Plans to execute killer Ronald Gray offer some relief to victims' families
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: December 29, 2016
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Ronald Gray will die.
A little more than 30 years after the former soldier's first victims were found in Fayetteville, a federal judge earlier this month cleared the way for the Army to execute the convicted murderer and rapist who once terrorized his neighborhood near Bonnie Doone.
Pending additional appeals by Gray's lawyers, the longest-serving inmate on the military's death row will likely be put to death at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana - the same facility where, in 2001, terrorist Timothy McVeigh was executed for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
A spokesman at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Gray is being held at the U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks, said an execution date has not been set.
But even without a set date, the news of progress in the case - which lingered in the courts for eight years since President George W. Bush approved Gray's execution in 2008 - offers some relief to the families of Gray's victims.
"This is life-changing news," said Honey Rosalie Schlehuber, the younger sister of Tammy Cofer Wilson, one of Gray's victims.
"We've been waiting for years," Schlehuber said.
She talked with The Fayetteville Observer from near the family home in Chickasha, Oklahoma.
Wilson, then 18 years old, was found nude, raped and murdered in a wooded area near the Fairlane Acres Mobile Home Park off Santa Fe Drive on Dec. 12, 1986.
The crime was linked to Gray during the investigation of another murder and a series of rapes. Eventually, Gray was convicted in military and civilian courts of raping several women and killing four - Wilson, cab driver Kimberly Ann Ruggles, Army Pvt. Laura Lee Vickery-Clay and Campbell University student Linda Jean Coats.
Gray, who lived in Fairlane Acres and served as an Army cook, was convicted and sentenced to death in a Fort Bragg court-martial in 1988.
He also pleaded guilty to 22 felonies in civilian courts, including two of the murders and five rapes.
For those crimes, a civilian judge sentenced him to eight life sentences.
Schlehuber said she was 12 years old when her older sister left Oklahoma for Fayetteville.
Wilson was young and in love, she recalled. She was married to a Fort Bragg soldier, then-Pvt. Troy D. Wilson.
Pvt. Wilson found his wife's body, according to the family, and 30 years later, still doesn't sleep well.
"I was in the back of the house when I heard my entire family scream and cry," Schlehuber said. "It was so loud, all the screams. I will never, ever forget the cries as my mom and dad found out what happened to her."
In the decades since, the family has handled Wilson's murder in different ways.
Schlehuber said her mother still fights off nightmares. Some members of the family lie about what happened to Wilson. They have told people that their sister died in an automobile accident because they couldn't speak of the murder without bursting into tears.
"This is not just something you get over. It's having to lie to someone when they ask what happened to your sister," Schlehuber said. "To this day I can't speak of it without tears."
There's evidence that Wilson fought her attacker. Her family said she did the best she could before Gray shot and killed her.
The family, too, has had to fight.
"We have struggled, my entire family has struggled for 30 years," Schlehuber said.
Childhoods were lost, she said. Some members of the family turned to drugs to mask the pain.
"She was a sweet, kind girl," Schlehuber said of her sister. "She made our family laugh. She was what held this family together."
Wilson's death rocked the foundation of the close-knit family, she said.
"She was just a baby," an emotional Schlehuber said. "It's still to this day - even though it's been so many years - it's so much pain."
Members of the Cofer family said they lost touch with the investigators who helped put Gray behind bars. Now they depend on news reports to update them on the case.
They learned that Gray's stay of execution had been lifted from an Observer report days before Christmas.
After an eight-year legal battle, a federal judge in Kansas ruled the stay was no longer in affect and denied Gray's request to further block the military from moving forward with the death sentence.
The same judge dismissed Gray's federal petition for relief in late October, saying that Gray's lawyers failed to establish evidence of error or injustice.
The Cofer family said the news came as a relief.
"We thought it was over then," Schlehuber said of 2008, when Gray was originally set to be executed.
She said the family doesn't understand how any judge could let the case linger on any longer and said she hoped her sister's killer would soon get what he deserves.
"He ruined our family's lives. We've been through so much," she said. "He needs to go and meet his maker. He needs to pay for what he's done."
There is debate within the family on whether Gray should be killed, or "continue to rot in prison."
But the latter is too good for a man who Schlehuber described, simply, as "evil."
"I don't feel like he should live," she said. "He's so evil. It's just wrong. I would like to go and see him actually take his last breath."
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org