Ex-Winthrop athlete killed in Michigan

Police suspect murder-suicide

WYOMING, Mich. -- A former volleyball standout at Winthrop University was one of two public school teachers found shot to death Friday inside a Michigan home in what police say was an apparent murder-suicide.

Police identified the victim as Cristi Curtis, 29, a special education teacher and varsity volleyball coach at Byron Center High School who also played volleyball at Winthrop in the late 1990s.

The alleged gunman was her estranged boyfriend, Joseph Frees, a physical education teacher at Byron Center's Countryside Elementary School and an athletic trainer at the high school, police said.

Neighbors told police they overheard Curtis and Frees arguing Thursday night. Curtis called a friend and said Frees was drunk, Wyoming police Lt. Paul Robinson said.

They had decided to break up, and she had given him a few days to find a new place and move his belongings, Robinson said.

Curtis failed to show up at a volleyball camp Friday morning, prompting others to begin looking for her. Her mother drove to the home shortly after 10 a.m. and discovered the bodies in a bedroom, Robinson said.

It appears Frees shot her with a handgun, then shot himself, police said.

Curtis received an athletic scholarship and played collegiate volleyball from 1996-1999 at Winthrop. She had been a teacher and volleyball coach at Byron Center High School since 2003. She spent the past two seasons as a volunteer volleyball coach at Hope College before recently being named volleyball coach at Aquinas College three weeks ago.

Winthrop softball coach Mark Cooke, who formerly coached volleyball at Winthrop and recruited Curtis from Michigan, said Curtis was the perfect role model and player.

"She was one of the hardest workers and nicest ladies I have ever met," Cooke said. "Very coachable and excellent leadership skills. You can't put together enough adjectives to describe her."

Cathy Ivester, who took over as head coach at Winthrop after Curtis' freshman year, said Curtis would drive down from Michigan every summer after she graduated to help her run a volleyball camp.

For Ivester, news of Curtis' death was hard to take.

"It felt like somebody stuck a million needles in my body," she said.

Winthrop Assistant Athletic Director Jack Frost said Curtis was one of the top volleyball players in the school's history.

"She held our all-time assists record for a while and was our team leader for four years," Frost said. "She helped set the foundation for the championship level team that we know have."