Christopher Gartrell was let out of a South Carolina prison in March after serving more than 21 years for raping a woman in Sumter. On Friday, eight months after he got out, police in Pennsylvania arrested and charged him with raping and killing an 87-year-old woman in her home.
Gartrell, 48, had been released early in South Carolina after serving slightly more than 85 percent of his 25 year sentence. But in August, the state parole agency issued an arrest warrant for him when he didn’t show up for a mandatory meeting.
In Pennsylvania, police allege that Gartrell broke into an 87-year-old woman’s home, made her show him where valuables were before he restrained and raped her twice and then killed her, according to the Evening Sun of Hanover, Pa. Authorities found the woman’s body wrapped in a sheet and stuffed under the bed. She died by asphyxiation, possibly strangulation, according to the local coroner, The Gettysburg Times reported.
The house smelled of gas, and burn patterns were on the floor, police said.
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“His hope was to burn the house down and destroy the evidence,” Brian Sinnett, the district attorney on the case, told The Gettysburg Times. “It never caught to take hold. It burned in some areas just on the floor.”
Gartrell’s girlfriend told police she knew he had done it, but that he threatened her and her family if she reported him, the Evening Sun said. She led them to an inn where Gartrell was staying.
Police said they arrested Gartrell as he tried to leave the inn, finding items on him allegedly stolen from the victim’s house, including a gun, $1,200 in coins, and women’s underwear, the Evening Sun reported. Gartrell confessed to police that he committed the crimes, an affidavit showed.
The victim was identified as Virginia Barbour. Neighbors described her as feisty and a wonderful friend, according to the Evening Sun.
A violent past
Gartrell’s criminal record in South Carolina shows an increasing pattern of violence.
In 1992, when he was 21 years old, he was convicted of burglary, grand larceny, and stealing a vehicle, according to South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division records. A judged sentenced him to 15 years.
In 1996 Gartrell was let out of prison, according to Peter O’Boyle of the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
Later that year, he was accused of forcing a 24-year-old woman he knew to drive to her parents, where he tied her to a bed and raped her at gunpoint, The Item of Sumter wrote in 1997. He stole guns from the house and pawned them.
Thirty minutes before attacking the woman, he robbed a church, The Item reported.
Gartrell pleaded guilty to the crimes, according to court documents. During his sentencing, the victim told the judge her “life was ripped apart that day,” The Item reported.
“He took away something from me that I’ll never get back,” the victim said.
Gartrell told the judge, “I’m sorry for what I did. I realize I’ve got a problem, and I’ll get help with it,” according to The Item. A judged sentenced him to 25 years and ordered that he be branded a sex offender for life.
On March 5, 21 years and seven months after he went into state prison, Gartrell got out on the Community Supervision Program, O’Boyle said.
Let out but not paroled
O’Boyle said the Community Supervision Program is not parole, which ended for violent offenders in the mid 90s. But the Community Supervision Program is similar to probation, and it allows people convicted of violent crimes to be released from prison after serving 85 percent of their sentences.
Offenders out on the program are supervised by the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services and have to report to the agency. The agency helps those released find jobs and get counseling.
A stipulation of that program required Gartrell to live in a place approved by the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, according to O’Boyle.
After being kicked out of a place in Greenville County, Gartrell was unable to find approved housing, prompting an arrest, O’Boyle said. Gartrell got out of jail on a personal recognizance bond, which means he was let out without requiring a payment. He was due to show up to the probation department under the terms of his release in August. He never showed. His GPS tracking unit went dead.
“When someone stops reporting, we have no option but to issue a warrant,” O’Boyle said.
The agency listed Gartrell in national criminal databases and as one of the agency’s most wanted on Aug. 14. That month The State included Gartrell in a story about the state’s most wanted suspects.
Brian Sinnett, the Pennsylvanian DA who’s prosecuting the case against Gartrell, said the South Carolinian is accused of committing “one of the most heinous murders and related assaults I have ever seen.”