How the jury found a Front Royal man guilty of murder

Clay Curtis

FRONT ROYAL — The attorneys in the Clay Marshall Curtis murder trial set the scene for the week-long trial to be nothing and everything like a Quentin Tarantino film.

“This is not going to be a straightforward story,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden said during his opening statement, apologizing to the jury for the disjointed nature of the way evidence will be presented over the next few days.

John Bell, who with his co-counsel David Hensley defended Curtis, said during his opening statement that the “movie” the prosecution will show would be different from what they think they’re showing. Bell added that the prosecution would be stretching circumstantial evidence “like it’s silly putty” to make Curtis out to be guilty.

That circumstantial evidence was enough, however, for the jury to find Curtis guilty of the December 2014 shooting death of Front Royal cab driver Simon Funk at the end of the trial without much deliberation.

The story began in the fall of 2014, where Curtis began to develop relationships with Funk and his girlfriend, Carla Elliott, while Curtis was staying at the Front Royal motel where Funk’s girlfriend was a housekeeper. It was about this time that Curtis also acquired the weapon used in the murder.

Elliott testified on the first day of trial that she first met Curtis in August or September of 2014, and he introduced himself to her as Frederick Kramer and said that he was an insurance adjuster. She said that she and Funk would often bring dinner to Curtis, and that Curtis bought her a car so that they could give him rides around town. Curtis even came to the couple’s home for Thanksgiving dinner.

Curtis bought a Ruger SR40c handgun in September 2014 from a married Warren County couple, the husband testified on the third trial day. He added that Curtis was going by the name Dorian Hansen at the time. The husband said that he originally purchased the gun from the Gander Mountain gun store in Winchester in July 2013, but that he “didn’t care for it” after a year because he didn’t like its size.

The husband testified that he listed the gun for sale, and received a call from Curtis to arrange the purchase of it. He had Curtis fill out a bill of sale at the time of purchase to “protect himself,” the husband testified. The husband included a box of ammunition with the purchase of the weapon, and said that they were the only two present during the sale.

The couple provided the bill of sale, a round of ammunition similar to what was included with the sale of the gun, and an additional cartridge that was included with the original purchase of the gun to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office when the couple was contacted in December 2014, days after the murder.

Investigator Michael Henry with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office testified that after Curtis’ cell phone was collected upon his arrest, Henry downloaded all the images from Curtis’ phone. He found various photos of the gun, and mirror selfies of Curtis posing with the gun while naked.

In December 2014, before the Dec. 9 murder of Simon Funk, Curtis was staying in the Relax Inn in Front Royal, Elliott and motel workers testified. Elliott said that Curtis had called her saying that someone stole his money, and asked if he could stay with the couple. She told him that he could not, adding that Funk did not think it was a good idea.

On Dec. 9, Elliott said that she heard banging on her front door, and saw all of Curtis’ things left on her porch. She said she later saw Curtis and Funk in her home, and Curtis asked Funk for a ride to the Shenandoah Farms neighborhood in Front Royal, but that Curtis said he needed to pick up his items from the motel room first.

Funk agreed to drive Curtis to his destinations. Meanwhile, Elliott was calling them frequently that night, checking in with them and asking them to bring her cigarettes. At some point, she spoke with Curtis over the phone and asked him to put his handgun away, adding that Funk told her it was making him nervous.

After that call, she was unable to get in touch with either of the men, she testified, and she went down to Shenandoah Farms to find them. When she saw sheriff’s deputies in the area, she turned around and went back home because she had been drinking heavily that night.

Elliott shifted in her seat with her voice shaking as she described a conversation she had with Curtis on Funk’s phone. Curtis told her to shut up when she asked where Funk was.

“‘He’s dead and I’m going to jail for the rest of my life,'” she said Curtis told her. “‘How could you leave me out in the cold?'”

What happened between the arrival of Curtis and Funk at Curtis’ sister’s property that night and Curtis’ return to Funk’s van remains unknown; there is no evidence to show where Funk was killed that night. Curtis was accused of trying to run over Jeff Sisler with Funk’s van that night, but the jury found Curtis not guilty on the attempted murder charge from that incident.

Circumstantial evidence showed that Curtis bought a gun, that a blanket from the Relax Inn was wrapped around Funk’s body, and Curtis’ room was missing a blanket. When Curtis was arrested, the jeans he was wearing were collected and Funk’s blood was found on Curtis’ jeans, but the DNA expert was not able to say how long the blood stain had been there and that the jeans had a lot of stains that she never tested. There were a pair of eyeglasses found near Funk’s body that had some of Curtis’ DNA on it, but also had DNA of an unknown person as well.

The murder weapon has never been recovered, even after search teams combed the Shenandoah Farms property for days. Curtis’ hands tested positive for gun primer residue, but no one else who was there that night had their hands tested, the defense pointed out.

The majority of the trial consisted of lengthy testimony from law enforcement officials to verify that no evidence was tampered with from the point of collection to its storage in evidence lockers, or during its transportation to and from the forensic labs. There were nearly 60 pieces of evidence presented by the prosecution during the trial.

The jury of five men and seven women was not allowed to take notes during the trial, so the closing arguments took on greater importance in deciding the case.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton implored the jury to use common sense in his closing argument. He focused on how the circumstantial evidence points to Curtis’ intent to kill Funk that night. Layton lined up the evidence item by item to show that together, it “all points to one plot.”

Hensley said during closing arguments that the prosecution evoked a Tarantino movie, specifically Pulp Fiction, adding that they called “a cast of seedy characters” to testify in the case. Hensley said  that the inmate who testified against Curtis has a criminal past of his own and would do anything to get out of jail.

Bell made an analogy of truth being like a diamond, saying that the prosecution only presented a lump of coal, as it is unclear exactly what happened to Funk that night. He added that Sisler was a “drama queen ninja.”

After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury returned with a guilty verdict on the first-degree murder charge and a related offense of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

Throughout the trial, Curtis sat back in his chair, constantly rolling his thumbs as witnesses testified against him. After the verdict was read,  Curtis stopped rolling his thumbs and sat back in his chair with resigned acceptance.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, Sara Boyd, a forensic psychologist who analyzed Curtis after his arrest, said she had to comb through decades of mental health records from the 30 years Curtis had spent in prison before the December 2014 murder. She said that Curtis did not have a strong relationship with his family as an adult, and had difficulty finding and keeping work.

“He had very little to lose by engaging in offending behavior,” Boyd said.

Boyd added that Curtis’ mental health history showed that he is not good at interacting with other people, and he showed constant paranoia. Curtis was the victim of several physical and sexual assaults while in prison, and he was often requesting to be in solitary confinement, which Boyd added that few choose unless they are smaller in size and perceived as being more effeminate or gay, making them more likely to be victimized by other inmates.

Curtis meets the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as personality and social disorders, stemming from a number of traumatic experiences he had gone through in his life, Boyd said.

Most of Funk’s family chose not to testify about how Funk’s murder affected them, but Funk’s mother chose to tell the jury about how she lost her job and almost lost her home after the incident.

“This has really — this has been total hell on me,” Funk’s mother said. “Even though he was 42, he was still my baby. This man don’t know what he’s done to me and my family.

“I hope God can forgive you because I can’t,” she added.

The jury ultimately recommended life imprisonment for Curtis, with a $100,000 fine. Curtis was escorted out in shackles and a padlocked chain around his waist, showing little emotion.

A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 18 in Warren County Circuit Court. The charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm will also be handled on that date.