CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — George J. Carty III neatly folded the one-page document and tucked it away in his inside jacket pocket to make sure it was secure.
This ordinary piece of paper had just become his most treasured possession. It read, in part, “It is on this 6th day of October 2011 ordered and adjudged that the above-captioned indictment shall be, and hereby is, dismissed without prejudice.”
In a Thursday morning court proceeding that lasted no more than a few minutes, Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten signed that dismissal order, officially ending a criminal case that began nearly four years ago when police arrested Carty and charged him with the 1982 murder of Lower Township resident John Attenborough.
As the judge signed the order dismissing the murder indictment against Carty, Carty’s supporters, including his wife Cheryl, applauded.
“I think my client wants a copy of that order,” defense attorney David Stefankiewicz said with a smile.
Carty, 53, and his wife then hugged and cried.
“It’s kind of overwhelming. I never thought it would be over, and it’s still not over,” Carty said outside the courtroom. “I’ll be feeling the effects the rest of my life, and the sad thing is this was all unnecessary.”
Carty’s first court appearance in Cape May County, on Dec. 20, 2007, was much different: He wore shackles and an orange jail jumpsuit.
Two days prior, investigators had gone to the home he and his wife shared in Richmond Heights, Ohio.
“And we get this knock at the door,” Cheryl Carty recalled in an interview months after the arrest. The couple were kept in separate rooms. “I didn’t know why they were there. He yelled it in to me that they were arresting him.”
The couple, both nurses, met in West Virginia in May 1993, nearly 11 years after Attenborough’s murder.
On July 27, 1982, Attenborough, 57, was found bloodied and beaten on an unpaved dirt road that would eventually become part of the Tranquility Park housing development.
Investigators said Attenborough, a Navy veteran, left his job the night before in Northfield and drove to Club Avalon in North Wildwood. He was seen there about 1 a.m. July 27. His body was found nearly eight hours later.
Carty and Attenborough had once worked together as cooks at the Wildwood Golf and Country Club in Middle Township. After the murder, Carty was among those questioned. But with no arrests, the case eventually became one of the cold cases at the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office.
Carty, meanwhile, moved on. He graduated from Atlantic Cape Community College and became a nurse, working at Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital before moving to West Virginia in 1993.
He and Cheryl married in August 1994 and stayed there while Carty attended the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. He graduated in 2005, and they moved to Ohio in 2007 so he could pursue his residency.
But in March 2007, he agreed to travel to a West Virginia State Police barracks as Cape May County detectives took another look at Attenborough’s murder.
The interview, which included a polygraph examination, became the state’s key evidence because in it Carty discussed possible or hypothetical scenarios surrounding Attenborough’s death. Prosecutor Robert Taylor said Carty admitted what he did and how, but defense attorney David Stefankiewicz said Carty was offering make-believe answers to make-believe questions.
The statement was ruled inadmissible by Batten in October 2009. An appellate panel later agreed with the judge’s decision. The court also took issue with the interrogation and its reliance on hypothetical situations.
Carty, meanwhile, has maintained his innocence. On Thursday he said his arrest both damaged his life and added nothing to that of Attenborough’s family.
The Attenborough family has opted not to speak publicly about the case.
“It’s a shame they had to be dragged through this. They still have no closure,” Carty said.
As for Carty, the life he had anticipated four years ago cannot be completely recovered.
“(We will) try to rebuild a life. We had a pretty good life, and it just got totally railroaded,” Carty said.
On Thursday, the couple planned to travel to West Virginia, the state many of their family members call home.
“That’s my support. That’s my joy,” Carty said of the nieces and nephews and other relatives he looks forward to seeing. His aunt, Dolly Laing, and friend and former co-worker Mary Beth Town also were in the courtroom Thursday.
“I worked with George, and I know he wouldn’t do this,” Town said.
Carty said his career as a doctor will likely never materialize. Instead, “I’ll probably go back into nursing,” he said.
Stefankiewicz, who took on Carty’s case at the urging of a friend and that of attorney Vincent Simone, said he welcomed Thursday’s resolution.
“It was a long time coming,” he said.
Stefankiewicz said he decided to handle the case pro bono because of his belief that Carty was being wrongly prosecuted.
“Once you sat down with him, you couldn’t help but think this guy’s getting railroaded.” Stefankiewicz said.
Stefankiewicz credited the Cape May County Public Defender’s Office, in particular Jesse Dean and Tim Gorny, along with attorney Frank Corrado, with helping him as the case moved all the way to the state Supreme Court.
“I think everybody involved should be real proud of the outcome,” Stefankiewicz said.
Contact Trudi Gilfillian: