For seven terrifying months in the late 1970s, the “Stocking Strangler” prowled an upper-middle class neighborhood in Columbus. The killer — who authorities would later identify as Carlton Gary — preyed on the most vulnerable: elderly women who lived alone. Gary raped them in their homes then strangled them with their own stockings
The brutal killings damaged some lives forever. And the fear from that dark time changed this west Georgia city.
“There would be big, beautiful azaleas,” said Doug Pullen, who assisted in Gary’s prosecution. “They would be near the eaves of the house. All kinds of color. But during Carlton Gary and after it kind of faded.”
Residents, Pullen said, chopped down their azalea bushes leaving bare stumps. They cut back shrubbery and did away with flower beds — all so a would-be killer had no place to hide.
Four decades after he terrorized Columbus, Gary, now 67, is set to be executed next Thursday after a long and winding path through the court system. If he dies by lethal injection, as scheduled, he will be first murderer Georgia has put to death this year.
RELATED: U.S. Supreme Court stops execution
“This is a good day for law enforcement and the citizens of our city that he’s going to be put to death. He put a lot people to death,” said Jim Wetherington, who was chief of the Columbus Police Department when Gary was arrested in 1984.
Like a siege
One of the state’s most notorious serial killers, Gary was convicted and sentenced to die in 1986 for the deaths of three women — Florence Scheible, 89; Martha Thurmond, 70; and Kathleen Woodruff, 74. He was also suspected, but never tried, in the stranglings of four other Columbus women who were between the ages of 59 and 78 and lived alone in or around the Wynnton neighborhood in Columbus.
Wynnton was an upscale area in Georgia’s second largest city, home to a few sprawling antebellum estates as well as more modest post-World War II dwellings that attracted military families from nearby Fort Benning.
Gary’s first alleged victim, Gertrude Miller, survived being beaten with a board and sexually assaulted on Sept. 11, 1977. Police found a knotted stocking on a dresser in the 64-year-old’s home.
Mary Willis “Fern” Jackson, 59, became the first Columbus woman to die after she was beaten, raped and strangled with a stocking and a sash.
Eight days later, 71-year-old Jean Dimenstein was found covered with sheets and a pillow. She was raped and strangled as well.
The discovery of Scheible’s body on Oct. 21, 1977, led Columbus police to decide they had a serial killer on their hands. Thurmond’s body was found on Oct. 25, 1977. Woodruff’s was found on Dec. 28, 1977.
“People, especially women, stopped walking the neighborhood. No one went out at night and some of that continues today, said Columbus native Billy Winn, who oversaw the editorial page for the local newspaper for 15 years in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“It was like any siege,” Winn said. “It had changed the people — particularly the women — overnight.”
INTERACTIVE: The faces of Georgia’s death row
Elderly women who were living alone invited relatives or friends to move in for safety. “The women who made it through that without incident were women who had dogs,” Winn said.
Ruth Schwob, 74, survived an attack by an intruder, believed to have been the strangler, by pressing a panic button. She still had a stocking wrapped around her neck when police arrived.
Mildred Borom, 78, was killed on Feb. 12, 1978 and 61-year-old Janet Cofer was found dead on April 20, 1978.
Then, as suddenly as they started, the killings stopped.
No one knew why at the time.
“A fascinating fella”
It later came out that Gary had gone to South Carolina, where he was sent to prison for a string of restaurant armed robberies he committed as the “Steakhouse Bandit.”
Leading up to his time in Columbus, Gary also amassed criminal records in New York, Connecticut, Florida and Alabama.
Pullen, now retired, said it was frightening and at the same time impressive how Gary could commit so many crimes in so many states without them being connected.
“He was a fascinating fella,” said Pullen, who later became the district attorney and then a Superior Court judge. “Exceptionally bright.”
Gary dressed stylishly and charmed women, Pullen recalled. He was believed to have three or four wives, including one who married him in 1996, long after he was sentenced to Death Row. He said few of the criminals he prosecuted over the years were as “engaging” as Gary.
RELATED: Longest serving on Death Row
Gary didn’t fit the mold for serial criminals, Pullen said.
“He is one of the few that ever changed crimes and went to another pattern,” Pullen said, referring to the shifts between strings of murders, armed robberies and then more murders.
Gary was born in Columbus but he and his mother moved to Florida when he was a young child. By the time he was 16 and leaving Florida, Gary had been charged with setting fire to a house where a man died and also breaking into a car.
In November 1969, Gary was charged with assaulting a police officer in Bridgeport, Conn. Five months later, police in Albany, N.Y. found Gary’s fingerprints at the home of 85-year-old Nellie Farmer, a retired school teacher who was raped and strangled. Gary said he robbed Farmer but claimed another man actually killed her. Gary was convicted only of robbery and sentenced to 10 years in prison, serving half that time. The man he implicated was acquitted of murder.
In early 1977, Gary was convicted in New York of possession of stolen goods, a watch taken from a 55-year-old woman who survived being raped and choked in her home in Syracuse. A few months later, he escaped from a county prison by jumping from a third-floor window.
That’s when he returned to Columbus and the killing spree there began.
“A lot of damage to Columbus”
The case finally broke open in 1984 when a man called police to see if they had recovered his .22-caliber Ruger. At the height of the Stocking Strangler killings, the man’s weapon had been stolen, along with his car, from a street where one of victims lived. Now, police searching for the gun, found it had been registered in the subsequent years to a man in Kalamazoo, Mich. The gun had been passed down through multiple relatives from Gary, whose fingerprints matched those at some of the crime scenes.
Gary was found at a motel in Albany, Ga., and within hours he was driving Columbus police past houses he had been inside. Some were the homes of the victims. Some were homes he had broken into but left without harming anyone for various reasons.
Pullen said prosecutors decided to only charge Gary with the three murders where they found his fingerprints and he confessed to being there.
“The question wasn’t did he do it or did he not do it. The question was could I prove he did it,” Pullen said.
This will mark the second time Gary has come close to dying by lethal injection.
In December 2009, he was four hours away from the appointed hour of his death when the Georgia Supreme Court stopped it and told the trial court in Muscogee County to look at Gary’s DNA as well as any DNA collected at the murder scenes, evidence that was not tested because the science was not available when he stood trial.
Gary’s DNA matched evidence collected at the home of Dimenstein, but he wasn’t charged with murdering her; her death was brought up at trial only to show a pattern. The other three samples — found on Scheible, Thurmond and Woodruff — either could not be tested or the results were inconclusive.
Prosecutors argued they still had Gary fingerprints and his admissions so his conviction and sentence remained intact and Georgia is moving ahead with his execution.
And the DNA testing would help authorities solve a decades-old unsolved case in upstate New York. Gary’s DNA was linked to evidence found on Marion Fisher, a 40-year-old woman who was found raped and strangled along a road in Syracuse in 1975.
Gary has become an old man in prison. And most of the people with direct connections to the case — either through the victims or as members of law enforcement — have retired or died. Only one of the detectives in the case and the head prosecutor are still active in law enforcement — Ricky Boren as chief of police and former District Attorney William Smith who is a senior judge in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit.
“We lost an entire generation since them” said Wetherington, who became mayor of Columbus after serving as commissioner of the Department of Corrections and then on the State Board of Pardons and Paroles following his stint as police chief. “He did a lot of damage to Columbus.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.