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Investigator recalls catching serial killer soldier

Posted November 21, 2008
Updated November 23, 2008

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— More than two decades later, Jack Watts said, he still remembers many grisly details of Spc. Ronald Gray's string of murders in Fayetteville.

A former cook at Fort Bragg, Gray, 43, is scheduled to die next month in the Army's first execution in 47 years.

He pleaded guilty in 1987 to 22 felonies in Cumberland County, including two murders and five rapes, and was sentenced to life in prison. Because one of the women he killed was a soldier and another soldier was attacked on Fort Bragg and left for dead, a military court also convicted him in 1988 on 14 charges and sentenced him to death.

"He was a very cold, cold guy," said Jack Watts, an investigator in the Scotland County Public Defender's Office who was the lead homicide detective for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office in the mid-1980s. "We knew we had a bad guy on our hands."

Gray stalked at the Fairlane Acres Mobile Home Park near Fort Bragg, Watts said.

"At night, he was probably casing the neighborhood, picking his victims. That way, he could determine when the husbands would leave in the morning or when the ladies would be by themselves," he said.

Watts set up surveillance in the mobile home park. For days, he watched and waited with two exotic dancers whom Gray had attacked but later released.

"I'm sure he would have killed those two if they hadn't talked him out of it," he said.

On the January 1987 night that cab driver Kimberly Ruggles was raped and killed, Watts and his team got lucky.

"The young girls saw him walking through the park and told us, 'That's him,'" Watts said.

Since Gray's conviction and dishonorable discharge, he has been held at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. President Bush approved Gray's execution in July, and a Dec. 10 execution date was set on Thursday.

He will be executed by lethal injection at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind. Army personnel will be responsible for carrying out the execution based on an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Only 10 members of the military have been executed since 1951 when the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military's modern-day legal system, was enacted. The last of those was carried out in 1961.

Eight other people on the military's death row, including three others with ties to North Carolina. Camp Lejeune Marines Wade Walker and Kenneth Parker were convicted for premeditated murder, and Hasan Akbar was sentenced to die by a military panel at Fort Bragg for killing two troopmates in Kuwait.

Watts welcomed the news of Gray's upcoming execution.

"I think it's deserved, to be honest with you. There are some cases, maybe, I'd feel different about, but this one I don't," he said.

Gray had two legal options remaining to avoid his death sentence – filing a petition with a federal appellate court to stay the execution or requesting that the president reconsider his approval of the execution.


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