Carlton Gary, at center, was convicted of three of the seven killings in Georgia attributed to the “Stocking Strangler.” He is scheduled to die by lethal injection on March 15. (Ben Gray/Staff)

Georgia’s ‘Stocking Strangler’ serial killer set for March execution

One of Georgia’s most notorious serial killers, Carlton Gary, is scheduled to be executed March 15 for murdering three elderly women in Columbus in the late 1970s.

Known as the “Stocking Strangler,” seven deaths were attributed to Gary even though he was ultimately tried for the murders of only three women. For seven months in 1977 and 1978, the murders paralyzed Columbus and terrorized older women living in Columbus’ Wynnton neighborhood.

The homicides attributed to the Stocking Strangler had several things in common: The victims were all women between the ages of 55 and 89. They lived alone and within a mile of each other. All were strangled, most with their own stockings.

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If his execution is carried out as scheduled next month, Gary will be the first person Georgia has put to death this year.

Gary, now 67, has long claimed police arrested the wrong man. And his appeals took an extraordinary path when newly discovered physical evidence raised questions about his 1986 conviction. Gary had been scheduled to die in December 2009, but the state Supreme Court stopped his execution with four hours to spare and ordered the court in Muscogee County to consider DNA testing.

A mugshot of Carlton Gary, known as the "Stocking Strangler," taken in 2008. (Georgia Department of Corrections)
Photo: Georgia Department of Correction

Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr. subsequently allowed the DNA testing and held evidentiary hearings. In September, Jordan denied Gary’s motion for new trial.

Gary’s lawyers filed an appeal, but the state Supreme Court decided not to hear it.

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Gary was convicted for the 1977 murders of three women: Florence Scheible, Martha Thurmond and Kathleen Woodruff . At the trial, prosecutors presented additional evidence alleging that Gary killed the four other women whose deaths were attributed to the Stocking Strangler.

Gary’s criminal history is long and crosses state lines.

Years passed with no arrests after the death of the last woman believed to have been a victim of the Stocking Strangler in 1978.

Between then and his ultimate arrest on the Columbus murders, Gary went to prison, escaped, went to prison again and escaped again until he was arrested for burglary in 1984. It was then that investigators found his fingerprints matched prints found at the homes of Scheible, Thurmond and Woodruff.

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson is where the execution chamber is located. (Ben Gray / Staff)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gary told police he burglarized those houses but someone else killed the women. He was charged with their murders.

By then, Gary had already been linked to homicides in other states.

Gary pleaded guilty to burglary in the case of Nellie Farmer, who was found raped and strangled in her home in Albany, N.Y., on April 14, 1970, but he said another man killed the 85-year-old woman. Three months after he was released from prison, Marion Fisher, 40, was found raped and strangled beside a Syracuse, N.Y., road, and in 2007 his DNA was matched to evidence found on her body.

Gary went to prison in New York again in 1977 for possessing a watch taken from a Syracuse, N.Y., home where a 55-year-old woman was sexually assaulted by a man who tried to strangle her.

Convicted for possessing stolen property and assault, Gary was jailed in New York’s Onondaga County, but later escaped and returned to his hometown in Columbus in August 1977.

The gurney used for lethal injections sits behind glass windows in a small cinder block building at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. (Ben Gray/Staff)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The first Columbus homicide eventually blamed on the Stocking Strangler was on Sept. 16, 1977, when 59-year-old Mary Willis “Fern” Jackson was found raped and strangled with a stocking and a sash.

It was after the third death of a woman in the Wynnton neighborhood that a state and local task force was created to find the killer.

In all, seven Columbus women were killed in the same manner: raped or sexually assaulted and then strangled with stockings or a sash. Two more were assaulted but were able to escape. Janet Cofer, 61, was believed to be the stocking strangler’s seventh and final victim on April 10, 1978.

Then the murders stopped.

Police were at a loss as to what had happened.

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Gary was in prison in South Carolina. He was convicted in February 1979 of several armed robberies in South Carolina.

But he escaped in 1984 and returned to Columbus where he committed a burglary. And the fingerprints police collected there turned out to match prints collected years earlier at the homes of three of the strangler’s victims.

Gary’s right thumbprint had been lifted from the bedroom door frame in Scheible’s house, where she was murdered on Oct. 21, 1977. Her son, a retired Army colonel, found his widowed mother’s body in her bedroom just a few days before what would have been her 90th birthday.

Gary’s fingerprints were also found on the frame of a rear bedroom window of the fifth victim, Thurmond. Her housekeeper found her body the morning of Oct. 25, 1977.

And police found a print from Gary’s right little finger on the aluminum screen on a window at Woodruff’s house. His palm print was on the window sill outside. Woodruff was killed on Dec. 28, 1977.

He was arrested in Albany on a burglary charge on May 3, 1984, because there was a fingerprint match. He went on trial more than two years later and was convicted on Aug. 26, 1986.

In his initial appeals, Gary’s lawyers said his conviction and death sentence should be reversed because his court-appointed attorneys did not have money to hire experts to testify in his defense, and because after the trial new evidence had surfaced that could have helped clear him.

The testing of DNA, a science that was not available when Gary was tried in 1986, saved him from his first scheduled execution in 2009. Gary’s attorneys have pointed to the DNA and some other physical evidence, arguing it proves Gary could not have committed all the crimes prosecutors claimed he did.

Semen found at the scenes of two murders he was convicted for and two other murders attributed to him was not his. His appeal also claimed bite marks on the breast of another murder victim were not his either.

At the same time, testing confirmed that the DNA on the strangled body of 71-year-old Jean Dimenstein belonged to Gary, however he was never tried for her murder.

Further appeals of Gary’s case will continue up until the execution takes place.

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