By Pam Lambert
February 09, 1998 12:00 PM

IT BEGAN AS ONE OF THE BEST EVENINGS OF Donna Kalson’s life—and ended up being her last. Although the 21-year-old Shelton, Conn., secretary was still having trouble with her former fiancé Kenneth Curtis, who had never accepted their breakup 10 months before, the night of Oct. 29, 1987, seemed full of promise: She was going to her favorite bar, the Frog Pond, to meet new beau Ron Kavulich and celebrate her best friend Michele’s 21st birthday. But within hours the happiness turned to horror. Around 1 a.m., as Kalson stood in the bar’s parking lot saying goodbye to her date, a white pickup driven by Curtis, 22, came racing across the lot, striking the couple head-on. Then Curtis got out of the truck, gun in hand. “I heard shots, and I saw the flash, and then I saw Ken put the gun to his own head,” says Michele Radzwilowicz, now 31. “I was crying, ‘Please just tell me Donna’s alive. Tell me she’s breathing.’ ”

She was, but not for long. And it looked as if Curtis—shot in the head like his victim with a .32-caliber hollow-point bullet—would join her in death, writing a bloody end to a five-year saga of love, abuse and obsession. But he didn’t. Though paralyzed on the left side and with a traumatic brain injury from the slug still lodged in his head, and declared incompetent to stand trial 13 months later after being charged with both Kalson’s murder and the attempted murder of Kavulich—a machinist who suffered a shattered leg—Curtis defied expectations and survived. Kalson’s parents, Daniel, a railroad engineer, and Barbara, then a clerical worker, assumed he would spend the rest of his life in an institution, but that expectation too was mistaken. Last August, New Haven’s WTNH-TV discovered that, far from languishing in a vegetative state, the wheelchair-bound Curtis was a premed college student pulling down a B-plus average—with the state’s Department of Social Services helping to pay his tuition.

Donna Kalson’s family was stunned. “How can that be if he is a murderer?” asks Barbara, 61, who still leaves fresh flowers on her daughter’s grave at least twice a month. “It’s sickening. He fooled them all.”

He certainly fooled Donna Kalson. Though to her friends and family Curtis looked like trouble from the start, the softhearted teenager was slow to see the danger. “I didn’t like him. I felt she could do better, and she could,” says Barbara Kalson. “But she found out too late.” Initially, in fact, Curtis’s rough edges may have been attractive to Kalson, who attended high school in Shelton, a middle-class town of 36,000 (he went to school in nearby Ansonia). They met at a local roller rink in her sophomore year. “She was no angel,” admits Barbara of the youngest of her three daughters. “But she was a nice girl.”

It soon became clear that she was in over her head with Curtis, son of a machinist and a homemaker. (Curtis and his family declined to speak to PEOPLE.) Although Stanley Kwiat-kowski, a schoolmate of Curtis’s and of his twin Kevin’s at Emmett O’Brien Regional Vocational Technical School, remembers him as “a nice guy, open and honest,” the Kenneth whom Donna Kalson came to know was domineering and abusive. “When he called, she had to get over to his place,” says Kalson’s sister Adrienne Urbano, 35. “He didn’t even like it when she helped our mom go grocery shopping.”

Others say Curtis prevented Kalson from seeing her friends and tried to bully her into not traveling with the high school band and even into skipping her own graduation. After Kalson’s death, her family learned through a friend that he had punched and kicked her, once so severely that he had to call an ambulance. Finally, in 1986, after gun-fancier Curtis bought Kalson a weapon, her parents got a restraining order barring him from their property. But Donna couldn’t or wouldn’t put him out of her life. “I said to her once, ‘Why do you take this from him?’ ” recalls Robin Sanzo, 32, who was then dating Kevin Curtis. “She said, ‘I’m just afraid. I’m afraid he’s going to really, really hurt me.’ ”

During the last months of her life, Kalson seemed to be spreading her wings. Working at an insurance agency in Westport, Conn., she began dating and even lived briefly with another man, a local bartender. But Curtis was still too close for comfort. Three weeks before the shooting he brought a gun to the Townfair Lanes, where Donna and Michele were bowling. “He made it clear he had a gun, but he just watched us that night,” says Radzwilowicz. “We tried to ignore him.”

Finally, on Oct. 29, Curtis walked into the Frog Pond in Stratford, Conn., around 11:30 p.m. He sat at the bar, not far from Kalson and Kavulich. “I went up to Donna and said, ‘Let’s go to my home,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m not going to let him ruin my night,’ ” says Radzwilowicz. “Then Ken jumped up, and he started hitting Ron and Donna.” Though a bouncer quickly threw Curtis out, he would later return with deadly results.

At Bridgeport Hospital after the bloodbath, Curtis was put on a ventilator. “We looked at him, and we thought there was no way this man would live, and, should he live, he was going to be a vegetable,” says Capt. Michael Kovach, the Stratford Police Department’s retired chief of detectives. “We couldn’t do anything at that time because of his medical condition. I mean, we weren’t going to arrest him while he was in an unconscious state.’

Curtis was eventually arraigned in August 1988 after his release from the Gaylord Rehabilitation Hospital in Wallingford, Conn. In 1989, Judge Richard Damiani found him incompetent to stand trial, though he ordered him to undergo annual psychological evaluations. But in 1990, Curtis’s attorney persuaded the state appellate court to overturn the order on the grounds that the statute under which Curtis had been released contained no such provisions. Frustrated and bitter and despairing of holding Curtis criminally accountable, the Kalsons filed a civil lawsuit, eventually reaching a settlement of about $100,000 with the Curtises. “I wanted to screw him and his family into the ground as much as possible,” says Daniel Kalson, 63. “But it didn’t give me back my daughter.”

What small measure of satisfaction that award may have brought vanished last summer, when the Kalsons were contacted by WTNH reporter James Hoffer and producer Jennifer Kaylin. Following up an anonymous tip, the pair found that Curtis was a thriving premed student at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and hoped to become a psychiatrist. “It troubled the family that he had never served a day in prison,” Kaylin says. “When we came to them, they were blown away.”

If the Kalsons were shocked to learn what had become of Curtis, those who knew him just recently were stunned to discover what he had been. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Clayton F. Hewitt, a social science professor who had given Curtis an A in his Death and Dying class at Middlesex Community-Technical College, which he had attended before transferring to SCSU. “The situation didn’t square with what I knew of this individual.”

Nor did it jibe with the high esteem in which Curtis was held by his elderly neighbors at Beachport, the federally subsidized housing development in Cheshire, Conn., where he had lived in a tidy one-bedroom apartment since 1992. “I liked him—everyone did as far as I could tell,” says manager Judy Grabar. “He never seemed mentally impaired. I think he was very much on the ball.”

To what extent, a jury may finally decide. Curtis was rearrested on the 10th anniversary of Kalson’s funeral, Nov. 4, after WTNH’s inquiries prompted Stratford police to reopen their investigation. On Jan. 29, Judge John Ronan in Bridgeport superior court is scheduled to rule on whether the murder charge against Curtis, who has been released on $75,000 bail, will be dismissed. Says state attorney Jonathan Benedict: “It would appear that the people that assessed Kenneth Curtis back in 1989 were either wrong in their diagnosis or wrong in their prognosis.” To prevent anyone else from slipping through the system under similar circumstances, chief state’s attorney John Bailey is proposing legislation that would require annual checks of criminal defendants who have been declared incompetent.

Though the Kalson family believes Kenneth Curtis perpetrated what Donna’s mother calls “the biggest act going,” experts suggest another explanation. “The young traumatic-brain-injured patient has enormous potential for recovery,” says Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist at the New York University School of Medicine. “We’re at a stage in neurological rehabilitation where it is no longer a miracle for someone to regain at least a significant portion of their intellectual function.”

On Nov. 18, the Kalsons got their first look in eight years at the man they blame for killing their daughter. At his arraignment, Curtis sat motionless in his wheelchair, head down, eyes alert and darting around the courtroom. “Isn’t it obvious that he’s competent?” asks Michele Radzwilowicz. “He has a life. A life Donna didn’t have.”