Sitting in Georgia’s “death house” watching Carlton Gary die, Police Chief Ricky Boren had time to reflect on what Columbus was like back in the 1970s, when he was a young officer.
But he didn’t think about that.
“You know, I’ve got a lot of cases. I’ve got a lot of things on my plate,” he said Friday afternoon, about 16 hours after the condemned serial killer was pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m. Thursday.
“Watching that had no effect on me whatsoever,” he said. “Carlton got what was prescribed for him as his fate, by the Superior Court of this county, under law, and that sentence, again, was prescribed by a jury in this county. It’s my duty as chief of police to stand between the bad and evil and our citizens, and that’s what I did last night.”
So, he had no flashbacks to the 1970s?
“No,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I was thinking about everything that I had to do today, when I got back.”
In the 1970s, Boren did not investigate the “Stocking Strangler” serial killings for which Gary was condemned to die, because back then he was a vice cop dealing primarily with drug cases, six years into his career.
He knew about the murders – everyone did – and occasionally his vice squad was called to assist those investigators. Sometimes the detectives working murders needed help with search warrants, and vice was proficient at typing those up, because it was always searching for drugs.
As the murders continued and fear of the strangler grew, the department assigned officers to spend the night in the homes of the most vulnerable: If an elderly woman lived alone and her family feared for her safety, she could get an overnight guard. Boren was among those recruited for that duty.
Another tack police took was getting nondescript cars from local dealerships and having undercover officers cruise around in them, hoping to catch a suspect off-guard. It didn’t work. Nothing did, in the 1970s.
The stranglings ended abruptly in April 1978, when Gary shifted to robbing restaurants – in which he was skilled – and then moved away, leaving Columbus without a suspect in seven murder cases that soon turned cold.
Meanwhile Boren went from vice to “persons crimes,” investigating murders, rapes, robberies and assaults. That’s how he came to be among five detectives devoted to hunting Gary down in 1984, when police matched Gary to a fingerprint found at the Dec. 28, 1977, rape and strangling of Kathleen Woodruff.
They finally caught up with him May 3, 1984, in Albany, Ga.
After Albany police found him waiting on a woman at the Heritage Motel, Room 342, Boren and his colleagues went to Albany to get him.
On the ride back to Columbus, they began to talk. After he was paraded before the TV cameras in police headquarters, Gary took the detectives on a tour of the Wynnton area, where the murders were concentrated, and talked about which houses he’d broken into.
Some were strangler victims’ homes, but Gary denied he was the strangler. The killer was a friend of his, Malvin Crittenden, he said. Gary was only an accomplice, he said.
It was a trick he’d pulled twice before, when accused of violent crimes: Blame an acquaintance, cut a deal with prosecutors to testify against him, plead to a reduced charge, and serve a minimal amount of time.
It didn’t work.
The detectives immediately went out and got Crittenden, brought him in for questioning, and found no probable cause to detain him. They took him home and said they’d be back in the morning, and the next day, he was there waiting for them, Boren said.
They had no evidence on him, but they had reason to charge Gary, whose fingerprints had been found at crime scenes, and who had made so many incriminating statements.
How he did it
Gary liked to brag, Boren said: He boasted of how he had dodged the police all those years. One way was to avoid any approaching car, assuming it could be occupied by undercover officers. He also would lie concealed in the bushes for hours, even if he had to relieve himself right by his hiding place.
In the two years between Gary’s arrest and his 1986 trial, the investigators backtracked him to birth, and documented an astounding criminal career of burglary, robbery, rape and murder.
The data they compiled not only showed Gary had a history of robbing restaurants, breaking into homes, assaulting women and blaming someone else, it answered a question people still ask today:
How could a young black man maneuver through the Wynnton area when police were everywhere?
That question is not rhetorical, to some people. Their answer is he couldn’t. The real strangler had to be an insider, a white man, someone the neighbors already knew.
That theory is not new, Boren said: Police had to deal with it back in the 1970s, too, chasing false leads amplified by gossip in the era that preceded social media – unless “social media” counts chatter from church groups, dinner clubs and telephone calls.
Amplified by one-on-one gossip, such rumors could reach police from several sources.
“What’s happening in these cases is you’ve got somebody from that period of time, that’s out there talking it, other people hearing it, and other people, they too are talking it, and therefore it makes a big circle, and it comes right back to us,” Boren said.
To Boren, the answer to Gary’s infiltrating the neighborhood is simple: He grew up here. He knew the territory, and he was an accomplished burglar.
Born here in 1950, he went to the Claflin School on Fifth Avenue from 1956 to 1961, and to Carver Elementary School from 1962 to ’63. He did brief stints at Carver High and Spencer in ’65 and ’66 before moving to Gainesville, Fla., where he first got arrested, for breaking and entering.
From there he moved up and down the East Coast, leaving a winding trail of crimes, before he escaped from prison in New York in August 1977 and returned to Columbus.
And then he moved right back to the area around Carver High School, renting homes along Old Buena Vista Road, and on Fisk Avenue, on Spencer Lane, and on Ninth Street off Benner Avenue. His mother Carolyn David also lived in that area, and he helped support her.
Concurrent with the stranglings, he broke into upscale homes all around Wynnton, sometimes stealing cars he later abandoned just blocks from wherever he was staying.
Among the houses he hit were 1710 Buena Vista Road, 2021 Brookside Drive, 1608 Wildwood Ave., 1941 Stark Ave. and 1427 Eberhardt Ave., where he stole a pistol that six years later led to his arrest.
Boren said Gary called the 2021 Brookside Drive home of Abraham Illges and his wife “The Castle,” and told police he broke in one night when the two were home. He found an elderly man in one room and his wife in another, and he slipped in and out without their noticing.
He never attacked a woman if a man were home, Boren said.
It was a tale in keeping with the ghostly nature of the strangler, who without attracting notice disassembled a deadbolt lock to get at one victim, and took a storm door off its hinges to reach another. Gary told detectives about removing burglar bars from a window and setting them aside, a detail the homeowner had neglected to tell the police, when the resident found them later.
Backtracking Gary explained gaps in the stranglings:
In 1977, the first was Sept. 16, the next Sept. 25, then Oct. 21, and then Oct. 25. And then Gary got a night job at Goldens’ Foundry from Nov. 14 until he was fired for missing work Dec. 20. And then the next strangling was Dec. 28.
In-between murders, he still broke into houses where people were home. But he never assaulted a woman if a man were there, Boren reiterated, so more stranglings might have plugged other gaps in Gary’s timeline, had he found more women alone.
When in desperate need of money, he switched to robbing restaurants. It was easy to escape capture in the years preceding nonstop video surveillance and other security measures.
Three days after the last strangling on April 20, 1978, he hit a Burger King on Macon Road. On May 14, he robbed a steakhouse named the Hungry Hunter on Midtown Drive. The next day he paid up his rent on a Ninth Street home and paid his mother’s rent on Colorado Street, including months in arrears.
When his girlfriend got busted for shooting another woman May 20, his mother posted a $2,500 cash bond for her that same day.
Then he started robbing restaurants regionally, in areas he knew, such as Gainesville, Fla., and Macon and Albany, Ga., while still targeting some back in Columbus. When a girlfriend moved with one of his children to Greenville, S.C., Gary followed. He started robbing restaurants there in September 1978, eventually earning the nickname “Steakhouse Bandit.”
And eventually getting caught, on Feb. 16, 1979, and getting sent to prison.
He escaped March 15, 1984, and soon was back in Columbus, where Boren and the other detectives were looking for him, having traced to Gary the gun he stole with a car on Eberhardt Avenue in 1978; and having had South Carolina send them his prison fingerprints, one of which matched the murder of Kathleen Woodruff.
Police almost caught him around 1:30 a.m. May 1, in Phenix City, but he ran when an officer’s flashlight shined in the bedroom window of the woman he was with. So they caught up with him two days later, in Albany, Ga.
Malvin Crittenden was one of his longtime associates, back then. When Gary found out the police had linked him to the stranglings, he blamed Crittenden, the guy Boren and the other detectives questioned that same night, and released.
They learned from Gary’s past that this was just another of his patterns.
In 1970, when Gary lived in Albany, N.Y., a woman named Marion Brewer was found strangled Feb. 12 in a room at the Hampton Hotel, which is near Albany’s Wellington Hotel, which also is near where Gary lived.
On April 14, 1970, Nellie Farmer was raped and strangled in the Wellington Hotel, and Gary’s fingerprints were found at the scene. When he was arrested July 15, he blamed John Lee Mitchell, testified against him, and went to jail only for robbery. Mitchell was acquitted.
Gary was never charged in the Brewer case.
In 1976, Gary moved to Syracuse, N.Y. On Dec. 31, 1976, a woman named Jane Kiah, 59, was raped and choked with bed linens in her home on West Castle Street. Carlton’s then-girlfriend told police he brought bed linens to their home on South Street. Carlton said Dudley Harris left the linens there.
On Jan. 3, 1977, Jean Frost, 55, was choked with a scarf and raped in her Syracuse home. The next day Gary had a watch stolen from Frost, when police detained him in the Frost and Kiah assaults. He blamed Dudley Harris for both, and cut a deal with prosecutors. On April 11, he got a year in jail on reduced charges, and escaped four months later.
The night he escaped, he showed up at his then-girlfriend’s home in Syracuse, limping badly from having jumped out a prison window, and beat and raped her for sleeping with another man. Then he returned to Columbus, where the series of murders and assaults attributed to the “Stocking Strangler” began within a week of his arrival.
Though Ricky Boren did not investigate all of those cases contemporaneously, he did dig through all the evidence police compiled for Gary’s trial.
It shocked the conscience even of veteran homicide investigators.
That is another reason Boren had other things on his mind, Thursday night, as he watched Gary die: He had no sympathy for a doomed man whose life of crime had left a trail of blood, torture and terror.
Boren knew details of those murders others did not know, and did not want to. On Friday afternoon, he said he understood how others felt about putting a man to death.
“We’re aware of people being human, and that’s what we have, people wanting to believe the best in human nature,” he said. “Carlton Gary’s not one of those people.”
What police found at the murder scenes was beyond horror.
“These ladies were brutally beaten, they were raped, they were strangled, and in some of those, there were major fights that took place in the privacy of their bedrooms or the privacy of a home,” he said. “And these are areas where you believe that you’re safe, that once you get in and lock your door, you don’t think that there’s going to be a monster to come in there and literally beat you to death, and sexually abuse you, and other things that I won’t talk about, that’s inside these residences.”
Though the general public hasn’t heard all the details, the victims’ families have. Those nightmarish memories left an extended, residual trauma that still lingers, Boren said.
“The matriarchs of those families were killed, which left the siblings, which now leaves the grandchildren,” Boren said. “And the grandchildren ... still live in fear of what happened to the grandmother in that particular area. We had people who literally left Columbus during that time, for fear of this unknown person showing up in their house in the middle of the night and killing them.”
Carlton Gary is, or was, the “Stocking Strangler,” Boren insists, so the “Stocking Strangler” is dead now.
But that fear lives.