Carlton Gary executed: “The only thing that I wanted to see was legal justice, and that’s what I saw tonight”
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"Stocking Strangler" Carlton Gary's road to execution
Carlton Gary was executed at 10:33 p.m. on March 15 by lethal injection at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga.
Carlton Gary had nothing to say.
The convicted serial killer offered no famous last words, and never opened his eyes, before a lethal dose of pentobarbital sent him off to oblivion at 10:33 p.m. in the death chamber at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.
Strapped to a gurney, his arms extended diagonally to each side, an IV in his right arm and another in the top of his left hand, he could not make the farewell gesture typical of his departure from Columbus court hearings: two fingers touched to his lips, then swept out to his audience, like a blown kiss, as if to say, “Peace out.”
His victims did not die as peacefully as he did, and his accusers did not forget that.
Ambushed, beaten, raped, strangled, seven Columbus women died in torment and terror, fighting for their lives, if they were able to.
Florence Scheible was 89 years old, nearly blind, and used a walker. Police believe she left her door open when she walked out to the street in front of her 1941 Dimon St. home the afternoon of Oct. 21, 1977, and Gary, having come up a wooded alleyway behind her home from Cherokee Avenue, slipped in the door behind her.
He waited for her to come back in, and attacked, beating her, raping her, strangling her, and leaving her body covered, just like the others, the pattern of a ritual serial killer.
Scheible’s murder was among three for which a jury convicted Gary in 1986 and sentenced him to death, never imagining the sentence would not be carried out for 32 years.
People who did not live in Columbus in 1977 and ’78 cannot imagine the fear that swept the city, particularly in the Wynnton area where the stranglings were concentrated, nor the horror of hearing how vicious and brutal the murders were.
But the victims’ families don’t have to imagine. They remember, and so do the police.
Some of the officers involved in the investigation came to Jackson to watch Gary die. When it was over, they were not obligated to go past the guards and the gates to what the Department of Corrections calls the “media staging area” at the front of the prison off Ga. Highway 39, and stand before the TV cameras, and answer questions.
But they chose to.
“We witnessed the death of an individual who terrorized our town,” said Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren, who joined the department in 1971. Asked to describe the atmosphere in Columbus during those years, he said it again: “We saw a town that was terrorized by the unknown.”
People could not understand what was happening, or why it was happening, or how this phantom nightstalker, so determined to reach his prey that he meticulously disassembled deadbolt locks and took doors off their hinges, prowled these police-patrolled neighborhoods without drawing notice.
The mystery spawned conspiracies, suspicions that no outsider could get away with it: Someone in the neighborhood must be the culprit, someone no one would suspect.
Such conspiracy theories will not die – unlike Carlton Gary, whom those who remember the stranglings will not mourn.
“The only thing I wanted to see was lethal justice,” Boren told reporters, “and that’s what I saw tonight.”
Those watching Gary die did not weep or moan or shake their heads. The witnesses sat in rows of wooden benches akin to church pews, facing a line of four windows through which they peered into the death chamber.
No one said a word except the warden, who from the far side of the glass read the death warrant issued by Senior Muscogee Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr., and then left the room.
Once he finished speaking, the microphone he had used was shut off, so no sound emanated from the chamber.
Only a medical technician in a white coat and blue scrubs remained, shifting from foot to foot, waiting. The sedative flowed from tubes extending from the wall behind the gurney.
In a few minutes, Gary’s chest rose and fell rapidly, three or four times, then his lips fluttered, and then his mouth opened wide like a yawn, and closed. Then his head drifted slightly to the left.
That appeared to be his last breath, but still the silent minutes ticked by, the witnesses stared, and the man in the blue scrubs – bald, bespectacled, with a goatee – shifted from foot to foot.
The death house is a nondescript one-story building of white cinderblock, and the walls of the death chamber are white as well, with a yellow door to one side, through which the warden came and went.
Eventually that door opened again, and with the warden two doctors in white coats came in, one standing on each side of the gurney. They opened Gary’s shirt and put their stethoscopes to his chest, and the one on Gary’s right pulled out a flashlight, lifted Gary’s right eyelid, and shined the light into his pupil.
Then the doctor stepped back, looked to the warden, and nodded.
The warden turned to the witnesses, and announced the time of death, and proclaimed the execution had been carried out under the law. And the witnesses, still silent, stood up and walked out.
Those representing the victims’ families did not celebrate. They just walked back to the prison vans that finally would carry them away from the Columbus Stocking Strangler, 40 years after the killings that claimed their loved ones.
Besides Scheible, Gary was convicted of raping and strangling Martha Thurmond, 70, in her 2614 Marion St. home on Oct. 25, 1977; and Kathleen Woodruff, 74, in her 1811 Buena Vista Road home on Dec. 28, 1977.
Prosecutors chose three cases with the best evidence to seek convictions, but those murders were bookended by two that came before and two that followed. These are the others:
- Mary Willis “Fern” Jackson, 59, strangled with a stocking and sash on Sept. 16, 1977, in her 2505 17th St. home.
- Jean Dimenstein, 71, strangled with a stocking in her home that then had the address 3027 21st St.
- Mildred Borom, 78, of 1612 Forest Ave., found Feb. 12, 1978, strangled with a cord cut from her window blinds.
- Janet Cofer, 61, of 3783 Steam Mill Road, found strangled with a stocking April 20, 1978.
For those who believe that Gary is innocent – that his arrest, conviction and execution resulted from racism, conspiracies and cover-ups – the Stocking Strangler saga doesn’t end with his last breath before a silent congregation in a cinderblock building.
But it does end for the law enforcement officers who spent their careers hunting him down.
Charles Rowe, who retired as assistant police chief, is among them.
“I just feel that something I began working on in 1977 is finally over, and we have closure,” he told reporters.
Lem Miller, also a retired assistant police chief, was a patrol officer in 1977 when he was called to what was then 3027 21st St., just west of Columbus’ Cross Country Plaza shopping center, where Jean Dimenstein lived, and where she died.
He walked into her home, carefully, looking around, and came to a bedroom, where he saw a body left covered with sheets and a pillow, and then he walked back out, calling for detectives.
Forty years later, he, too, came to watch Gary die quietly, in a bed.
“It was a surreal moment,” he said afterward. “It’s strange how so many years just went flashing by.”
The last thing the prison doctors did, after confirming Carlton Gary was dead, was leave his face covered with a sheet.
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, the defense is told of the briefcase.
Feb. 3, 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, the prosecution files a motion asking Jordan to issue a ruling.
Sept. 1, Jordan denies Gary’s motion for a new trial in a 50-page ruling.
Sept. 20, Gary’s attorneys file for an extension of the deadline to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Nov. 1, the defense files a 90-page application for appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Nov. 13, the prosecution responds.
Dec. 1, the Georgia Supreme Court rejects Gary’s appeal.
Jan. 16, the court refuses to reconsider.
Feb. 23, Judge Jordan issues a death warrant for Gary’s execution.
Feb. 28, the Georgia Department of Corrections sets Gary’s execution for 7 p.m. March 15, at the Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, and the state board of Pardons and Paroles schedules his clemency hearing to begin at 9 a.m. March 14 in Atlanta.
March 14, the parole board declines to stay Gary’s execution or commute his sentence to life in prison.
March 15, Gary is declared dead from lethal injection at 10:33 p.m. at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.