Serial killers were supposed to do their evil in Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago. Columbus, Ga., was Colonel Chick, Katie the Cow, Miss Patsy, Wednesday night wrestling, Rozell Fabiani, Wells Dairies, Weracoba Park and the Water Wiz.
During a phone conversation with a long-time friend Thursday night, the light bulb went off in my mind. “Do you realize I was 23 when Carlton Gary started his reign of terror?” I rhetorically asked.
Carlton Gary (a/k/a The Stocking Strangler) was executed by lethal injection Thursday night in Jackson, Ga. Thus ends one of the longest stays on death row in the history of the Peach State. Gary’s demise may mean the final chapter of a grievous story. Yet, for those of us who lived through his months as a domestic terrorist, the story will never depart our minds.
Forty-one years ago, I was in my sophomore year as a Columbus anchor and reporter. Only three weeks earlier, I moved from WRBL to WTVM.
As a little boy who lived between 1956 and 1961 in the parsonage of Sherwood Methodist Church on 35th Street, the idea of one man striking terror into our city was unthinkable. People kept their doors unlocked in the daytime. Men left toolboxes in their yards without fear of theft. Kids walked or rode bikes to school.
When a police monitor blared out a suspicious call on a Friday afternoon in September 1977, none of us on the Action 9 News team had a clue we were about to experience the first chapter of a real life murder mystery.
Because most of us were editing other stories for the 7 o’clock newscast, Mitzi Oxford—who had just moved into the role as WTVM’s lead weathercaster—went to the scene.
Ferne Jackson, sister-in-law of the former state senator and future Columbus mayor Harry Jackson, was found dead—-strangled to death with a nylon stocking. Ms. Jackson was 60. A debate ensued in our newsroom and with other media in town as to whether the word “elderly” should be used as a descriptive adverb for Ms. Jackson.
At the time, we did not have a weekend newscast on WTVM but general manager Lynn Avery was concerned enough that he made a rare appearance onto our set during a commercial break.
Addressing my co-anchor and news director Kathy Pepino, Avery asked: “Are you going to commission people to be on call in case something else happens?” Kathy assured him she had things under control. Avery was oblivious to the fact that he was still talking to us on live television, back turned to the camera, when the break ended.
I checked in Saturday morning. Kathy gave me the okay to go on to Auburn with my buddy John Hamilton. We saw the Tigers take one on the chin against Southern Mississippi 24-13. We talked a bit about Ferne Jackson’s murder on the drive back to Columbus. Mostly, John griped about Auburn coach Doug Barfield’s playcalling.
Eight days later, I was called early on Sunday morning. The fear was a second woman had been strangled to death. A production videographer met me near Cross Country Plaza in front of the home of 71-year-old Jean Dimenstein. Neighbors nervously walked around their yards amidst a plethora of police cars.
Realtor Charlie Morgan’s wife agreed to talk on camera. She said, “What’s going on in our town? We’re all scared to death.” As much as I was glad to have the comment for my story, I questioned Ms. Morgan’s wisdom in offering it.
I talked to a couple of police officers. They were reluctant to say anything. One, however, told me Ms. Dimenstein’s murder fit the same pattern as did Ms. Jackson’s.
Eventually, I was sent to four of the crime scenes. With each passing one, I became more emotionally nauseous. Every time we heard certain codes on that police monitor, we questioned if this would be another murder. Five more times, it was.
Over the next several months, I saw the best and worst of journalism in Columbus. I also saw and heard the best and worst in our community.
The strong suit in Columbus media during those horrific months was relentlessness. Police Chief Curtis McClung, a man I genuinely respected, was old school when it came to answering reporters’ questions about the murders. He favored saying nothing.
Ultimately, the leadership of the Columbus Press Club—-which was headed by Ledger-Enquirer reporter David Everett at the time—-forced the hand of Chief McClung. David Hopkins, a former WRBL reporter with law enforcement experience, was hired as public information officer for the Columbus Police Department.
Prayer vigils for the community and Sunday sermons addressing the rampant fear were on the rise. As one who was a pastor’s son and understood the devout religious life in Columbus, I convinced Kathy that we needed to do a series of reports on the role of the church in helping the community through the crisis. One of the first of the citywide services of unity was at nearby Wynnton United Methodist Church. Little did those in attendance realize one of that church’s own would eventually be a victim.
Religion reporting is one of the most glaring deficits in local television newsrooms across the nation. In 1978, the first of my 13 Associated Press awards for reporting was for that series on the church as a solace in a time of community crisis.
At times, we were sent on assignments that made us uncomfortable. My videographer Lee Davis and I were sent to cover the burial service of one of the victims. While we stayed at a considerable distance from the tent to shoot our footage, we could not escape the wrath of mourners who were aghast at our presence.
One woman, intent on giving me a piece of her mind, railed. “You news people have no heart, no concern, no compassion for these people,” she said. “The very idea of you showing up with a camera when this family is grieving. I want you to know how I feel.”
As we drove away, Lee and I both expressed our misgivings. “You know, a funeral service and a burial are a private thing,” Lee said. “Aren’t you supposed to ask for permission to shoot video at something like that?” I agreed.
“I didn’t like the way that lady chewed us out,” I said, “but I don’t blame her for being upset. We just showed up.”
When we returned to the newsroom, we made the request not to be sent to any more funeral services or internments unless the victim’s family had given us permission. I made that a policy several years later when I became a news director, even if every one of my colleagues disagreed with that decision.
At one point after the fourth strangling, I encountered my friend and former WRBL colleague David Eisen at a pizza restaurant. We discussed having been mutually warned by police to examine the inside of our cars at night before entering them.
“I don’t unlock my door until I check the back seat and the passenger’s side up front,” David told me.
I followed the same procedure. Concerns had been shared with us by some authorities that this serial killer might try to go after a journalist. Reason existed to believe that he fit the profile of one who would watch news coverage of his exploits. If he became angered at the reports, he could take his ire out on a newscaster.
Another debate ensued in the community and within newsrooms after the third murder over use of the label “The Stocking Strangler.” Many callers were upset at the reference. One scoured me about it on the phone.
“We don’t need to be compared with The Boston Strangler in Columbus, Georgia,” he said. “All you’re doing is giving him more spotlight. Don’t you have anything better to do than that?” That was one of the nicer calls.
For a while, we compromised on a reference to “The Columbus Strangler,” but national media outlets, especially ABC News, solidified the name “Stocking Strangler” to our unknown villain.
The worst of our community erupted after retired teacher Martha Thurmond’s murder. To a degree, the people who participated in a semi-witch hunt might have been forgiven because the entire city was desperate for an arrest.
One evening, between our 7 and 11 o’clock newscasts, we fielded approximately 600 calls in the WTVM newsroom. A rumor spread like wildfire that led to people fingering a young man as the strangler and accusations toward journalists that we were protecting him. The scuttlebutt followed a predictable pattern. People knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the young man was the killer because he once was treated for emotional illness.
One of many calls I took went something like this: “Y’all all know who did it. Every last one of y’all know who did it but y’all are just covering up for him because his Daddy was a big name.” Daddy, in this case, was a recently deceased Columbus television executive.
Many amateur armchair detectives put two and two together. Their equation added up to an answer of eight but for about a month, a significantly vocal element in Columbus were certain the man’s son was the killer. No rational or reasoned argument would convince them otherwise. Even a man in my church insisted we were covering up the strangler’s identity.
Thank goodness social media did not exist 41 years ago. The new generation of conspiracy theorists have raised the same name again online in recent weeks.
One of our women reporters, whom I considered to be a tough cookie and still do, took a call one night from a most irrational viewer who accused her and our entire news team of creating unnecessary hysteria. The caller, a woman, called our reporter an unprintable name and engaged in a personal attack. I never saw my colleague emotionally break down before or after that night but she exploded in tears.
We were all accused of attempting to use the story of the Stocking Strangler to further our personal careers. One man let me know in no uncertain terms at a school Halloween carnival where I was judging costumes.
“You’re just sensationalizing everything so you can go to New York,” the man, who never introduced himself, said. “I don’t know how I could live with myself the way you go on and on about these murders every night.”
I offered an edited number of those reactions for a column in 2004 in Electronic Media magazine titled, “The Viewers Don’t Always Get It Right.”
Not only were we not looking to go to New York, more than one of us pondered whether we might consider an alternate career. The emotional toll was enormous on all but the most emotionless of journalists. I often entered the newsroom at WTVM at 2:30 in the afternoon dreading the prospect of having to inform viewers of yet another murder. In that day, no one considered the novel idea of employing mental health counselors to help reporters decompress. We could have hugely benefited from their therapy in 1978.
On a weekend trip home to Kingsland, Ga., I discussed the prospect of getting out of TV news with my father. He gave me his usual wise advice. “If you want to do that, just be sure it’s not because you’re running from it,” he said. “But you’re going to find it’s not easy in any other job you do, even in the church.”
My father, Rev. F.J. Beverly Jr., knew of which he spoke. He dealt with at least a couple of troublesome congregations in his years as a pastor.
We had one brief moment of celebration during those eight exasperating months. On a Saturday morning in February 1978, I was called to a home in the same radius where six of the seven murders occurred. Ruth Schwob was a prominent resident of Columbus. In her late seventies, Ms. Schwob did not even stand five feet tall. Physically, she was as fit as any woman her age. That fact saved her life.
At approximately 3 a.m., Ms. Schwob heard a noise outside her bedroom. In the darkness, she sensed a figure approaching. At the moment the intruder would likely have wrapped a nylon stocking around her throat, she took a desperation swing and popped her invader in the jaw. That gave her a split second to hit a bedside button that triggered a loud burglar alarm. Carlton Gary ran.
One sensed the 200,000 residents of Columbus collectively standing as one to applaud Ruth Schwob. At 2 o’clock that afternoon, Ms. Schwob spoke with me briefly. She managed a smile and thankfulness that she escaped a fatal attack.
WTVM still did not have a weekend newscast. Television in markets such as Columbus was still a few years away from live remote units. Lynn Avery opted to open up three minutes at 7 p.m. for a special report on Ruth Schwob’s survival. I taped an open and close and narrated video of the police presence and gathering of people around Ms. Schwob’s home, inserting her brief comments. I have no idea how Lynn arrived at a decision on adjusting commercial content in “Gunsmoke,” which we aired from 7 to 8 p.m.
Our sudden joy was about to turn sour. The next afternoon, we were startled to learn that yet another victim had been claimed by The Stocking Strangler. Only two blocks down the street from Ruth Schwob’s home, another woman in her late seventies—Mildred Borom—was found dead. Police were certain the strangler went to Ms. Borom’s home immediately after he was scared away from Ms. Schwob’s. The coroner placed time of death at approximately 3:45 a.m. the previous morning.
One visitor we saw frequently in Columbus was Bob Sirkin, the Atlanta correspondent for ABC News. At one point, he was almost adopted as a member of Action 9 News when he came to town to file reports on the strangler. One day, Bob showed us his technique of doing standups in his reports. He recorded his transition on a small cassette recorder, attached an earphone inside his right ear and repeated what he heard himself saying on tape when he reported on camera. I tried it twice and gave it up. Saying what I was just saying on a recording created a distracting echo effect for me. Nonetheless, Bob was a generous guy and once told us, “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you people to be doing this night after night with the whole city up in arms.”
At one point in 1978, I faced an encounter with my general manager which grew testy. An old friend from college, Nadine Stewart—who later went on to work for NBC News and CNN—called me from Jacksonville. Calling on behalf of her news director, Nadine asked if it were possible for me to do a story for WJXT on the effect of the stranglings on the city of Columbus. My new boss Dave Richardson okayed it with the caveat that I not neglect my work for our newscasts. I used a lot of file tape and soundbites from interviews which I had saved. I shot one fresh standup closer. I edited the piece in about an hour one evening after my workday was over.
The story aired on the Saturday night edition of Eyewitness News on WJXT, which Nadine anchored. A little more than a week later, I was blindsided by Lynn Avery when I came into the building at WTVM for work.
“Do you have any explanation for this?” Lynn asked.
He immediately presented me with an envelope addressed to me on a WJXT mailing label. “How many more of these am I going to expect to see? How many more stations are you applying to? Do you dislike it so much here that you’re trying to get out?” he questioned.
I was utterly stunned. To be candid, WJXT was a station I grew up watching from the third grade through college. Had I ever been offered an opportunity to work there, I would have seriously considered it. I had no offer. I had sought no job. I loved WTVM and Columbus because the city was one of my two hometowns. The envelope contained the tape on which I had done the story on the Stocking Strangler as a favor to Nadine.
“Why don’t we go in Dave’s office and I think you’ll have proof that this was not an audition tape?” I told Lynn with a combination of irritation and trepidation. Our boss had largely treated me well but he also had a reputation for a quick trigger on employees. Lynn was also paranoid about the job section in Broadcasting magazine. For a period, he ripped out the employment pages before he released the publication for station consumption.
Dave Richardson confirmed that he had cleared me to do the story for WJXT and that, to his knowledge, I was not looking for another job. Lynn left but exited with a mild warning that he never wanted to see another tape with another station’s mailing label addressed to me.
When Janet (Cindy) Cofer became the final victim of The Stocking Strangler in the spring of 1978, we had no way of knowing she was the last. For months, we continued to work as if we had a perpetual police radio going off in our ears.
Reporters came and went over the next three years at WTVM. Gradually, our attention drifted to other community issues. In 1980, my colleague Andy Still and I collaborated on a documentary on political interference in public safety in Columbus. A fire captain named Jeff Amerson became the central figure in the controversy. Fire department whistleblower Frankie Fussell dramatically revealed in sworn testimony the demands of a mysterious orthopedic surgeon who ordered that the fire chief and several senior fire supervisors “have got to go.” Andy and I were nominated for a DuPont-Columbia Award for that 90-minute documentary.
Eventually, I made a difficult decision to leave Columbus in late 1981. Over the next two years, I made stops in Mississippi, in Spartanburg, S.C. (as assistant news director at WSPA) and Savannah, Ga.
In May 1984, I was in my first week as news director of WWAY in Wilmington, N.C. My phone rang shortly before noon.
“Are you sitting down?” the voice asked. I knew immediately the caller was Andy Still, who was now anchor at WSAV in Savannah.
“They’re having a police convention here and I went out to have coffee with (then Columbus police chief) Jim Wetherington,” Andy said. “He was called to the phone. When he came back, he said, ‘Looks like I’m going to have to leave early. That call was about an arrest in Albany. They think this may be the strangler.’ ”
For once, a name could be attached to the most infamous individual crime wave in Columbus history. Carlton Gary would be extradited to Columbus. Two years later, he stood trial and was convicted of the murders of three of the women he was suspected of killing.
I finally left daily television news in 1992 to become a college professor of broadcast journalism. My parents retired to their native city of Waycross, Ga.
As the years rolled on, the conversation during visits to Columbus or Waycross would periodically revert to Carlton Gary. At times, adjectives such as “despicable” and “vile” would be among the kinder ones to refer to the convicted Stocking Strangler.
As the years evolved into decades, residents in Columbus who had lived through the nightmare became weary with the legal system. Appeal after appeal, motion after motion for a new trial, and attempts to challenge evidence from the original trial dragged on five, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 years after his convictions. Twice over those years, I was asked to be a contributor to local news retrospectives on the stranglings and Gary.
Sure, people with adamant views against capital punishment held to their stand that even the most heinous of murders should not be punished with death. Yet, when I returned for visits to Columbus to see family, friends or old colleagues, the prevailing view was of frustration that Carlton Gary was still alive.
Today, I supervise a daily newscast produced and anchored by my students at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Many times, when the situation is appropriate, I have woven stories for them about the odyssey of The Stocking Strangler. Usually, those tales are in answer to the question of what was the most difficult story I ever reported.
Many people in the television audience have the misguided perception that journalists thrive on violence and death. In their minds, a serial killer is fodder for a career to skyrocket and for ratings to soar. Success at the hands of murder is the perception of some segments of the audience to journalists and television news.
My answer to that is for anyone to try measuring the many, many nights we left WTVM after the 11 o’clock news, arrived at our individual homes or apartments and could not sleep well. Our worries were the same as the community’s as a whole. I was a member of a church that had a number of senior-aged women who could easily have been targets.
Thursday night, as I watched the live reports from Jackson on both WTVM and WRBL on my Roku television set, I was struck by a stark notion. None of the reporters assigned to cover the execution of Carlton Gary were even born when his rampage began. They know what they have researched or been told about his dark mark on Columbus history. Yet, they didn’t live it. Emotionally, they have no idea what those months were like.
The word “closure” is almost becoming a reporting cliche. I may add it to Twitter’s @TiredTVTerms. I counted at least twelve times on Columbus stations Thursday night that reporters used sentences to the effect, “The execution of Carlton Gary will finally bring closure for the families and close friends of the victims.” At one point, I said, “Will it?” The popular perception today is that a conviction or an execution brings an end to the story. Contemporary media perpetuates that idea. With something as despicable as Carlton Gary’s mindless acts, the story may end for those writing the book. Emotionally, closure never comes for people who lived through the fear and torment.
Two generations have passed since Carlton Gary first struck terror on a Friday afternoon in 1977. All of the victims would now be more than 100 years old were they still alive. A number of the seven women’s children have left us. The grandchildren and great grandchildren no longer have to live with the worry of whether their ancestor’s killer will live or die. Many of those who were the absolute closest to the victims left this earth without having any closure.
For those of us who lived, worked, reported, and feared those eight horrific months in 1977 and 1978, we can never truly close the door. No, closure is not an accurate word. Too many of us still want to ask the one question that will forever stump us about Carlton Gary: why? That answer now goes with him to his grave.