Saturday was the 40th anniversary of Columbus’ first “Stocking Strangling,” when 59-year-old Mary “Fern” Jackson was found murdered in her 2505 17th St. home.
She brutally had been beaten and raped, and strangled with a stocking and a sash. Her body was left covered.
That Friday morning, Sept. 16, 1977, the city did not foresee the terror to come, but it soon learned to its shock and horror a serial killer stalked the night, preying upon older women who lived alone, ritually killing each by strangulation with a ligature, usually a stocking, and leaving the body covered for others to unveil.
More 40th anniversaries are coming: Sept. 24 for the rape and murder of Jean Dimenstein, 71; Oct. 21 for Florence Scheible, 89; Oct. 25 for Martha Thurmond, 70; Dec. 28 for Kathleen Woodruff, 74; Feb. 12 for Mildred Borom, 78; and April 20 for Janet Cofer, 61.
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Convicted and sentenced to death Aug. 27, 1986, for the rapes and murders of Scheible, Thurmond and Woodruff, with evidence in other cases used to show a pattern of criminal conduct, Carlton Gary today remains on Georgia’s death row at the Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.
Born Sept. 24, 1950, he has an anniversary of his own coming up – his 67th birthday.
It could be his last.
Time is running out
With Muscogee Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr.’s Sept. 1 50-page order denying Gary a new trial, the serial killer’s final appeals are running out. Again.
They’ve run out before: On Dec. 16, 2009, Gary was to die by lethal injection, a method not in use when he was sentenced to the electric chair. Hours before his appointed time, the state Supreme Court issued a stay and sent the case back to Muscogee Superior Court for hearings on DNA-testing stranglings evidence. Eight more years of legal maneuvering ensued.
Now, with the DNA testing completed and argued at the Superior Court level, the next step is for Gary’s defense team to file an application of appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, asking it to review Jordan’s ruling.
Gary’s lead attorney, Atlanta lawyer Jack Martin, has not returned calls for comment. Court clerks say so far no application has been filed.
If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the appeal, the defense files briefs and the prosecution responds, possibly with oral arguments before the court.
If the appeal is denied, the window through which Gary once more may escape death narrows significantly, as events pick up speed.
The defense may file a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which repeatedly has refused to hear Gary’s case. Many of the issues raised in his new-trial motion already have been litigated in federal court.
If higher courts reject Gary’s appeals, Jordan will issue a death warrant designating a week for the Department of Corrections to schedule Gary’s execution.
In 2009, then-Superior Court Judge Robert Johnston issued a Dec. 3 death warrant book-ended noon Dec. 16 to noon Dec. 23. The Department of Corrections picked the first day.
Anyone sentenced to death gets one last shot at clemency with the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which can commute the sentence to life in prison, or stay the execution for 90 days. The board in 2009 turned Gary down Dec. 15.
All of that – from the judge’s order, to the corrections department’s setting a date, to the parole board’s denying clemency, to the day of execution – spanned two weeks, and could be just as quick this time around.
The board has a death-penalty case coming up: Keith Leroy Tharpe is sentenced to die for the 1990 kidnapping and murder of sister-in-law Jaqueline Freeman in Jones County. The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld his sentence and the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal.
The board meeting will be 9 a.m. Sept. 25. Tharpe is to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Sept. 26.
Under Georgia law, parole board meetings are closed to the press. “No public comment will be taken at this meeting and no other business will be conducted,” says the notice for Tharpe’s case.
The evidence in dispute
The legal standard Jordan used to weigh the evidence is set in the Georgia Supreme Court precedent Timberlake v. State, decided Sept. 23, 1980:
“It is incumbent on a party who asks for a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence to satisfy the court: (1) that the evidence has come to his knowledge since the trial; (2) that it was not owing to the want of due diligence that he did not acquire it sooner; (3) that it is so material that it would probably produce a different verdict; (4) that it is not cumulative only; (5) that the affidavit of the witness himself should be procured or its absence accounted for; and (6) that a new trial will not be granted if the only effect of the evidence will be to impeach the credit of a witness.”
Two crucial requirements are that the evidence be “new” and nothing the defense knew about or should have discovered, and that it be so significant it likely would have resulted in a different verdict or sentence.
Here are Jordan’s rulings on the evidence Gary’s attorneys presented:
Fingerprints. The defense argues police failed adequately to match fingerprints found at the Jackson, Scheible, Thurmond and Woodruff crime scenes to Gary, lacking sufficient “points of comparison” to declare a match, and failing to photograph where prints were found. Also Edward Covington, who served on a stranglings task force, said he was told no useable fingerprints were ever found.
Jordan said the fingerprint evidence was introduced and argued at Gary’s 1986 trial, so it is not new.
• The shoeprint. The day before Mildred Borom’s body was found two blocks away on Forest Avenue, an intruder climbed through a window of Ruth Schwob’s 1800 Carter Avenue home and tried to strangle the 70-year-old. She triggered an alarm, and the assailant fled. On an air-conditioning unit outside the window, police found a shoeprint about size 10. Gary wears a size 13½.
Noting this relates not to a murder for which Gary was convicted, but to a similar case used to show his pattern, Jordan said the evidence likely would not have resulted in a different verdict.
• The bite mark. On Cofer’s left breast, investigators found a bite mark from which a dentist made a cast. This evidence was not presented during Gary’s trial, and the defense claims prosecutors deliberately withheld it because it could have exculpated Gary. The cast was lost until then-Coroner James Dunnavant found it in a file cabinet Nov. 9, 2005.
A forensic dentist examining the cast said the biter’s upper teeth had a gap, and his lower teeth were crowded, with one crooked. Gary’s teeth had no such imperfections.
As this evidence also stems from a case for which Gary was not convicted, it likely would not have led to a different verdict, Jordan said.
• The composite sketch. Authorities believe the Sept. 11, 1977, rape and beating of 64-year-old Gertrude Miller was a precursor to the subsequent stranglings. Following Thurmond’s Oct. 25 murder, investigators had Miller hypnotized and told to describe her assailant as an artist made a sketch. The sketch does not resemble Gary, whom Miller identified as her attacker during his trial.
Jordan said the defense knew about the sketch in 1986, as Gary’s defense attorney questioned Miller about it during cross examination, so it is not newly discovered evidence.
• The confession. After his arrest in Albany, Ga., on May 3, 1984, Gary was brought to Columbus, where police escorted him on a tour of the area where the stranglings occurred. Police did not record what Gary told them, but testified he pointed out victims’ homes, as well as other houses he’d broken into. During new trial hearings, the defense had an expert testify that even false confessions can be accurately detailed.
Jordan said the confession evidence was presented during Gary’s 1986 trial, so it is not new.
• The “secretor evidence.” DNA testing was not available in 1986, so investigators had semen evidence tested for markers of the secretor’s blood type. Most people are “strong secretors,” meaning their blood type is readily apparent. Fewer are weak or “non-secretors.” Prosecutors during Gary’s trial presented testimony the strangler was a weak or non-secretor, and so was Gary. Later tests showed Gary was a strong secretor.
Jordan said this evidence, which was available to the defense at trial, likely would not have resulted in a different verdict.
• The DNA evidence. After Gary’s 2009 stay of execution, the defense and prosecution on Feb. 19, 2010, agreed to DNA-test suitable stranglings evidence. The initial results were mixed, matching Gary to Dimenstein’s rape and strangling, but not Thurmond’s. Later the GBI crime lab said it contaminated the Thurmond evidence with a “control sample” used to test lab equipment. Jordan then ordered DNA-testing on clothing police collected from Gertrude Miller’s assault. The result did not match Gary.
As the conflicting DNA evidence relates to no murder for which Gary was convicted, it likely would not lead to a different verdict, Jordan ruled.
• Adequate defense funding. From the outset an issue in Gary’s trial was whether his attorneys had the funding to mount an effective defense. After his conviction, he appealed to the state Supreme Court, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. On June 26, 1987, the court sent the case back to Columbus for hearings on that issue. But during hearings the following November, Gary refused to waive attorney-client privilege so his lawyers could testify to their difficulties. Judge Kenneth Followill ruled Gary waived his right to such a challenge, and the state Supreme Court upheld Followill.
Jordan said he must abide by the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision, so effectiveness of counsel is not an issue he can consider.
Carlton Gary timeline
This timeline was compiled from Columbus police, court records and Ledger-Enquirer archives:
Sept. 24, 1950: Carlton Michael Gary is born in Columbus, Ga., where he lives until age 16, when he moves with his mother to Fort Myers, Fla., and later Gainesville, Fla.
Sept. 3, 1964: Gary attends Carver High School.
Nov. 18, 1965: Gary attends Spencer High School.
Jan. 31, 1966: Gary returns to Carver High School and later transfers to Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Fla.
Oct. 31, 1967: Gary’s charged with breaking into an automobile in Gainesville, Fla.
March 17, 1968: Gary’s charged with arson in Gainesville, Fla.
Nov. 26, 1969: Gary’s charged with assaulting a police officer in Bridgeport, Conn.
April 14, 1970: Nellie Farmer, 85, is raped and strangled and her body left covered in her home in the Wellington Hotel, Albany, N.Y. Gary’s fingerprint is found at the scene. Gary claims another man killed Farmer, and is convicted only of robbery.
July 15, 1970: Gary’s sentenced to 10 years in prison for robbery.
March 31, 1975: Gary is released from prison and moves to Syracuse, NY.
June 27, 1975: The body of Marion Fisher, 40, is found on a road just outside Syracuse. She was raped and strangled. Authorities in 2007 say they match Gary’s DNA to the cold-case evidence.
July 25, 1975: Gary’s charged with escape, resisting arrest and violating parole.
July 17, 1976: Gary’s released on parole.
Sept. 3, 1976: Gary’s charged with assault.
Jan. 2, 1977: Jean Frost, 55, is raped and nearly choked to death in her home in Syracuse, N.Y. Gary has a watch taken from Frost’s home when police arrest him two days later. Again he blames another man for the assault. He is charged with possessing stolen property, resisting arrest, perjury and assault.
Aug. 23, 1977: Gary escapes from New York’s Onandaga County prison by jumping from a third-floor window. He goes home to Columbus, where he soon moves to 1027 Fisk Ave.
Sept. 11, 1977: Gertrude Miller, 64, is beaten with a board and raped in her 2703 Hood St. home, about two blocks from Fisk Avenue. Her assailant leaves behind knotted stockings he took from her dresser. She in 1986 identifies Gary as the rapist.
Sept. 16, 1977: Mary Willis “Fern” Jackson, 59, of 2505 17th St., is found brutally beaten, raped and strangled with a stocking and sash. Her body is left covered. Her stolen car is later found on Benner Avenue near Fisk Avenue.
Sept. 24, 1977: Jean Dimenstein, 71, is found raped and strangled with a stocking in her home that then had the address 3027 21st St. (the street has since been renamed). Her body was left covered with sheets and a pillow Later tests match Gary’s DNA to crime-scene evidence.
Oct. 4, 1977: Gary moves to 3231 Old Buena Vista Road.
Oct. 8, 1977: The 1427 Eberhart Avenue home of sisters Callye East, 75, and Nellie Sanderson, 78, is burglarized. Sanderson’s son Henry is visiting. The intruder steals his Toyota, which has a .22-caliber Ruger pistol under the seat. The car’s left on Buena Vista Road.
Oct. 21, 1977: Florence Scheible, 89, is found raped and strangled with a stocking in her 1941 Dimon St. home, which today has a different address. Her body was left covered. Gary's right thumbprint was found on a door frame leading into Scheible's bedroom.
Oct. 25, 1977: Martha Thurmond, 70, is found raped and strangled with a stocking in her 2614 Marion St. home. Her body was covered by a pillow, blankets and sheets. Gary's fingerprint is found on the frame of a rear bedroom window.
Nov. 11, 1977: Gary moves to 2829 Ninth St. and gets a job working the late shift at Golden’s Foundry.
Dec. 16, 1977: Gary leaves the foundry job.
Dec. 20, 1977: The 1710 Buena Vista Road home of William Swift is burglarized while the residents are away. Swift later discovers the burglar removed bars from a kitchen window to get in, then set the bars back on the windowsill. Detectives later say Swift never told police this; Gary did.
Dec. 28, 1977: Kathleen Woodruff, 74, is found raped and strangled in her 1811 Buena Vista Road home, which later was demolished during an Aflac expansion. Gary's right little fingerprint is found on the aluminum window screen where the intruder entered, and his palm print is found on the windowsill just inside.
Jan. 1, 1978: The 2021 Brookside Drive home of Abraham Illges, who is 85 and whose wife is 75, is burglarized and a Cadillac stolen. The car’s left at a restaurant on Victory Drive. Police say Gary later refers to this home as “the castle.”
Feb. 11, 1978: Ruth Schwob, 74, of 1800 Carter Ave., is nearly strangled to death by an intruder she fights off, pressing a panic alarm by her bed. Police find her sitting on the edge of her bed, gasping, a stocking wrapped around her neck.
Feb. 11, 1978: The Illges home is burglarized again, but the intruder triggers an alarm and flees. Police said Gary later told them he ran and hid in Wildwood Park.
Feb. 12, 1978: Mildred Borom, 78, 1612 Forest Ave., about two blocks from Schwob’s home on the west side of Wildwood Park, is found raped and strangled with a cord cut from window blinds. Her body’s covered with a garment. This series of rapid events becomes known as “The Night of Terrors.”
April 20, 1978: Janet Cofer, 61, of 3783 Steam Mill Road, is found raped and strangled with a stocking. A pillow covers her face. Police find Cofer’s stolen car on Mill Road.
April 20, 1978: Gary robs the Burger King at 3520 Macon Road.
May 14, 1978: Gary robs the Hungry Hunter restaurant at 1834 Midtown Drive.
Sept. 4, 1978: Gary robs the Western Sizzlin restaurant at 4385 Victory Drive.
Sept. 22, 1978: Gary robs the Talk of the Town restaurant in Greenville, S.C.
Oct. 8, 1978: Gary robs the Ryan’s Steakhouse in Greenville.
Oct. 19, 1978: Gary robs the Western Sizzlin steakhouse in Greenville.
Nov. 5, 1978: Gary robs the Po’ Folks restaurant in Greenville.
Dec. 7, 1978: Gary robs Jack’s Steak House in Greenville.
Feb. 15, 1979: Having earned the nickname “Steakhouse Bandit,” Gary robs a Po’ Folks restaurant in Gafney, S.C., and is arrested the next day.
Feb. 22, 1979: Gary is convicted of armed robbery in Greenville County, S.C.
March 29, 1979: Gary is convicted of armed robbery in Cherokee County, S.C.
March 15, 1984: He escapes from a prison in Columbia, S.C., and returns to Columbus.
April 3, 1984: Gary robs a Po’ Folks restaurant on the 280 Bypass in Phenix City and rapes a woman who works there.
April 10, 1984: Henry Sanderson calls Columbus police to ask about the Ruger pistol taken from his Toyota in the 1977 Eberhart Avenue burglary. A detective sends out a nationwide alert for the gun, which turns up in Michigan and is traced back to Gary.
April 16, 1984: Gary robs a Wendy’s restaurant in Gainesville, Fla.
April 22, 1984: Gary robs a McDonald’s restaurant in Montgomery, Ala.
April 28, 1984: Gary robs the County Seat Store in the Oaks Mall of Gainesville, Fla.
April 30, 1984: Prompted by Sanderson’s call and the gun trace, copies of Gary’s fingerprints arrive at the Columbus Police Department, where one is matched to a print found on the frame of a screen removed from Woodruff’s home.
May 3, 1984: Authorities arrest Gary in Albany, Ga.
May 4, 1984: From around midnight until 3:30 a.m., Gary takes investigators on a tour of homes he tells them he broke into. He blames the stranglings on another man.
May 8, 1984: Gary attempts suicide in jail.
May 9, 1984: Then Superior Court Judge John Land appoints attorneys William Kirby and Stephen Hyles to represent Gary.
Aug. 28, 1984: Attorney August “Bud” Siemon becomes Gary’s lead defense counsel.
Oct. 11, 1984: Attorney Bruce Harvey becomes Gary’s co-counsel. Attorney Gary Parker joins the defense team the following December.
Feb. 8, 1985: Siemon files a motion asking Judge Land to recuse himself because he has personal knowledge of the case. Land recuses himself.
May 13, 1985: Judge E. Mullins Whisnant is assigned the case.
May 22, 1985: Siemon files a motion asking Whisnant to recuse himself because he was the district attorney during the strangling.
May 20, 1985: Whisnant recuses himself and the case is assigned to Judge Kenneth Followill.
Dec. 18, 1985: Parker withdraws as co-counsel after Followill refuses to grant the defense team funds for an investigator.
Dec. 29, 1985: Gary tries to escape from jail.
March 10, 1986: On the day Gary’s trial is to start, he refuses to get dressed and come to court. Harvey files a motion questioning Gary’s competency to stand trial, saying the defendant’s mental health is in decline. Followill orders a psychological evaluation.
March 24, 1986: Gary goes to Georgia Central State Hospital in Milledgeville for his evaluation, but refuses to cooperate with doctors.
April 21, 1986: Followill holds a trial to determine Gary’s mental competency.
April 28, 1986: The jury finds Gary competent for trial.
June 9, 1986: Gary’s trial is set to begin, but Siemon files for a change of venue.
July 2, 1986: Followill decides that instead of moving the trial, the court will bring jurors from Griffin, Ga., to hear the case.
July 7, 1986: Harvey withdraws, leaving Siemon as Gary’s only lawyer.
Aug. 11, 1986: Gary’s trial begins.
Aug. 26, 1986: The jury finds Gary guilty in three of the seven stranglings, though then District Attorney Bill Smith maintains one perpetrator committed all seven along with the attack on Miller and Schwob. Smith used evidence from the other cases to illustrate a pattern of criminal behavior.
Aug. 27, 1986: The jury sentences Gary to death.
Sept. 25, 1986: Gary moves for a new trial. His motion’s denied the following Oct. 18, and he appeals to the Georgia Supreme Court.
June 26, 1987: The Georgia Supreme Court sends the case back to Columbus, instructing the court here to determine whether Gary had ineffective counsel.
Nov. 4, 1987: Followill holds hearings to determine the effectiveness of Gary’s defense.
June 12, 1989: Followill rules Gary failed to show his counsel was ineffective.
March 6, 1990: The Georgia Supreme court upholds Followill’s ruling and reaffirms Gary’s conviction and death sentence.
Jan. 27, 1995: The superior court of Butts County, Ga., where Gary is imprisoned, rejects one of his habeas corpus appeals.
Nov. 13, 1995: The court rejects another of Gary’s habeas corpus appeals.
Nov. 18, 1997: Gary files a habeas corpus appeal in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.
Sept. 28, 2004: The federal court rejects Gary’s appeal, and he appeals to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Nov. 9, 2005: Then-Coroner James Dunnavant finds a bite-cast mold made from teeth marks on Janet Cofer’s body. It has been missing since Dunnavant’s predecessor Don Kilgore died.
Nov. 23, 2005: The appeals court sends the case back to U.S. District Court to consider the bite-mark evidence.
Feb. 14, 2007: The district court holds a hearing and decides the bite cast would not have bolstered Gary’s defense and again rejects his appeal. Gary again appeals to the 11th Circuit.
Feb. 12, 2009: The 11th Circuit rejects Gary’s appeal. He appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dec. 1, 2009: The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Gary’s appeal. His execution is set for the following Dec. 16.
Dec. 16, 2009: Gary is hours away from execution when the Georgia Supreme Court issues a stay and sends the case back to Muscogee Superior Court to consider DNA testing evidence.
Feb. 19, 2010: Prosecutors and defense attorneys agree to DNA test suitable evidence samples, four items from three cases: Dimenstein, Scheible and Woodruff.
Dec. 14, 2010: Attorneys say the initial DNA test results match Gary to the murder of Jean Dimenstein but not Martha Thurmond. The defense seeks testing on clothes from Gertrude Miller the morning after she was raped and beaten.
March 6, 2012: Tests of the Miller evidence yield a DNA profile that does not match Gary. The prosecution says the defense can’t prove Miller was wearing the garments when raped.
Nov. 21, 2013: District Attorney Julia Slater announces the Thurmond DNA test was tainted at the state crime lab and thus invalid.
February 24-28, 2014: Judge Frank Jordan Jr. holds evidentiary hearings on Gary’s new trial motion.
Jan. 11, 2016: Doug Grubbs, son-in-law of sheriff’s investigator Don Miller, in the attic finds a briefcase containing files on the strangling. He turns it over to the sheriff’s office.
Jan. 27, 2016: The defense is told of the briefcase.
Feb. 3, 2016: Both sides meet to inspect the documents. They find a composite sketch believed to have been drawn as Gertrude Miller described her assailant under hypnosis in October 1977.
Jan. 12-12, 2017: Jordan holds a final set of hearings on the new evidence in Gary’s motion for a new trial.
June 27, 2017: The prosecution files a motion asking Jordan to issue a ruling.
Sept. 1, 2017: Jordan denies Gary’s motion for a new trial in a 50-page ruling.