When I arrived in Columbus, Ga., the fear over the "stocking stranglings" had subsided.
From September 1977 through April 1978, seven elderly women were raped and murdered in their homes in Columbus' middle-class Wynnton neighborhood. Two other women survived the attacks. During the same period, the predominantly white area experienced several burglaries.
Fear and anxiety gripped the city as the murders continued. Columbus' police launched a task force, raised reward money, appealed for help from state and federal law enforcement agencies and began extensive 24-hour patrols. Yet, several more women were found slain in their beds, even after taking safety precautions. At last, the serial killings mysteriously stopped, and the city's terror receded.
Investigators found hairs at the crime scene linked to a black assailant, raising racial tensions in the city known as the home of Fort Benning and the insurance giant Aflec. The murders uncovered intense class divisions in a city changing from its textile mill economy.
Despite the frenzied police investigation, and mounting criticism from the Columbus Enquirer and Ledger, the then vibrant morning and afternoon newspapers, an arrest in the case was not made until 1984. After lengthy legal maneuvers and a grueling trial, the suspect, a black career criminal named Carlton Gary was convicted in 1986 of three of the murders and sentenced to death.
But repeated court appeals, including to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulted in Gary not being executed for the crimes until 2018.
Veteran author William Rawlings' "The Columbus Stocking Strangler," published by Mercer University Press, gives a comprehensive account of the stocking strangler murders, in which several of the women were strangled with their own stockings. The victims were also raped and brutally beaten.
Some readers might find Rawlings' detailed descriptions of the crime scenes too graphic, but they document for the historical record the brutality of the attacks. Although fingerprints and palm prints were found at some crime scenes, police were unable to make an arrest. Rawlings establishes that the suspect lived close to his victims' homes at the time of the slayings, eluding the police patrols.
Rawlings details how Gary was finally arrested through a chance link to a pistol stolen in one of the Wynnton burglaries independent of the murders. He closes the book with a thorough recounting of the 32-year legal battles that kept delaying Gary's execution.
With an in-depth account of the 1986 trial and Gary's subsequent appeals, Rawlings clearly explains complex legal issues. Despite a few awkward sentences and typographical errors, he delivers a compelling narrative.
Rawlings delves into findings by Vanity Fair investigative journalist David Rose that DNA and other evidence showed that Gary was not the killer. Rose made his case for Gary's innocence in the book called "The Big Eddy Club," named for an exclusive, all-white social club in Columbus.
While I plan to read Rose's book, Rawlings convincingly dispels Rose's claims and establishes that Gary was guilty of the murders.
When I came to Columbus for a job at the Columbus Enquirer, I lived in Wynnton, a neighborhood of charming architecture, family restaurants and small businesses similar to Atlanta's Virginia-Highland and Morningside.
Reading Rawlings book, I realized that I'd lived only blocks away from the Stocking Strangler's victims. The book made me regret that I never knew much about the case when I lived in Columbus, and deepened my understanding of the city where I spent several brief but formative years.
"The Columbus Stocking Strangler" gives a definitive history of the middle-sized Southern city's reckoning with one of America's most challenging murder cases.
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