Carlton Gary: The Stocking Strangler

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During an eight month period of time from September of 1977 to April of 1978, residents of Columbus, Georgia lived in fear as seven women were raped & strangled; often with their own stockings. These women were mothers & grandmothers, fellow church  members, neighbors & dear friends. They were all elderly white females who lived alone.

On Monday, September 12, 1977, in the Wynnton neighborhood of Columbus, Georgia, an elderly woman named Gertrude Miller was raped, beaten & strangled in her home; she survived the attack.

Four days later, at 10am on September 16th, police received a phone call that 59-year-old Mary “Fern” Jackson, hadn’t shown up for work that day. Fern was described as a reliable employee & someone who was dedicated to helping the poor & racial minorities of Georgia. Jesse Thornton was the first police officer to respond to the scene; he first noticed no sign of forced entry at Fern’s home. As he entered the hallway, the first space he came upon, he noticed that something didn’t seem right; papers & various items were strewn across the floor. He noticed an open suitcase & a pillow on the floor & a dresser that had the drawers open, items spilling out. 

As he  approached Fern’s bedroom, he looked inside & found her body on the bed. Dr Joe Webber conducted the autopsy & found a nylon stocking tied together with a dressing gown, making one single ligature, had been wrapped around Fern’s neck three times. Very deep crevasses were formed as the ligature had been tied very tightly. Her left eye had been filled with blood, likely from a heavy blow to her head. Fern’s right eye contained tiny hemorrhages, likely from strangulation. Dr Webber found her sternum to be fractured which requires enormous force to do. Traces of semen were found on the bedsheets & trauma was discovered to Fern’s vagina indicating that she had been raped.

Police were unable to pinpoint a motive to  Fern’s attack & murder; the house was in disarray though her valuables & jewelry were  left untouched.

Police investigating Fern’s murder would quickly come to find that a serial killer was on the loose in Columbus, Georgia. Eight days later, on September 24, 71-year-old Jean Dimenstein, who was the owner of a small department store, was murdered in her home, similarly to Fern Jackson. Neighbors say she voiced her fears about the news reports about someone targeting elderly females. The killer gained access by removing the hinges of the door leading from her garage to her kitchen.

On October 2, a man named Jerome Livas was arrested for raping & beating his 55-year-old girlfriend to death. On October 14, police announced that they had a suspect in the Stocking Stranglings after Jerome confessed to killing Fern & Jean. The elderly women of Columbus breathed a sigh of relief & police called off their area steakouts.

All would change when, on October 21st, 89-year-old Florence Scheible who was almost blind & got around with the use of a walker, was raped & murdered in her home. Despite her lack of vision & advanced age, she was often seen tending to the yard of her small apartment, she was an avid baseball fan & knew the players & their batting averages She had been brutally beaten, her neck was broken & she was strangled; her son found her body when he came by for a visit later that day; Florence was only ten days from her 90th birthday. 

It was obvious that Jerome Livas had falsely confessed & the citizens of Columbus were back in a state of terror.

Four days later, on October 25th, 69-year-old retired teacher Martha Thurmond was murdered. When she hadn’t shown up as expected to her mother-in-law’s house, her niece came to check on her. When she didn’t answer the door, she called the police who found that Martha had been strangled to death. 

On December 28th, 74-year-old Kathleen Woodruff, widow of former University of Georgia football coach, George C. Woodruff was found murdered with a varsity football scarf. Each victim lived only a few blocks from each other. 

With five women murdered & one survivor, the city was in a state of terror; sales of locks & firearms significantly increased. 

The police formed a “stocking stranglings task force” which was assigned by the governor; this included dozens of agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as well as extra patrols by state troopers & soldiers from Fort Benning. Despite this, the terror and murders only continued.

On February 12, 1978, 74-year-old Ruth Schwob, widow of a textile tycoon, was attacked though survived. She was trained in judo & fought her attacker & pressed a panic-alarm button in her home. When police arrived, the killer had just fled & already made their way to the home of 78-year-old Mildred Borom, two blocks away, and strangled her with the cord from her blinds. It was obvious that Mildred fought back, based on the chaos of the room. A neighbor had described seeing a black man run through his yard. Columbus coroner, Donald Kilgore had examined all the crime scenes & bodies & announced that the killer was a black male. 

Meanwhile, in February of 1978, Columbus police  received a threatening letter from a white racist group called the “Forces of Evil.” They threatened that if police didn’t catch the strangler by June 1st, they would murder a black woman in retaliation & specifically named Gail Jackson. They said she had already been kidnapped & was being held. When police investigated, they realized that Gail was actually missing. A second letter arrived, demanding $10,000 ransom. After investigating the letters, the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI realized that these letters were not from seven racist men though likely one black man. It was suspected that this person had already killed Gail, was an artilleryman or a military policeman & may have killed two other women, based on his writings.  They felt the letters were a ruse to divert attention from the real killer. Eventually, William Hance, an artilleryman from Fort Benning, was arrested for the murder of Gail Jackson; he confessed to writing the letters & to have killed two additional women though there was no link to him & the Stocking Strangler.

On April 20, 1978, eight months after the stranglings began, 61-year-old first grade teacher, Janet Cofer was strangled to death. Janet would normally have had her Dachshund named Buffy sleeping under her bed, though tragically, Buffy had been struck & killed by a car only weeks earlier.  This was the last murder that the strangler committed. 

A Columbus woman named Theda Cartwright reported her gun missing though police had no reason to link it to the stranglings. Her boyfriend was a man named Carlton Gary though she made no mention that she suspected that he took the gun. As the months & years passed, police were no closer to finding their killer; six years after Janet’s murder, no one had been charged. 

In 1996, Journalist David Rose researched Georgia’s handling of death-penalty cases & found that Columbus had sent more prisoners to death row than anywhere else in Georgia, despite their relatively low crime rate. There was also a long history of black men being killed for alleged  crimes against white people. In the late 19th & early 20th centuries, white racists in Georgia defended lynching as necessary & justified, especially in cases were black men were alleged to have sex with white women. In an 1897 Atlanta Journal column, Rebecca Latimer Felton wrote, “If it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening, human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week if it becomes necessary.” 

In June of 1912, 12-year-old Cleo Land was killed by a gunshot wound to the eye by his friend, 14-year-old T.Z. McElhaney, an African American boy. T.Z. said he was playing with the gun when it accidentally went off. An all-white jury found him guilty of manslaughter. Cleo Land’s father, Will, was not satisfied with this & he & Cleo’s uncles Brewster & Ed, took T.Z. from the courthouse & shot him between 25 & 50 times in  front of a crowd of people. This was the first trial held in Columbus where a white person stood trial for killing an African American. The all-white jury found the Land brothers not guilty; the decision was reached unanimously & without discussion. Brewster Land’s son John would become the first judge to handle the stocking strangler murder case. 

By May of 1984, John Land had been a judge for twenty years & was regarded as one of the most powerful men in Georgia.  In the late 1940s & early 1950s, he served in the state as an active segregationist. 

The case went cold for six years until a suspect was identified & captured. In March of 1984, a police officer was murdered during an armed robbery. This led to the identification of a type of pistol similar to one that was stolen in a burglary that happened at the time of the Stocking Strangler murders, only houses aways from one of the victim’s homes. Police traced the gun from Michigan to Indiana, Alabama & back to Columbus, Georgia. 

A man there said he purchased  the gun from his nephew, Carlton Gary during the time of the Strangler’s murders. Police ended up tracking Gary down at a Holiday Inn in Albany, Georgia. Once in custody, Carlton Gary confessed to being present at most of the crime scenes though claimed he was just there for the robbery & an accomplice named Malvin Crittendon did the killings. However, the victim’s belongings had not been taken so it was clear that robbery was not the motivation for the attacks.  When police tracked down Malvin, no evidence connected him to the murders.  During the night of Gary’s arrest, he was interrogated by detectives for eight hours though during this time, no notes or recordings were made.

Carlton Gary lived in Columbus, Georgia until he was thirteen; he had no relationship with his father & only lived with his mother part of his childhood. He frequently moved around, living with various family members.  he had been in trouble with the law since his teens though things escalated when he was tied to the rape & strangulation of 84-year-old named Nellie Farmer in 1970. Nellie was staying alone in a long-stay hotel in Albany, New York. Gary had told Albany police that he was only the lookout man for habitual criminal John Lee Mitchell. Gary testified against Mitchell though Mitchell was found not guilty. After pleading guilty to robbery charges, Gary was sentenced to ten years though released on parole after five years.

On June 7, 1975, 40-year-old teacher, Marion Fisher was found dead on a road outside Syracuse, New York; she had been raped & strangled. Around 2004, investigators reopened the case & discovered that the evidence was still suitable for DNA testing & an article from 2007 indicated that the DNA was officially tied to Carlton Gary.

On January 3, 1977, a 55-year-old woman named Jean Frost woke to a man in her bedroom doorway; he viciously attacked her though she survived. The next day, Carlton Gary was arrested at a Syracuse bank & was found with a gold watch that belonged to Jean Frost. He admitted that he went to her apartment complex though only stood as the lookout person for a friend. Jean was not able to identify Gary as her attacker & there was no direct physical evidence linking him to the attack; no one was ever charged.

Less than a month before the start of the stocking stranglings, Gary escaped from jail in August of 1977 in upstate New York where he had been in prison for burglary. He was a musician who played bass & keyboards in clubs across the northeast. During the time of the stranglings, he had been modeling clothes for the Movin’ Man which was a fashion store in downtown Columbus. He easily attracted women’s attention, appearing in local TV ads up to five times per night. Previous girlfriends described him as an attentive and absolutely normal lover. Gary lived in Columbus for about a year after the last murder. 

Columbus nightclub owner, Floyd Washington described Gary as a very neat, sharp dresser. He said he was a good  dancer & had no problem with the ladies, often leaving the club with a beautiful woman. He felt it didn’t add up that this would happen & he would leave her to go rape an elderly woman. 

Less than a week after Gary was arrested in relation to the stocking stranglings, he chose his own lawyer, August F. “Bud” Siemon III, an Atlanta defense specialist who had dodged the death penalty during a dozen capital trials. Because Georgia law said that the courts must give men on trial for their lives a lawyer, Siemon would be working for free if he chose to defend Gary as the court appointed a different lawyer.

Judge John Land removed himself from the case when it emerged that he would be called as a witness to Gary’s treatment by police. Judge Kenneth Followill took over & declared that the state would be given zero funds for experts to challenge its scientific testimony. They weren’t even able to make long-distance phone calls. Siemon covered the case’s expenses which led him to near bankruptcy. When Judge Land was interviewed in 2001 after he had long retired, he felt Judge Followill was wrong to deny Gary money for experts in order to have a fair trial. 

Gary’s trial began in August of 1986, 9 years after the last murder had been committed; police witnesses testified that Gary’s fingerprints had been found at four of the crime scenes. Gertrude Miller who survived the attack, identified Gary in court as the man who had raped her. Jean Frost testified & described how she had been attacked though live  to tell her story. 

Gary’s pubic hairs were compared to those found at the crime scenes & did not match. There were also biochemical differences between his bodily fluids & those left by the killer. The jury consisted of nine white members & three African-American. They began to deliberate at 5pm on August 26, 1986 & less than an hour later, they found him guilty on all counts. After a short sentencing hearing the next day, Gary was sentenced to death. He was convicted of killing 89-year-old Florence Scheible, 70-year-old Martha Thurmond & 74-year-old Kathleen Woodruff. He was not convicted of the murders of Fern Jackson, Jean Dimenstein, Martha Thurmond, Kathleen Woodruff or Janet Cofer as well as the murders that occurred in New York  in the early 1970s. They focused on the previous three murders because Gary’s fingerprints were found in those homes & Gary admitted to being inside. His fingerprints were also found at Nellie Farmer’s home in Albany, New York & he also admitted to being at this location.

In the fall of 1991, Gary sought a new trial & the case was assigned to Judge Daniel Coursey, a preacher in the United Methodist Church & Jeff Ertel represented Gary. Ertel said that he liked Gary immediately & as he got to know him, he liked him a lot. 

During the initial trial, survivor Gertrude Miller was considered a star witness & former DA Bill Smith had emphasized during closing statements to the jury that there was no way that Gertrude could have gotten her  identification wrong & that despite being shown thousands of photos, she had never accused anyone until she recognized Gary. This was later proven untrue & she had positively identified three other black men as the attacker & during her initial statement, Gertrude indicated that it was too dark to even identify the race of her attacker. The police sketches she assisted with were said to have no resemblance to Gary.

It was indicated  that the best fingerprint match from Gary came from a window screen from the home of Kathleen Woodruff though officers at the crime scene recorded that there were “no legible latents developed.” Meaning, no print marks were made visible when treated with chemical powder.

Other questions arose from Gary’s supposed confession. He claimed that he made no incriminating admissions & that his interrogation was taped. Detective Sellers continued to deny this, saying that the only record was made while he sat at his kitchen table at 4:30am on the night of the interrogation while he wrote Gary’s confession from memory. However, in the Columbus file, Ertel found what looked like early versions of Gary’s statement with tape recorder meter marks written in the margins. These versions suggested that Gary hadn’t admitted to being at the scenes of the crimes, not even as an accomplice as Malvin Crittenden committed the murders. 

Sellers testified that the meter marks did refer to a tape but they weren’t made while police questioned Gary, instead were from a recording he made of a meeting in his office before the trial when he went over the case  with detectives. He said  he destroyed these tapes soon after. 

Ertel was aware of the autopsy report that contained pictures of Janet Cofer’s body; Bud Siemon noted a deep bite mark on Janet’s left breast from the killer. Siemon lacked the funds to pay for an expert to compare these marks to Gary’s teeth & when he asked, funds were refused by Judge Followill. Ertel called on forensic dentist Thomas David, who he chose at random from Atlanta & Dr David said he wanted to speak with Ertel in person.

Dr David admitted that he  had seen the case as he was the person they showed the bite cast to. Ertel was stunned, he hadn’t known a bite cast existed. Dr David indicated that two months after Gary’s arrest, on July 6, 1984, Bill Smith & his assistant had come to see him & showed him a solid dental mold that had been taken from Janet’s body after it had been safely inflicted. The lower teeth showed distinctive crowding & Dr David said he instructed Bill Smith to get a dental impression from the suspect because it would prove or disprove that Gary was the attacker.

Despite the passing of nine years, Dr David was still troubled; Smith had asked Dr David whether even if Gary’s teeth didn’t match the cast, “I would testify that I could not necessarily eliminate that individual as a suspect. I said I could not.” Smith instead testified that he had not contacted Dr David again because the bite only showed impressions of the upper teeth. Despite being highly relevant evidence, the bite-mark evidence was not used during the initial trial. 

Ertel noted that Gary’s teeth, instead of showing crowding, were well spaced & even. The only dental work Gary had done since the strangelings occurred while he was in prison & the work was done to only his upper teeth. The dentist who treated him confirmed this as accurate.  

The bite-mark casting had been made by a dentist in Columbus, Dr Carlos “Sonny” Gallbreath.  Months before  the trial, Dr David called Dr Gallbreath who told him that he had the cast instead of the police keeping it in their guarded-exhibits store. In June of 1993, Ertel called Dr Gallbreath who thought he had it at his home though a few days later, he sounded apologetic when he let them know the mold had been either lost or destroyed. 

Ertel had tried to obtain semen swabs from the stranglings though he was told they had been destroyed. By 2006, Ertel felt that Gary’s state habeas appeal was the strongest he had seen though on November 13, 1995, Judge Coursey issued a ten-page decision denying the appeal. He gave no reasons for rejecting the fresh evidence. 

Gary had one opportunity left; a second habeas petition. At the time of the stranglings, DNA testing techniques had not yet been invented though secretor typing could be determined. Four fifths of the population are “secretors” meaning chemical markers are secreted in their saliva, semen or other fluids that show their blood group. Group O secretors would be someone type O blood.

Semen tests at the murder scenes of Ferne Jackson, Florence Scheible & Martha Thurmond showed that the strangler was a less common, “non-secretor” that contained only miniscule traces of the group O marker. Gary’s saliva had been obtained during his arrest & showed that he was an O secretor, along with 40% of the population.

During the trial, forensic serologist John C Wegel insisted that despite the discrepancy, Gary couldn’t be eliminated, arguing that it’s possible that the killer had not really been a non-secretor but could have been a “weak-secretor.” Tests done on Gary’s saliva showed that he was a very strong secretor, producing much higher concentrations of the chemical marker than the killer had. Wegel testified that it’s possible that his saliva was different from his semen which had never been tested. He also indicated that it’s possible that his levels changed over the years: “Periodically, if you would test someone over a given amount of time, you will see the titre of concentration can in fact fluctuate.” Due to a lack of funding, Gary’s trail attorney couldn’t challenge this testimony. 

Journalist David Rose went to Dr David Roberts, a consultant hematologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital near his home in Oxford, England. He read the documents of the trial relating to serology.  Dr Roberts was baffled by the reports & also found that they were incomplete. There was no evidence to back up the theory that Gary secreted much less in his semen vs. saliva because not only had his semen not been tested in the first place, but semen invariably contains higher concentrations of the marker chemicals than saliva. There was also a gap in Wegel’s original lab notes. He told the court that he performed two separate tests on the crime-scene semen: Absorption-inhibition & absorption-elution. Roberts indicated that these were very different tests & the correct to use in a rape case was absorption-inhibition. It is relatively insensitive & wouldn’t detect the very low level marker chemicals left behind by a non-secretor. On the other hand, absorption-elution is 100 times more sensitive & could give a “false-positive” finding in a weak secretor when in reality, they were not. Wegel rejected Dr Robert’s analysis.

Dr Roberts questioned if Wegel ended up using both tests because absorption-inhibition came back negative, indicating that the killer was a non-secretor, thereby concluding that Gary was not the killer. He speculated that Wegel had then moved on the absorption-elution test which did identify the very low chemical levels that indicated the killer could be a weak secretor. Dr Roberts would need to see Wegel’s lab notes from 1977 to 1978 but they appeared to be missing; the state never turned them over.

A request was filed to review Wegel’s lab worksheets but those from the Florence Scheible & Martha Thurmond murders couldn’t be located though those from Fern Jackson were found. These quickly confirmed Dr Robert’s suspicions; Wegel hadn’t found any traces of chemical markers when the preferred, absorption-inhibition test was done. On the hypersensitive absorption-elution test, , very low levels showed up. Dr Roberts determined: “It is my firm opinion that Mr Gary is excluded as a possible donor of the stains believed to be semen in the Jackson case.” Wegel stood by his evidence, insisting that the absorption-elution test is not hypersensitive & the worksheets did not suggest that Gary was excluded at all. 

The missing lab worksheets from the tests from the semen from Florence Scheible & Martha Thurmond were located at the G.B.I lab & another expert serologist, Rodger Morrison from Alabama took the place of Dr Roberts who was unable to travel to Georgia.  Morrison knew of no case where secretion was less in a person’s semen vs. saliva & that available literature also indicates that secretor status does not change significantly over time. He suggested that Gary’s semen be tested to confirm that he is  a strong secretor.

In 2001, a semen sample & a strand of hair from Gary’s head was obtained. Once received, the DNA from the hair root was matched to the semen & then the semen was tested & determined that the donor was an O secretor & that he was not a low-level secretor, elaborating that it was inconceivable that  someone secreting such high concentrations could ever be classified as a “weak secretor” earlier in his life. The concentration of  the blood-group marker in Gary’s semen was more than 3,000 times higher than the stranglers.

On June 29, 2001, Judge Lawson denied the defense’s request to test Gary’s semen & denied that the independently arranged test be denied to consider. When journalist David Rose ended up speaking with Dr Gallbreath who did the cast of the bite mark from Janet Cofer, he admitted that he was told by DA Doug Pullen that he could not show the cast that he said is absolutely still in existence; he had given it to Columbus coroner, Donald Kilgore in 1993. On follow-up, the cast could not be located.He did remember that the strangler’s upper front teeth were rotated at 20 degrees or more out of alignment. Gary worked as a model & had perfectly straight teeth.

Part of the cast showing a wide gap & misaligned top teeth

By 2004, Judge Clay Land was now Columbus’s federal judge & he felt that despite the serology & bite mark discrepancies, he was not convinced that the jury would come to a different verdict. Gary filed an appeal in response to this & during this time, the missing bite cast was located & in 2006, forensic dentist, Dr David, again inspected the cast & determined that Carlton Gary was excluded beyond a reasonable doubt as the man who bit Janet Cofer.

Also, in October of 2006, retired special agent with the GBI in the 1970s came forward to say that during his investigation of the crime scene of the home of Ruth Schwob, who survived the strangler’s attack, they found a footprint on an A/C unit that the killer used to climb through the kitchen window. The shoe size was a 9.5 or 10 which is four sizes smaller than Gary’s feet. Her description of her attacker was “small & muscular.” Gary is 6’3” & largely built. The shoe sizes looped back around to the murder of Nellie Farmer in Albany, NY; the killer left size 9 shoe prints on her bathroom mat. 

Another question was the lack of photos of prints left behind at the crime scenes; such photos are routine procedure, even at minor, burglary cases. Fingerprints from the crime scene of Gary’s robbery in 1979 were compared with the strangler’s prints & no match was found.

In December 2009, with four hours to spare on the day of Gary’s planned execution, the Georgia Supreme Court stopped it & ordered the court in Columbus to consider the DNA evidence. Motions for a retrial were denied and Carlton Gary was executed on Thursday, March 15, 2018 via lethal injection as family members of the victims watched, only feet away in the observation room. He made no final statements, rejected the offer of prayer and refused his final meal. Outside, 18 protesters stood by. 


  1. npr: The FBI Investigator Who Coined The Term ‘Serial Killer’
  2. Wikipedia: Mindhunter
  3. Wikipedia: Serial killer
  4. A&E: Serial Killer Carlton Gary Terrorized Columbus, Georgia by Strangling Women With Stockings
  5. Vanity Fair: Seeds of Doubt
  6. Crime Library: Carlton Gary: The Columbus, Georgia Stocking Strangler
  7. The Atlanta Journal Constitution 
  8. The New York Times: DNA Ties Death Row Inmate to 1975 Killing in Syracuse 

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