Shortly after 7 A.M. on March 23, 1998, the serial murderer known as Gerald Stano took his seat in Florida’s electric chair. Loved ones of the 22 victims Stano had been convicted of killing sat nearby on the other side of a glass wall, there to witness his last moments. Stano flashed them a sideways smile.
The executioner flipped the switch. “Old Sparky” did its thing. At 7:15, the physician on duty declared Gerald Stano dead. He had been 46.
Stano’s final words came by way of his legal team the day he died. He stated: “I am innocent. I am frightened. I was threatened and I was held month after month without any real legal representation. I confessed to crimes I did not commit.”
Nobody, at least on that day, wanted to hear it.
There ended the life of a man born into tragedy who, in turn, multiplied and inflicted other tragedies on the world around him. Stano suffered unspeakably early on, but the atrocities he committed as an adult tended to negate any sympathy he may have garnered.
In 1951, Gerald Stano was born Paul Zeininger in Schenectady, New York, to a disturbed mother who horrifically abused him. When she finally put the baby up for adoption at 13 months, he was barely recognized as human. Doctors described the sick and severely malnourished baby as operating at “an animalistic level.” He had been eating his own feces to survive. Experts didn’t think the boy could live outside an institution.
Regardless, kindhearted local couple Eugene and Norma Stano felt a connection to the baby and successfully adopted him, changing his name to Gerald Stano. By all accounts, the Stanos acted as warm, dedicated parents. Still, the damage done to Gerald came off as irrevocable early on, as he always in trouble and showed almost no impulse control.In addition, other children bullied the physically awkward and emotionally off-balance Stano with sadistic relentlessness. He was unable to complete high school until he was 21. Discipline issues proved constant, and Stano regularly got arrested as a youth, but never convicted. His anger continually compounded.
In particular, Stano resented females. He attempted to overcompensate by bluffing up a macho image, frequently boasting, “I’m the real Italian Stallion!” Of course, Stano also then took to murdering females, too.
Despite the adolescent dust-ups with local cops, Stano stayed below anyone’s radar until he was 29. That changed in March 1980, when a woman named Donna Hensley ran into a police station bleeding. She said she was a prostitute and that a client had just sliced her up, and she wanted him found. A detective traced the john’s license plates to Gerald Stano.
Once they had Stano, the police asked him about the murder of Mary Carol Maher, a 20-year-old whose rotting remains had been discovered the previous month. Stano confessed to the killing.
He said he’d picked up Maher while she was hitchhiking, put his hand on her leg, and proposed sex. She laughed in his face. Stano stabbed Maher repeatedly there in the front seat and ditched her body in the woods.
Several weeks later, the skull of missing sex worker Tonni Van Haddocks turned up in a garden. Stano admitted to orally raping and then murdering her, too. Suddenly, Stano had a lot to say, largely summed up by how he described his attitude toward women: “I hate a b–chy chick!”
In short order, Stano confessed to 41 murders in multiple states. At one point, authorities suspected he might have actually slain 80 women in total. He provided multiple details that only the killer would know and he seemed to enjoy dishing out the gruesome details. When asked how he could have committed so many horrors over so long a period, Stano reportedly replied, “You have to pace yourself.”
While cops closed cold cases across the country, Stano said his first kill occurred in New Jersey in 1969. He claimed to have killed six other women in Pennsylvania, then moved on to Florida, where he may have murdered 30 or more. Stano admitted to nine slayings in Florida, one of which — the 1973 stabbing of 17-year-old hitchhiker Cathy Lee Scharf — got him the death penalty.
After serving three years, Stano (along with his fellow monstrous Florida inmate Ted Bundy) received an indefinite stay of execution in 1986. That stay, obviously, had a definite ending, 12 years later.
During that in-between time, though, suspicions arose that Stano may have been guilty of some of the murders, but he also may just as well have been as a “serial confessor.”
Stano stated just that in ’86 by signing an affidavit stating unequivocally that he had admitted to crimes he hadn’t committed at the behest of Sergeant Paul Crow, who would “spoon feed” him details about unsolved homicides. The campaign to get to the facts regarding the confessions had been instituted by other cops, including the one who arrested Stano. In 1995, a grand jury removed Crow from law enforcement, citing corruption.
Blind Fury by Anna Flowers, a best-selling 1993 true-crime account, pins the number of murders that Stano likely perpetrated at 33. Many thought, then, that it would be a shame that Stano would only have to die once.
Main photo: Gerald Stano [Florida Department of Corrections]