Public Hysteria Rocked Columbus During the Stocking Strangling Murders

The Stocking Strangler stories sent Columbus  TV news ratings through the roof. The newscast I was anchoring, the 7 p.m. on WRBL, which was then easily the dominant newscast in the Chattahoochee Valley, got its highest ratings ever.  But, I wanted it to end.  I wanted the perpetrator of such heinous crimes to be caught and for it to be over.  High ratings didn’t compensate for the toxic atmosphere in the community at the time.

The Columbus area was in a state of hysteria.   Not only elderly women – all of the victims were elderly women – were terrified, but so were their relatives and friends.  Burglar bars were installed all over town, but especially in the Wynnton area.  Children insisted that their mothers who were living alone move in with them. Some did. Some didn’t.  

This hysteria caused a great deal of anxiety for one young man.  The son of a  prominent TV personality was rumored to be a suspect.  I would get nasty calls from people about it. “You know who is doing this and you’re just covering it up!” one woman told me on the phone.  I didn’t know any such thing.  It got so bad that Police Chief Curtis McClung,  in a talk to the Rotary Club of Columbus,  said  the young man was not a suspect.  Turns out that he was out of town when some of the murders occurred.  It really took a toll on him.  He later told me how traumatic it got for him.   

Covering the Stocking Strangling story sent me to the hospital.  I got so upset when I couldn’t get any information at the scene of one of the attacks, that I evidenced heart attack symptoms.  My photographer, alarmed at my symptoms, urged me to go to the emergency room.  I did and was admitted to cardiac care.  The Ledger-Enquirer ran a story that I was being treated for a heart attack.  That generated a slew of get-well cards that I appreciated, but it turned out to be hyperventilation.  Coincidentally, one of the detectives on the case was also admitted the same day for the same problem.

I was interviewing a police official one day when he shared with me the strain that  it was putting on him.  The public pressure on the police department to put a stop to the killing was very intense.  He opened his desk drawer, reached in and pulled out and showed me a bottle of  Valium, the most used tranquilizer of the time.

When the murders stopped,  I was quite happy to go back to lower ratings.  It was an exciting story to cover, but excitement is not necessarily a good thing.

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