Those old enough to remember the decade might have thought the 1970s had come back to haunt Columbus, in 2018.
In March, the serial killer who terrorized the city in 1977 and ’78 finally was put to death, 40 years after the seven rapes and stranglings of older women in midtown, and then in June the iconic 1971 office tower where he was tried and sentenced went into its own death throes, with broken pipes flooding courtrooms.
Picking the top story of 2018 was a dilemma: Should it be the execution for the murders that so long shadowed the city, or this new issue looming on the horizon?
The Ledger-Enquirer eventually chose the end of the “Stocking Strangler” saga that took so high a toll and lingered so long, and likely marks a dwindling number of death-penalty cases, as capital punishment becomes more difficult and costly to pursue and fight on appeal.
Repairing or replacing the Government Center will be difficult and costly, too, for Columbus. So it will be ranked No. 2.
Carlton Gary’s execution
“Stocking Strangler” Carlton Gary never said a word, nor opened his eyes, as corrections officers at Georgia’s death row prison in Jackson carried him limp into the death chamber March 15 and strapped him to a gurney.
Medical staff inspecting his extended arms injected the needles before a lethal dose of pentobarbital sent him off to oblivion at 10:33 p.m. He yawned once before his head drifted to one side. The doctors pronouncing him dead covered his face with a sheet, which eerily echoed how Gary left his victims’ faces covered after he beat, raped and strangled them.
They did not die peacefully, as he did, and his accusers did not forget that.
When Georgia finally carried out the execution to which a jury sentenced Gary in 1986, Columbus was marking the 40th anniversaries of the seven serial killings that terrorized the city from the fall of 1977 through the spring of 1978.
The victims were Mary Willis “Fern” Jackson, 59, on Sept. 16, 1977; Jean Dimenstein, 71, on Sept. 24, 1977; Florence Scheible, 89, on Oct. 21, 1977; Martha Thurmond, 70, on Oct. 25, 1977; Kathleen Woodruff, 74, on Dec. 28, 1977; Mildred Borom, 78, on Feb. 12, 1978; and Janet Cofer, 61, on April 20, 1978.
Gary was convicted in the slayings of Scheible, Thurmond and Woodruff, the cases for which police had the strongest evidence, but prosecutors maintained he committed all seven Columbus murders, as well as other burglaries and assaults, including a litany of crimes up and down the East Coast.
Police knew Gary to be more than a serial killer: Sometimes he burglarized homes not to kill, just to steal. Often he robbed restaurants. While robbing a restaurant in Phenix City, he chose to rape an employee, too,
Some think he was railroaded, and have suggested other suspects committed the stranglings.
But those most familiar with his record, and the details of his crimes, did not doubt his guilt, and had no sympathy for him.
For the police, the prosecutors and the victims’ families, Carlton Gary’s execution was too long in coming.
Government Center flooding
More than six months after a water main broke June 18 on the 12th floor of the Columbus Government Center, crews continue to restore four courtrooms on the upper floors as city leaders consider whether to completely refurbish or replace the 47-year-old building at 100 10th St., weighing price tags of $100 million or more.
Though current repairs are expected to be finished in February, the building’s utility systems still are failing, requiring frequent maintenance on the complex that besides courtrooms houses the mayor and city manager’s offices and other departments.
Construction crews now are focusing on floors 10 and 11 to restore the courtrooms, Deputy City Manager Pam Hodge said in a Dec. 11 briefing to Columbus Council. Paint is almost complete on the 11th floor, drywall work is underway on the 10th floor and crews are shifting to the ninth floor.
“We are really making a lot of progress on the top two floors, hopefully to get them back up and operational very soon,” she said.
Deciding whether to replace or rehabilitate the complex, how much to pay, and how to fund the project, are questions that will follow the city into 2019 and beyond.
School board changes
Columbus voters chose two new school board members, and Phenix City voters chose to vote on their school board members, starting in 2020, rather than have them appointed by the city council.
The Muscogee County school board’s most outspoken critics of Superintendent David Lewis’ administration, Frank Myers of District 8 and John Thomas of District 2, are off the board in 2019. Thomas, who didn’t seek re-election, will be succeeded by Mike Edmondson, who bested opponent Bart Steed in a July 24 runoff. Myers ran for re-election May 22 but lost to former board chairman Philip Schley.
Although board chairwoman Kia Chambers was re-elected to her countywide seat in May, she in November announced she wouldn’t ask fellow board members to re-instate her as chair in 2019, because she wants more time to finish her doctorate. But with the departure of Myers and Thomas, she likely would not have had enough support anyway. Pat Hugley Green of District 1 is expected to hold the gavel.
In Harris County, Superintendent Jimmy Martin resigned in May because of a dispute with the school board. The next month, the board hired retired Harris County High School principal Roger Couch to replace him. Martin then expressed interest in returning to Chattahoochee County, where superintendent David McCurry retired in June. But in July, the ChattCo board rehired McCurry on a part-time basis.
In Phenix City, the city council decided without public explanation to not reappoint school board president Paul Stamp and replaced him in March with the Rev. Samuel Estrada. Stamp was the sixth straight school board member the city council didn’t reappoint, leaving Fran Ellis the only one remaining since the school board, also without public explanation, dismissed superintendent Larry DiChiara in 2013. Later in 2018, school board member John Donohue resigned for what he called personal reasons, and the city council filled the seat by appointing Harris County High School principal Todd Stanfill.
A new VA facility
After years of waiting, 30,000 military veterans in Columbus and the surrounding Chattahoochee Valley area learned in September they finally will be getting a new primary care and mental health clinic as part of a $62.4 million project, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed.
Construction on the VA Outpatient Clinic at 2357 Warm Springs Road, which encompasses slightly more than 70,000 square feet of space, is scheduled to begin in early 2019, and it is expected to be finished by the spring of 2021.
The Warms Springs Road address is the 12-acre site formerly occupied by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia. The office building was shuttered after the insurance company relocated its Columbus operations center to Muscogee Technology Park on the city’s northeast side in late 2015.
Kim Porter’s funeral
National attention shifted to Columbus after the death of Columbus native and model Kim Antwinette Porter, whose elaborate Nov. 24 funeral here attracted celebrities from Hollywood and elsewhere.
Porter, 47, was found dead Nov. 15 in her Woodbridge Street home in Toluca Lake in Los Angeles. More than a 1,000 turned out for her service at Columbus’ Cascade Hills Church, a mega-church at 727 54th St.
Porter was the mother of four children, including a son, Quincy Brown, she shared with R&B singer Al B. Sure. She had three children with record producer Sean “Diddy” Combs: son Christian Casey Combs and twin daughters D’Lila Star and Jessie James Combs.
Combs gave the eulogy, and Faith Evans sang “His Eye Is on The Sparrow.” Those were among many tributes during the service attended by celebrities such as singer and actress Mary J. Blige; actors Kandi Burruss and NeNe Leakes of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”; and R&B singer Usher.
Kim Porter was buried in Evergreen Memorial Park, 4500 St. Marys Road, where her mother, Sarah L. Porter, also was laid to after her death April 25, 2014. Combs and relatives released doves at the cemetery, followed by a pink fireworks display.
The triple-homicide trial
The “Stocking Stranglings” of the 1970s were not the only heinous murders to haunt Columbus in 2018.
In January one of three youths charged in a brutal triple-homicide went to trial after his codefendants agreed to plead guilty, and the public learned all the shocking details of what happened two years earlier to a grandmother, son and granddaughter in the Upatoi area of east Columbus.
The victims were Gloria Short, 54; her son Caleb Short, 17; and granddaughter Gianna Lindsey, 10.
Betrayed by a longtime family friend who led two other teens to their 3057 Bentley Drive home, the night of Jan. 3, 2016, they were bound with tape and beaten with a 20-pound dumbbell. The grandmother and granddaughter also were stabbed.
Nurse Robert Short Sr. found the bodies of his wife, son and granddaughter when he got home at 7:25 a.m. the next day, after working the night shift at Northside Hospital.
“Oh my God! Someone killed my family!” he sobbed to a dispatcher when he called 911 at 8:02 a.m. ”They’ve been tied up and beaten. Who would do this to my family? Who would do this?”
Two weeks later, he learned the answer to that question was a boy he and his wife had treated like a member of the family: Jervarceay Tapley, then 17, who had spent summers with the Shorts and joined them on fishing trips and vacations to Disney World.
Tapley lived with his grandmother and her boyfriend, who was Gloria Short’s brother. The brother died of a heart attack Jan. 6, 2016, after learning of the homicides.
Tapley recruited Rufus Burks, then 15, and Raheam Gibson, 19 at the time, as accomplices. The three traveled from south Columbus to Upatoi on a moped and a bicycle, taking turns on the moped after the bicycle broke down.
All the youths gained from the crime were Nike sneakers Caleb collected and other clothes, video games and a console, some cash and assorted change, and two automobiles the teens stole, but later abandoned.
Tapley, 20, pleaded guilty to murder, and was sentenced to life without parole. Burks, 18, was found guilty after he went to trial, and was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences plus 15 years. Gibson, 21, who pleaded guilty to simple kidnapping and two counts of auto theft, was sentenced to 10 years on each count, equaling 30 years in prison.
NCR pulls out
NCR Corp., which had been a manufacturing employer in Columbus since 2009, unveiled plans in April to close both of its Columbus plants. It was later determined that the work was being shifted to other facilities operated by a third-party company based in Florida.
More than 1,000 jobs were lost in Columbus due to the plant closures that took place through October. About 360 of those losses were full-time NCR employees, and 679 were people working at its plants through temporary staffing companies. The total was 1,039.
Historic midterm turnout
The big election news this year should have been who won: Columbus soon will have a new mayor, Skip Henderson, who bested five opponents May 22 to win without a runoff, and Georgia will have a new governor, Republican Brian Kemp, who won the Nov. 6 General Election by a pencil-thin margin over Democrat Stacey Abrams.
But the more remarkable aspect of the 2018 General Election was the turnout, a record for a midterm. Certified results for the Nov. 6 election in Muscogee County showed 63,468 of 112,540 voters cast ballots, a turnout of 56.4 percent.
When Columbus’ local nonpartisan elections for offices such as mayor were held with state party primaries on May 22, the turnout here was only 22 percent. Coinciding with the General Election for governor and other state offices on Nov. 6, Muscogee County held a special election for Superior Court clerk, to fill the unexpired term of the late Ann Hardman, who died in office.
Here’s what a difference the election date makes:
As a result of the surge in turnout spurred partly by Georgia’s hotly contested governor’s race, far more people voted for court clerk this year than for mayor: About 24,000 voted in the May 22 mayor’s race; nearly 56,600 voted in the Nov. 6 election for court clerk.
Were this intense voter engagement to continue – or to be revived, after an off-year lapse – its effect on future elections could change the course of local and state politics.
Central’s state championship
On a frigid Dec. 5 night in Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, Phenix City’s Central Red Devils warmed fans’ hearts by winning the football program’s first state championship in a quarter century.
And they did it in a dominating fashion, finishing their first undefeated season in 74 years.
The Red Devils, ranked No. 1 in Alabama Class 7A, trounced the No. 2 Thompson Warriors 52-7.
Central senior quarterback Peter Parrish, who signed with LSU, was selected as the game’s MVP. He rushed for 100 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries and completed 5 of 9 passes for 78 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions.
Leading the Central defense with five tackles each were senior outside linebacker Marquez Henry (with a 14-yard interception return for a touchdown, and one sack), senior linebacker Trevon Miller (with an 8-yard fumble return for a touchdown), junior safety Michael Harris and senior cornerback Damon Jones.
Head coach Jamey DuBose, in his fifth season in Phenix City, said the key to breaking through after the Red Devils lost to McGill-Toolen in the state semifinals the previous three seasons wasn’t having better schemes but being better players, better coaches and better people.
“These guys gave me their heart tonight,” he said. “… We’ve got some great football players. And not only that, we’ve got some great guys. We’ve got some great talent. We’ve got great kids – and just proud to have them.”
As 2018 neared its end, Columbus had fewer murders than the record number it had the year before.
But not far fewer: In 2017, it had 35. So far this year, it has had 31.
The number of “murders” that police count often differs from the tally of “homicides” recorded by the county coroner.
Police do not count a homicide as a murder unless they file murder charges. Those they do not call “murders” typically include justifiable homicides involving self-defense, and accidental shootings that often lead to manslaughter charges.
The coroner counts any death caused by another person as a “homicide,” regardless of whether it results in a murder charge. A death certificate has only five manners of death: “natural,” as from disease; “accidental,” as in a car wreck; “suicide” from a self-inflicted wound or other means; “undetermined” when a cause can’t be pinpointed; and “homicide,” for any death caused by another.
In 2017, police categorized 35 of the year’s 43 homicides as murders. This year they labeled 31 of the coroner’s 33 homicides as murders.
Here are the homicides police aren’t counting as murders:
- Tony Brown Allen, 19, died from a gunshot wound Oct. 3 on Swann Street. Police say his friend Reginald Wardlaw, 20, accidentally fired the shot that hit Allen in the chest. Wardlaw is charged with involuntary manslaughter.
- Damion “Dae-Dae” Collier, 24, died at the hospital after two officers with the police fugitive squad shot him when he pulled a gun on them on 35th Street at River Road, authorities said. Collier was a suspect in the fatal shootings of Alec Spencer, 24, on April 1 at an unlicensed nightclub at 480 Andrews Road, and of Darrell Boggans, 43, on April 28 on Winston Road, police said. Collier’s death was ruled a justifiable homicide.
- Timothy Paschal 31, died in intensive care two weeks after a May 11 fight with 34-year-old Donald Butler at Fourth Avenue and 35th Street. Butler was jailed for aggravated assault, but investigators have not decided whether the case merits a murder charge.