“I Don’t Have Any Parents”
Carlton Gary once said, “I don’t have any parents.” In a literal sense, of course, this was not true, he was biologically conceived of two parents. It was not completely true in a figurative sense either, for while Gary’s father deserted him, his mother raised him at least some of the time. But it may have reflected a psychological reality that, as a child, he never felt truly bonded to his mother or anyone else.
Carlton Gary was born in Columbus, Georgia, on December 15, 1952. His father was a construction worker who wanted nothing to do with the son he had sired and would accept no financial responsibility for Carlton. The father saw Gary only once when the boy was 12.
His impoverished mother lived a nomadic life, moving about from one address to another. Sometimes she was completely unable to care for him and deposited the youngster with his aunt on his father’s side, Lillian Nesbit or his great-aunt on his mother’s side, Alma Williams.
His aunt Lillian and his mother both at various times worked as housekeepers for wealthy, older, white women. It is likely that Carlton learned contempt and hatred for this group through his aunt’s and mother’s experiences with them. Older people are often ailing and, as a result, complaining. Depending on personality, the people his aunt worked for may also have been petty, demanding and fussy. Since these employers came of age in an era when segregation and white supremacy were taken for granted, they may also have been racists. The boy may have heard about their prejudice and that may have fed the hatred for whites that he would later demonstrate.
Carlton Gary was a bright youngster with a very high IQ score. However, it is probable he also suffered some sort of brain damage. His mother or other guardian often could not scrape together enough money to feed him properly and the boy was malnourished, a problem known to result in brain deficiencies. The desperately hungry youngster was sometimes seen rummaging through garbage cans for food. In elementary school, the boy had an accident on a schoolyard ball field that knocked him unconscious.
Apparently, Carlton became a traveling sort early on. His mother’s brother, William David, received a phone call from a military police officer at the Fort Lee Army Post in Virginia, saying a child wanted to talk to him. Carlton, then 8 years old, was put on the phone.
“Unk, it’s Gary,” the boy said. “Come get me.”
David has said he never found out how the child got to Virginia on his own.
Carlton continued shuffling between his aunts and his mother, and (primarily) between Columbus, Georgia and various places in Florida into his mid teens.
Angry Teen, Angry Adult
He was 16 years old when he came back to the Fort Myers, Florida, house where he had lived with his mother and found it empty.
He learned that his mother was in Gainesville and followed her there. Then the frustrated, largely unguided teenager embarked on a criminal career. He was charged with breaking and entering because he tried to get into someone else’s car. Two months after that charge was made, another case of breaking and entering was brought against him.
Gary was also convicted of fire bombing a grocery store. That crime was probably motivated by a grudge against the shop owner, who had pressed charges against Gary’s mother for a bad check. In view of later events, it may also be significant that the owner was white for racial bias may have played a part in this crime as it certainly did in his later, far more serious offenses.
It seemed like something good was going on in Gary’s life even in the midst of so much criminality and chaos. He met, courted, and married a woman named Sheila.
As an adult, Gary was a good-looking man with a high forehead. He liked to wear his hair in a rather large Afro and often sported dark glasses.
For his crimes, Gary was taken into custody shortly after his marriage. He escaped from jail and fled to Connecticut. From there, he contacted Sheila and she joined her fugitive husband in Connecticut. There the couple lived a nomadic life, moving along the state’s southern shore to Old Saybrook, New London, Hartford, and Bridgeport as first one child, then another, was born to them. In Bridgeport, Gary again ran afoul of the law. He was arrested for assaulting a police officer. He and Sheila went across the state line to Albany, New York. In Albany, Carlton tried to embark on a career in music. He showed promise since he got gigs in various nightclubs.
“He Did it, Not Me”
Nellie Farmer had spent most of her life working as a schoolteacher. People don’t go into teaching for the money but for the satisfaction that comes from nurturing and instructing the young. When she retired, Farmer was able to support herself but could not afford a nice residence. In 1970, she lived alone in a tiny retirement hotel. She was asleep when she was suddenly awakened to a real-life nightmare.
A man had broken in. He raped the elderly woman. One can only guess at the horror that went through her mind as a stranger violated her, causing her physical agony as well as psychic humiliation. Then he strangled her to death with a scarf.
Police found her corpse lying face down on the floor. Bedclothes covered her.
There had been a similar attack two months earlier but the victim had survived. Both victims were women, both were elderly, and both were white.
A short time later, Josephine Deitz was attacked in her home by a black male who broke in. Like the other two victims, she was elderly and white. He grabbed her by the throat and slammed her to the floor. Then he took her purse and took off.
The police apprehended a man for the Deitz crime just four days after it occurred. That man was named Carlton Gary although he told the officers that his name was Carl Michaels. A fingerprint of his had been found in Nellie Farmer’s retirement hotel room.
John Lee Mitchell
“Carl Michaels” acknowledged that he had been in Farmer’s residence when she was killed but claimed he had never touched her. He claimed that he had burglarized her home while an accomplice, a man whose name is reported as John Lee Mitchell in Bruce L. Jordan’s Murder in the Peach State and as John Lee Williams in Joel Norris’ Serial Killer, and sometimes called “Pop,” assaulted and murdered Farmer. He said the police wouldn’t find John Lee’s fingerprints because he had worn gloves while committing the crime. Then the seemingly helpful Michaels led them to a letter that he claimed John Lee had written. In it, John Lee talks about his involvement in the rape and murder of Nellie Farmer.
Book Cover: Murder in the Peach State
Carlton Gary in 1970
In Serial Killers, Norris quotes at length from Michaels/Gary’s confession. It sounds as if John is the leader of this team, Gary the passive follower. “While walking down the hallway,” Gary relates, “John put on his rubber gloves. He told me not to worry about my fingerprints as I had no record and they couldn’t be traced. We came to this hotel room door. I notice that when John or Pop came to this door he had some kind of material jammed in the door lock. John went in first. I followed him. John turned to me and said, ‘Check out the bathroom.’ The bathroom was dark. … I could see John in the other room and he was holding a flashlight and going through papers. … I noticed the bed was all messed up. I heard some people coming down the hall. I got scared. Now after the sounds stopped I seen John with his flashlight go over toward a door and I seen John direct the flashlight to this door at the bottom of which was a low, big trunk. John asked me to help him move this trunk. When the flashlight that john was holding shined on the trunk I noticed the head of a human being up against this trunk. The head of this human being was stretched out on the floor. … I could tell this was the body of a woman, a white woman. I seen John reach down and grab this human head by the hair and throw it to one side. I did not step over the body but John asked me to help him put this trunk on the bed. I reached down and with my hands I picked up the trunk and with John helping me we put the trunk on the messed-up bed. John started to work on the lock of the trunk. There were some pots and pans and some household stuff in the trunk. … We searched through the stuff in the trunk. I picked up John or Pop’s snow boots and I walked out of the hotel room. I walked around the hallway and down to the elevator. John was still in the room. … I waited there about twenty-five or thirty minutes and then John or Pop came up State Street and he joined me.”
Michaels/Gary readily agreed to testify against his partner. Largely on the basis of that testimony, John Lee was convicted. Michaels/Gary later recanted his story and John Lee had his conviction overturned on appeal. Further investigation convinced authorities that John Lee had nothing to do with the Farmer killing.
It seemed that Gary had successfully escaped punishment by throwing suspicion on an acquaintance since, as Jordan wrote, “no one was ever successfully tried for the murder of Nellie Farmer.”
A Vicious Rape, Officially Unsolved
When Gary was freed from prison in 1975, he went to Syracuse, New York.
On December 31, 1976, a man broke into a 59-year-old woman’s Syracuse home, raped her, and then choked her with a pillowcase. The victim survived. Police would later become convinced that her rapist and attempted murderer was Gary.
Four days later, on January 3, 1977, a 55-year-old white woman named Jean Frost is believed to have had the great misfortune of meeting Carlton Gary. She had just had a birthday and was asleep when a noise jerked her awake.
Blinking into the darkness, she made out a man standing in her bedroom doorway. Then he jumped on top of her. A panicked Frost tried to escape from her attacker and he angrily told her, “You shouldn’t have struggled.”
He ripped her nightgown and shoved part of it into her mouth. Repeatedly and furiously, he hit the older woman in the face as she choked on the crude gag. Despite the darkness, Frost was certain she saw that her attacker was a mustachioed black man. Then he wrapped a scarf around her neck, choked her, and she blacked out.
Jean Frost survived. When she came to, she was aware of an extraordinary physical pain in her vagina. She was bleeding profusely from her genital area. Because of that, doctors would be unable to do the test usually done in rape cases for the presence of semen.
The next day, January 4, two men were arrested at a Syracuse bank. They were trying to turn $191 worth of coins into cash. The coins had been stolen from a man who lived in the same apartment building as Jean Frost.
One of the men arrested, Carlton Gary, tried to resist being taken into custody. Marijuana was found on his person, as was a gold watch that belonged to Jean Frost. He told the police that his name was “Carlton Michaels.”
When Michaels/Gary was interrogated, he admitted he had gone to Jean Frost’s apartment complex but claimed he had been a lookout for his crime partner (the same man with whom he had been arrested).
Jean Frost was unable to identify “Michaels” as the man who had brutally violated her and tried to kill her. There was no direct physical evidence linking either man to the crime scene.
No one was ever charged with the rape and attempted murder of Frost.
However, since he had been caught with stolen coins, Gary had violated parole and was sent back to prison. Eight months after his return, on August 22, 1977, Gary escaped from the Onondaga prison.
He went to Columbus, Georgia, his birthplace.
A Random Killing?
Georgia map with Columbus marked
Columbus is the second largest city in Georgia (Atlanta the first). The population of the metropolitan area is a little less than 300,000. Located on the Chattahoochee River, along Georgia’s southwestern boundary with Alabama. The Army base of Fort Benning adjoins Columbus.
Often called the “Fountain City” because so many homes and churches have fountains, Columbus boasts a national historic district in its downtown area that contains many historic homes from the 19th century.
A friendly, bustling, modern city, Columbus is known for having a high quality of life on several counts. One of them is that it has a relatively low crime rate for a city of its size.
That may have made it all the more shocking when a serial strangler terrorized the city.
Mary Willis “Ferne” Jackson
Mary Willis “Ferne” Jackson was an attractive older white woman with a prominent forehead who wore her dark hair up and swept back from her brow. She worked as the director of the education division at the Columbus Health Department. She enjoyed a reputation as a reliable employee who was dedicated to helping the people of Georgia, especially the poor and racial minorities.
She resided alone in a brick home in the affluent Wynnton section of Columbus. She kept her home clean and tidy and had devoted care to furnishing it.
On the night of September 15, 1977, she awoke to find an intruder in her bedroom. He wrapped a nylon stocking around her neck and choked the life out of her.
The next day, Jackson’s fellow employees at the Columbus Health Department were concerned. It was not like her to fail to show up and not even call. They phoned the police who went to her home and found her body. As well as the stocking around her neck, there was a pillow over the dead woman’s face. The murderer had apparently gotten in through a window.
Jackson’s home did not appear to have been burglarized. Columbus police detective Ronald Lynn was quoted in Murder in the Peach State as saying, “The only real sign that anything had been gone through was an open dresser drawer. We found it peculiar because there was a bank envelope containing money in the drawer that he would had to have seen.” Lynn also found black hairs that did not belong to the victim. Their texture led him to believe they belonged to a black person.
The evidence pointing towards a black murderer was thin, so those working the case were told not to reveal much. The police did not want to risk antagonizing the black community with a premature assertion of the strangler’s racial background.
Five days before the murder of Ferne Jackson, another white female senior citizen living in the same neighborhood had been attacked. That victim had survived but was so badly injured that she remained hospitalized almost a week later and was unable to speak to police.
Terror in Columbus
Jean Dimenstien was a friendly, 71-year-old woman who wore large Harlequin glasses and had her light hair styled in a series of soft waves. Before retiring, she and her brother, Fred, had co-owned and managed Fred and Jean’s Department Store. She often dined out with friends. She was frightened about the news reports about a murderer targeting elderly women and had discussed it with neighbors.
On the night of September 25, 1977, someone took the hinge pins off of Dimenstien’s front door and entered her home. He punched the woman in the face, raped her, and then strangled her to death with a nylon stocking.
With the report of Dimenstien’s murder, the elderly women of Columbus plunged into panic. Many put extra locks and deadbolts on their doors. Women who had not previously owned firearms bought guns.
The police department of Columbus was working hard to catch this predator and protect the city’s older women. “Stakeouts were arranged throughout the Wynnton area,” Jordan wrote. “Marked and unmarked patrol cars combed the neighborhood. Undercover police officers were hidden inside the homes of elderly residents who were thought to be the most likely targets.”
Meanwhile, the woman who had been assaulted five days before Ferne Jackson had recovered enough to talk to police. Her attacker had been a stranger, she said, and was a black male.
On October 2, 1977, Jerome Livas was arrested for raping and beating to death 55-year-old Beatrice Brier. Brier had been Livas’ girlfriend and she had not lived in the Wynnton area. Nevertheless, there were enough similarities the age of the victim, the brutality of the crime for police to suspect a connection.
On October 14 they officially announced that Livas was a suspect in the Stocking Stranglings. Livas confessed to murdering Ferne Jackson and Jean Dimenstien.
The elderly women of Columbus breathed a sigh of relief. It appeared that their nightmare was over. The man who had terrorized them was safely behind bars. Police called off the Wynnton area stakeouts.
The apprehension of the Stocking Strangler was one reason that 89-year-old Florence Sheible, a Wynnton area senior citizen, had to be happy. The other was that it was time for the World Series. The dark-haired and bespectacled woman was a great baseball fan. She followed the game avidly. Like many diehard fans, she was familiar with all the different players and their batting averages. The highlight of each day for her was the time she listened to the baseball games on the radio.
She preferred radio to TV because she was nearly blind. She also had trouble with mobility and used a four-legged walker.
It was still daylight when an intruder barged into Florence Sheible’s residence. He forced her onto her own bed and punched her in the face. Then he raped the woman who was only 10 days shy of what would have been her 90th birthday. Finally he wrapped a stocking around her throat and strangled her to death.
A few hours later her son dropped by to visit her. He found his mother dead with a pillow over her face and a stocking tightly knotted about her neck.
Just as they had previously breathed a sigh of relief, the citizens of Columbus now let out a collective gasp of horror. The Stocking Strangler was still out and about and doing his dirty work. The man the police had considered a suspect, Jerome Livas, had the most ironclad alibi of all: he was in jail.
The Wrong Guy
What about his confession to the Jackson and Dimenstien killings? It turned out that Livas was one of those criminals who was willing to confess to just about anything. He would soon sign a confession that he was the assassin of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and President William McKinley in 1901 and had been in the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932! Perhaps Livas figured he had nothing to lose. Or maybe he just thrived on the attention he could get by claiming guilt in other crimes. At any rate, he remained in jail but as a suspect in the rape and murder of Beatrice Brier only.
Martha Thurmond was a bespectacled 69-year-old woman with dark hair, a strong jaw, and thin lips. She had taught elementary school for nearly 20 years before her retirement. A widow, she lived alone and was deeply concerned about the rash of slayings in the city. She shared her fears with others in her demographic group of aging white females. “We just have to wait,” she said, “and pray it won’t be us next.”
She had been expected at her mother-in-law’s house. When she did not show up, a niece had gone to check on her. There was no answer to knock or doorbell and, probably with a sinking feeling of dread, the niece phoned the police.
The officers found that Martha Thurmond had been strangled in her home.
Columbus had lost four citizens, all elderly white females, to the wrath and heartlessness of a mysterious murderer.
Oddly for a serial murderer, it is believed that Gary downshifted from rape and murder to less serious crimes. He began robbing fast food restaurants.
Tragically, he did not abandon rape and murder.
Kathleen Woodruff was an elegant and wealthy socialite with high cheekbones and a long nose. She was well known to all in the Wynnton area. Her late husband, George C. Woodruff, St. was a prominent industrialist. Three days after Christmas the 77-year-old woman was found dead in her home. She had been raped and strangled.
A task force had been formed to work specifically on finding the Stocking Strangler who was also called “The Chattahoochee Choker.” Heading the Stocking Strangler Detail was Deputy Commander James B. Hicks and Director Ronald A. Jones. Detective Ronald Lynn was one of those on the Detail.
Like many other women, Ruth Schwob had become an executive through the death of her husband. Simon Schwob had founded Schwob Manufacturing Company in 1912. They made men’s apparel. When Simon died in 1954, the presidency of the company passed to his wife. Although she had never been active in helping to operate it during her husband’s lifetime, she learned fast and made a go of it. She was awarded the title “Woman of the Year” in Columbus in 1966.
Ten years later, Ruth Schwob sold the company and retired. However, she continued to lead an active life, walking or jogging every day and doing volunteer work in civic activities. She lived in a nice brick home that had a simple, homemade security system. There was a button attached to the side of her bed. That button connected with a wire that would sound in the bedroom of her next-door neighbor, Dr. Fred Burdette.
On the cold night of February 11, 1978, Ruth Schwob was assaulted in her bed. A young black male had climbed through a window and attacked her. She woke up to see him with his hand around her throat. The desperate woman pressed the alarm button. She struggled with all the might she could muster as, without speaking a word, his muscular hands wrapped a stocking around her neck.
He did not know that an alarm had gone off next door and that Dr. Burdette had called the police. The cops got to Ruth Schwob’s house two minutes after they were called.
Detective Lynn and his partner, police officer Robert Mathews. As they approached the house, they heard sounds through the open window. They were the noises of someone gasping and gurgling for breath.
They were not too late. Schwob was alive and the Stocking Strangler was in the room with her!
Lynn told other officers to surround the house. The excited police officers believed they might catch their elusive, murderous quarry that very night.
However, when they made it into Schwob’s bedroom, the frightened, injured woman was alone. Lynn immediately loosened the stocking and Schwob started vomiting.
A neighbor saw a black man running through his yard. Personnel in the ambulance summoned for Schwob had seen a black male running across a road just before they got to her address.
Stocking Strangler Detail
The Stocking Strangler Detail was beset by mixed emotions. They were gratified and proud that quick action on the part of the police had prevented the murderer from taking another life. At the same time, they were frustrated that they had just barely missed nabbing him.
Police Sketch of the “Strangler”
Unfortunately, the Strangler would attack another old woman within 24 hours of the assault on Schwob. This time, he would kill her.
She was 78-year-old widow Mildred Dismukes Borom. She was not strangled with a stocking but with a Venetian-blind cord cut from a window of her home. Police would find signs that a fierce struggle had taken place as Borom fought for her life. A lamp was broken and lay near her feet.
When Detective Ronald Jones saw Borom’s body, he was devastated. He did something that is a natural reaction of frustration and grief but is not acceptable in the macho world of the police force. He burst into tears.
Then he went to a hospital for an examination and was found to be suffering from exhaustion.
“Forces of Evil”
The city of Columbus felt like it was under siege. The police appeared ineffectual. They were frustrated, overworked and overwrought. Then, amazingly the case took an entirely new, grisly turn.
In February 1978 Columbus Police Chief received a bizarre, frightening letter supposedly from a white racist group of vigilantes called the “Forces of Evil.” The Forces of Evil wrote that if police did not apprehend the Stocking Strangler by “1 June,” they would murder a black woman in retaliation for what were believed to be murders of white women by a black man. That black woman, the letter went on to assert, would be Gail Jackson. She had already been kidnapped and was being held by the group. She would die unless the police caught, in the letter’s terms, the “S-Strangler.”
Investigators learned that Gail Jackson was a black woman from nearby Fort Benning. And, chillingly, she was missing.
While they were still puzzling over the disappearance of Gail Jackson, the police received a second letter from the supposed Forces of Evil. They demanded a $10,000 ransom for the kidnapped woman’s freedom.
Columbus police took this baffling, frightening letters to the Behavioral Science Unit of the F.B.I. As Jordan wrote in Murder in the Peach States, that unit “came to some startling conclusions. They felt the author, or authors, of the ‘Forces of Evil’ letter was not seven white men, but more likely one black man. The profilers believed he probably already killed Gail Jackson and that the letters were intended to divert attention away from the real killer. The profile predicted him to be an artilleryman or military policeman. An excerpt in the letter which stated, ‘the victims will double’ led profilers to believe that he may already have also killed two other women. … They also believed that he might be the stocking strangler.”
Investigators eventually arrested William Hance for the murder of Gail Jackson. He was a black artilleryman at Fort Benning. He confessed to having authored the “Forces of Evil” letter and to have killed two other women in addition to Gail Jackson. However, there were no links between Hance and the Stocking Stranglings.
A Break From Murder
Unlike many of the Stocking Stranglers victims, 61-year-old Janet Cofer was not retired. She still taught first grade. Dark-haired and dimpled, she wore glasses, had had a Dachshund named Buffy who slept under her bed and an adult son named Mike who sometimes stayed with her. She attended church regularly and was active in her church’s activities. Early in April, Janet Cofer suffered a heartrending loss. Little Buffy was struck and killed by a car.
Mike was not at his mother’s home on the fateful night of April 19, 1978. Janet Cofer was strangled in her bed.
It is believed that, at about this time, Carlton Gary took a break from murder to raise money through robbery. Concealing his identity behind a bag with holes cut out so he could see, he did restaurant hold-ups with a gun.
Soon a Columbus woman named Theda Cartwright reported to police that her .357 Magnum Hi Standard revolver was missing. She did not live in the Wynnton area and officers had no reason to connect the apparent theft of the gun with the stranglings.
Theda Cartwright’s boyfriend was Carlton Gary but she did not tell the police that nor indicate that she had any reason to suspect him of having taken the weapon.
In June, Gary moved back to Florida where he continued robbing restaurants. He threatened the people there with a sawed-off shotgun and hid his face behind a bandana and large sunglasses.
Carlton Gary was back in Georgia when the police arrested him, not for murder but for trespassing. He was in Hapeville, a suburb of Atlanta, when he was caught in the wee morning hours of June 19, 1978 scaling the balconies of a Royal Blue Inn. He was caught with a gold-colored bag. Inside it the police found $1,478.25.
He told the authorities his name was Michael David. He easily made the small bail required for the charge against him. A man as clever as he is evil, he once again slipped through the law’s fingers.
For the next few months, he traveled Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina robbing various restaurants. Sometimes he raped women when he robbed. Sometimes he had an accomplice.
In Gaffney, South Carolina, a police officer named Richard Weaver spotted a black man with a gun running out of the back of a Po’ Folks restaurant. Investigation revealed the Po’ Folks had just been robbed. Weaver radioed for assistance. Police with a team of bloodhounds were in the area. After an intense, three hour chase, the canines led their handlers to a suspect. The man was Carlton Gary but gave his name as “Michael David.”
In Again, and Out Again
David/Gary admitted to being involved in the robbery but said an accomplice had actually committed it. The story collapsed when witnesses from the restaurant fingered the supposed Michael David.
Research revealed that “Michael David” was the same “Carl Michaels” whose fingerprints had been found in the home of the strangled Albany woman Nellie Farmer and who had escaped from prison in Onondaga, N.Y.
Investigators from Columbus, Georgia came down to South Carolina to question Gary, not about the Wynnton area murders but about similar restaurant robberies. The suspect confessed to five armed robberies.
Convicted of robbery and escape, he was imprisoned in South Carolina but escaped in 1984. He headed for Columbus, Georgia.
There on April 18, 1984, an undercover officer saw him sitting in a Ford in a parking lot smoking marijuana. The officer tried to arrest him but Gary pushed him away, and then ran into the woods behind the parking lot. The officer gave chase and took him into custody. Gary gave his name as Michael David when arrested on charges of possession of marijuana and obstruction of an officer. Again he easily posted the modest bond on these charges and was freed.
The wily Gary began traveling with three other people, two men and a woman. They were driving a 1984 Lincoln. The robber of restaurants from Gainesville in Florida and Columbus in Georgia was known to use such a car.
Police in Columbus hoped against hope that a lead they were developing in the long, dragged-out case of the Stocking Strangler would pan out. A .22 Luger handgun had been stolen from a Wynnton house at the time of the murders. An anonymous caller called the owner of the gun and said, “The police have the gun you had stolen from you.”
That gun owner reported the call to the Columbus police. At first they were baffled. They did not have that gun but could police in another area have it? Detectives put out a nationwide teletype asking if anyone had it. No other police department did. Two Kalamazoo, Michigan clerks went painstakingly through their records and found that the weapon had been registered at their shop in 1981. Detectives tracked the gun down to its current owner who said he had purchased it in Phenix City, Alabama from Jim Gary. The police interviewed Jim Gary who said he had gotten it from his nephew, Carlton Gary.
Detectives then discovered that Gary had recently escaped from the South Carolina prison where he was serving time as “Michael David.” That made their job especially urgent. If Gary was the Stocking Strangler, elderly women were in terrible danger.
Fingerprints of Carlton Gary were matched to prints found in the home of victim Kathleen Gary. Then Columbus police were contacted by investigators from Phenix City who were looking for suspected robbers and cocaine runners, one of whom was known as Michael David.
A Ghost with a Name
Carlton Gary may well be one of the most slippery criminals ever. On April 30, 1984, the police almost caught him. The Lincoln was found at an apartment complex and police moved in but Gary had spotted their light and fled out the back door. He was naked and holding his clothes.
Within days, the police raided a room and found three of his robbery and cocaine accomplices but no Carlton Gary. The most wanted and dangerous man in Georgia was still wanted, dangerous, and free.
On the early morning of May 3, 1984, acting on a tip, a S.W.A.T. team went to a Holiday Inn in Albany, Georgia. Carlton Gary was in a room with a woman. When that woman came out of that room to go to an ice machine, S.W.A.T. members asked her to come to a room for questioning. She agreed to cooperate with authorities and told them that Gary had a gun on the nightstand.
Trying to decoy him into opening the door, she went back to it and knocked but ran away before he answered it. Gary opened the door, saw the police, and tried to shut it but officers kept it open with their shoulders. Then the team swarmed into the room and captured him.
Extreme wickedness; is something that is hard for normal people to fathom. It is somehow mind-boggling that a vicious, serial rapist and murderer is a human being made of flesh and blood. A detective riding in the back seat with Carlton Gary on the way to police headquarters commented on the sense of unreality he felt. “He had been a ghost,” the officer recalled. “Now I was sitting in the back seat with him. He was a human being. A couple of times I leaned over and brushed against him just to see if he was real.”
True to his pattern, Gary confessed to having been at the homes of the Wynnton area victims but denied raping or murdering them. His accomplice, Malvin Alamichael Crittendon had done that. “I did the burglaries,” Gary explained, “and Michael killed the old ladies.”
Crittendon existed and was located by the police. He denied taking part in the Stocking Stranglings and police could find no evidence to connect him to them.
Carlton Gary on Trial
Carlton Gary came to trial in August 1986 for the notorious Stocking Stranglings a full nine years after the last killing had been committed.
At least one of the jurors was shocked she had been chosen for jury duty on the case. Retired schoolteacher Eleanor Childers was in the same age group as the victims. Both she and her attorney son believed that would keep her off the jury. Her son had told her, “They won’t have you. They don’t want you.” She had been called up for jury duty on previous occasions but always had been rejected. “But they took me that time,” she later marveled.
Early in the trial, a peevish Gary told the judge he was sick and asked to be excused from “this circus or whatever you call it.”
Judge Kenneth Followill
The judge denied the request. He was Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Followill, a man with straight thin hair who wore large glasses. He was a respected jurist.
August “Bud” Siemon III
Gary was defended by August “Bud” Siemon III, an attorney who specialized in defending capital cases
Muscogee County District Attorney William J. Smith headed the state’s team. In his opening statement, Smith told the jury that while Gary was charged in three murders, the government would show evidence connecting him to seven. He went on to say that they would hear of how, when Gary was suspected of killing Nellie Farmer, he had successfully deflected suspicion from himself by implicating another man and how Gary repeated this subterfuge.
Siemon’s opening tried to downplay the significance of the fingerprint evidence. “Fingerprints prove nothing except that a person was at a location,” Siemon told the jury. “They don’t prove that he was the murderer.” He also suggested that the police were desperate to pin the stranglings on someone because they had been so helpless to stop them. “They had officers in trees,” he recounted, “they had officers hiding in the bushes with night-vision devices; they had stake-out houses with police inside. All this and they didn’t catch the killer when he was committing all these crimes.”
The state put on witnesses who saw Gary in the vicinity of the crime scenes, fingerprint experts, and medical personnel who testified to the condition of the victims’ bodies. Much of the testimony was quite gruesome and some jurors had difficulty both listening to it and viewing pictures of what had been done to the elderly women.
Being on the jury was something of an ordeal. The notoriety of it led to their being sequestered. Their mail, newspapers, magazines, and all other contact with the outside world were heavily censored. Their conditions were difficult and the jurors chafed under the restrictions. “It was awful being locked up for such a long time,” Childers said. “It’s like you’re a criminal or something. It’s a real strange experience for a free person to be locked up like that. They treated us well but it was like being in jail.”
T.H. Askins was a worker at the Dundee Mill Bleachery when he was chosen as a Gary juror. The mill would not pay Askins for the time he was not there and the $25-a-day juror fee was not as much as he could have earned. However, he understands the concept of civic responsibility. “That’s OK,” he commented on the financial loss. “I knew it was my duty.” All in all, he said, the time he spent as a sequestered juror was “pretty miserable.”
Perhaps the most heartrending testimony came from one of the victims who had survived an attack. Jean Frost was now 64. When she had been 55, she had been robbed, beaten, raped so viciously her vagina had copiously bled, strangled and left for dead. She told the story of her attack and was followed by a detective who told how Gary’s fingerprints had been found in her home. He also testified that Gary had confessed to the robbery but pinned the physical assault on another man.
That other man came into court to testify to the time he had spent behind bars because of Gary’s false accusation.
After the prosecution rested, the defense called Jerome Livas, who had confessed to the Stocking Stranglings (among many other crimes) to the stand. They also called officers involved in the investigation in an attempt to suggest, as Jordan wrote, “that police had molded the evidence to fit Gary.”
August “Bud” Siemon III (left) and Carlton Gary in court
The jury convicted him on all nine counts of which he was charged. The punishment for the three first-degree murders could be either life imprisonment or death. They sentenced him to death.
As is typical in death penalty cases, Carlton Gary’s has been appealed many times. Execution dates have been set and stays issued. This clever, twisted, cruel man remains on Death Row as of this writing.
Cold case investigators have reportedly connected Carlton Gary to the unsolved June 27, 1975, murder of a 40-year-old woman in Syracuse, New York. According to an article published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that woman was schoolteacher Marion Fisher. The article reported that Fisher, had been walking home from a bar after a fight with her husband, who became the chief suspect in the case. However, tests showed that the husband’s DNA did not match evidence from the crime scene.
The article continued, reporting that New York investigators traveled to the Georgia prison where Gary is held to interview him about the Fisher case. They questioned him for about two hours but would not disclose what Gary said in the interview. Syracuse police Lt. Ron Rockwood said that no charges have been filed against Gary in the Fisher case and that the Onondaga County district attorney’s office has not yet decided whether or not they will be. However, he added that the new evidence has brought a sense of closure to Fisher’s relatives. “We’re pleased to be able to bring an end of it to the Fisher family,” he said. “They’ve waited for it for 32 years.”
Carlton Gary’s attorneys are still appealing his convictions in the Columbus Stocking Stranglings, for which he sits on death row. “We’ve got several grounds,” says Gary lawyer John R. Martin, “but the primary ones right now are the failure of the state to provide us with expert assistance regarding semen evidence found at one of the crime scenes, the [Martha] Thurmond crime scene.
Our experts indicate that Mr. Gary couldn’t have left the semen at that crime scene. We’re also currently investigating a bite mark left at the [Janet] Cofer crime scene and our expert is looking at that. It wasn’t disclosed to the defense that there was such a bite mark impression.”
Bite Mark Evidence
An article by Richard Hyatt in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported that in May 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land instructed the warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center to allow a forensic dentist to make an impression of Carlton Gary’s teeth. Martin requested the impression so his client’s teeth can be compared to bite marks on the breast of Janet Cofer.
Cofer was one of seven women thought to be victims of the Columbus Stocking Strangler. However, Gary was never legally charged with Cofer’s murder, even though the prosecution suggested that all seven were victims of the same man. Hyatt quotes Martin as saying, “He’s either the strangler or he’s not. If we prove he’s not the strangler in any of the cases, that’s strong evidence that he’s not the strangler.”
Martin has also stated, “Mr. Gary is not the least bit troubled by our doing the test because he’s confident it will show he’s innocent. He’s encouraged new testing.”
Attorneys for the state contend that the failure of Gary’s teeth impression to match the Cofer bite mark would be meaningless. Hyatt quoted a brief, filed by Susan Boleyn of the State’s Attorney General’s Office, which contends, “Clearly, valid testing cannot be conducted now over 20-30 years after the exemplar was created and 23 years after (Gary) had dental work altering his dental impression.”
Movie Poster: The Big Eddy Club
At least one author doubts Gary’s guilt. He is British writer David Rose, who traveled to Georgia in 1996 to write an article on the death penalty for a magazine called The Observer. While researching it, he became interested in Carlton Gary and the Columbus Stocking Stranglings. He wrote a book about the case that HarperCollins plans to publish in March 2007. Its title will be The Big Eddy Club in the United States version, and Violation: Justice, Race and Serial Murder in the Deep South in the version to be released in the United Kingdom.
In a lengthy two-part article in The Observer, Rose states some of the reasons he questions Gary’s guilt. He points to Gary’s extroverted personality and his popularity with women as making him a contrast to the classic profile of the serial killer as a socially inept loner. However, there have been others, such as the infamous Ted Bundy, who broke that mold.
Rose has doubts that are more substantial. Some center around the aforementioned bite-mark evidence. He writes that Columbus dentist Sonny Galbreath “made a cast of the strangler’s teeth.” He also quotes Galbreath as claiming that “one of the killer’s top front teeth displayed an unusual and striking deformity – a ‘mesial rotation’ in effect, it was twisted out of alignment.” He further contends that the killer’s “deformity would have been noticeable every time he smiled.” Rose claims that he interviewed people who knew Gary at the time of the murders, who said Gary’s teeth were perfectly straight.
Semen evidence is also cited by Rose as possibly exculpatory. DNA testing was not available when Gary was tried. Rose writes that prosecution expert John Wegel testified that he tested semen from Strangler victims and concluded that the murderer was a “non-secretor, a man who does not secrete the usual amounts of antigens,” substances that stimulate immune response and can be used as blood group markers, into his body fluids. In response to evidence that showed Gary was a secretor in his saliva, Wegal responded that he might secrete antigens in one body fluid but not another, or that he had been a non-secretor and since become a secretor.
Rose claims to have contacted a British expert named Dr. David Roberts who disputes Wegel’s findings and does not believe a man could secrete in one fluid and not another. According to his article, Rose then masterminded an experiment to test this possibility and writes of himself engaging in a cloak-and-dagger operation on a prison visit to Gary: “Gary ejaculated on to a piece of paper, wrapped it in clingfilm and put it in an envelope, which I hid in a document file and smuggled out of the prison. Then, in front of me, he plucked some hairs from his head. Following instructions from my British expert, I let the semen dry in my hotel room and then sent it and the hair to a specialist lab in California. There, Dr. Brian Wraxall once Wegel’s college tutor DNA matched the hair roots and semen to establish the semen came from Gary. Then he did the secretor test. … Gary was a strong blood group O secretor. He compared the results with those that Wegel obtained when he tested the best sample from the strangler from a neat semen trace left on Martha Thurmond’s body in 1977. The antigen level in Gary’s semen was at least 3,000 times higher.” After writing about this, Rose cites the opinion of a scientist interviewed by Martin, who asserts that if a semen test showed Gary to be a strong secretor, “he cannot be the killer.”
Discussing Gary’s escape from the Onandaga prison, Rose writes, “he sawed through the bars of his cell and jumped more than 20 feet to the ground, breaking his ankle.” Rose continues, “One thing on which there is no dispute is that for the first few weeks after reaching Columbus, [Gary] was wearing a plaster cast and could barely walk.” Rose finds it unlikely that “someone in that condition could have spirited himself undetected into and around Wynnton.”
However, what is really remarkable is that a man with a broken ankle was able to make good his escape. Rose says Gary found and stole a bicycle near the prison wall. He then had the cast put on by a Rochester physician.
Book Cover: Murder in the Peach State
Testimony from prosecution witnesses about Gary’s time in Columbus after the escape indicated that he did indeed have an injured foot but that it did not prevent his getting around. Bruce L. Jordan, in Murder in the Peach State, quotes a witness as remembering him “hopping like a duck.” Even with an injured foot, Gary would have been considerably stronger and more agile than the Strangler’s elderly female victims.
Carlton Gary in 1970
Rose claims that when Gary was in custody in Gaffney, South Carolina, for robbery in March, 1979, detective Richard Smith took Gary’s fingerprints to Columbus print identification officers, who found that they did not match prints at the scenes of the stranglings, even though the prosecution would claim at Gary’s trial seven years later that they did match.
Rose disputes the identification of Gary by surviving victim Gertrude Miller. He claims that an attorney for Gary who handled his appeals before Martin, Jeff Ertel, won access to a prosecution sealed dossier through the Open Records Act. According to Rose, that dossier disclosed that when first questioned, “Miller had said it had been so dark that she didn’t know whether the intruder was black or white. Later, she went on to identify three other suspects in succession – all of whom looked different, and none of them like Gary.” However, there were several other witnesses who placed Gary in the vicinity of the stranglings, but Rose’s article does not mention them.
Bruce L. Jordan, in Murder in the Peach State, expresses confidence that Gary is the Columbus Stocking Strangler. “The evidence against Carlton Gary was strong,” he wrote. “To believe he is innocent, jurors would have to have believed that police had been planting evidence against him since 1970. It would have to have involved a collaboration between police in Albany, N.Y.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Albany, Ga; and Columbus, Ga. The strongest evidence that this is not the case is whenever Carlton Gary was confronted with the fact that his fingerprints were in the home of strangled women, he never claimed they had been planted. He always acknowledged his presence and pointed the finger at other men.” Jordan continues that Gary invariably accused “other black men” showing that the “loyalty that many African-Americans display towards each other apparently did not extend to Carlton Gary.”
Life On Death Row
In his years on death row, Gary has developed an artistic talent. According to Martin, “He’s a very good artist. He makes hand drawn Christmas cards and birthday cards for me and other people who work on his behalf. They are very good.”
Gary’s art has been exhibited in the prison. An individual who has visited Gary says he often draws pastels of musicians, cartoon characters, and scenes of everyday life among black Americans.
In 1996, Gary married a woman whom he met through a church group that makes visits to prisoners. His wife works in a health care field. He also adopted her daughter. According to someone who knows the family, his wife visits him several times each month and the couple have an easygoing rapport, despite the limitations imposed by his imprisonment. Gary is also said to be emotionally close to his adopted daughter.
Martin says Gary keeps busy in his cell on Georgia’s death row. “He does artwork,” Martin continues. “He spends a lot of time corresponding with people, staying in touch with his family and hoping eventually that he’ll be exonerated.”
Others believe Gary has little chance of exoneration. The Supreme Court of Georgia, the Superior Court of Butts County, Georgia, and the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia have upheld his convictions.
Among those who believe it likely Gary will keep a date with the executioner is William J. Smith, who led the prosecution. Jordan quotes him as telling the jury that if Carlton Gary does not deserve the death penalty, “it isn’t appropriate for anyone.”