that he was always riding it.
Authorities said where he set off after cashing in the bottles is unknown, although several witnesses reported seeing Curtis “in the Palm River area and near or inside a gray-colored Volkswagen.”
When he didn’t return home that day, his parents began searching for him. They went to Curtis’ friends’ houses and searched the surrounding areas, but they could not locate him.
They contacted the police department at around 5 p.m. and reported Curtis missing.
On Dec. 19, 1979, Curtis was found dead about a mile from Shop ‘N Go. The Tampa Bay Times reported that two “bakers harvesting palmetto fronds for Cuban bread in a wooded field near 24th Avenue and 54th Street South” had discovered the skeletal remains of a human.
Those remains were identified through dental records as belonging to Curtis.
The medical examiner was unable to determine the cause of death as the body had been badly burned.
His death is being investigated as a homicide.
In a 2010 interview, Raymond McGhin stated that he remembered hearing the news about his brother’s death. He was nine at the time.
“I was numb and ran away from the house. I just stayed away and told myself it wasn’t my brother,” Raymond said.
Police learned through an investigation that a man named Finley Collingwood, then 68, lived in a pup tent near 24th Avenue and 54th Street South.
He stated that a month before the remains were found, he heard what sounded like gunshots.
“There were three or four shots, real quick,” Collingwood told police in 1979. He added that “people are out here shooting all the time. I didn’t pay any attention to the shots. I have a bad ear, and it’s hard to tell where the noise came from.”
It is unknown if the shots that Collingwood heard were connected to Curtis’ death.
Police also discovered that the field where the remains were found was a place where people in the area would illegally dump their trash, although there is a “no dumping” sign placed at the location.
Investigators searched the area, but they did not uncover any evidence or clues that would help them find out what happened to Curtis James McGhin.
Police said his bicycle, which he would often ride through the neighborhood, has never been found.
His parents stated that if Curtis’ body was found in that area, he would have had to have been held against his will, as he “never went to that neighborhood.”
They would only allow Curtis to ride his bicycle to certain places. Before his death, he was allowed to travel to his grandmother’s house, which was two miles away from his home, just across McKay Bay.
When Curtis James Mcghin disappeared, his mother said, “In our hearts, we knew we would never see him alive again. I always had a fear (that he was abducted), but I didn’t voice it.”
Curtis’ mother passed away in 2008 after suffering from a stroke. She died without knowing what happened to her son or why. His siblings are reportedly still alive and presumably still seeking justice.
Lt. Larry Terry of the sheriff’s department told the media in 1979 that investigators had “talked to a lot of people, but we have no suspects in the case.”
Anyone with information regarding the unsolved murder of Curtis James McGhin is encouraged to contact the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Homicide Section at (813) 247-8660.