Heather Coggins, niece of Timothy Coggins, speaks about how her uncle's death has impacted her life following a preliminary hearing at the Spalding law enforcement complex, Thursday, November 30, 2017. Bill Moore Sr. and Frankie Gebhardt are being accused of murdering Timothy Coggins in 1983. Coggins, who was 23-years-old when the murder occurred, was allegedly killed for socializing with a white woman. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Race takes center stage on Day One of Spalding cold case murder trial

Indifference over a black man’s death left the Spalding County case unsolved for 34 years, Griffin Judicial Circuit Chief Assistant District Attorney Marie Broder said in her opening statement.

It was an admission seized upon by Gebhardt’s attorneys, whose strategy is informed by the shoddy initial investigation and subsequent mishandling of evidence they hope will create enough reasonable doubt to free their client.

For prosecutors, the “shameful” and “incomplete” probe by the Spalding sheriff’s office and the GBI into Coggins’ death presents a challenge they had to confront.

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“They didn’t care about Timothy Coggins,” Broder said on Day One of Frank Gebhardt’s murder trial. She then asked jurors to “atone for the sins of the past.”

Finding Coggins’ killer or killers was never a “top priority” for the sheriff at the time, said retired Spalding deputy Clint Phillips, the lead investigator at the time.

Phillips said he was one of only three investigators in the office.

“If I had the help then that Sheriff (Darrell) Dix has now, we would’ve solved the case,” Phillips said. “We just didn’t have the help back then.”

Marie Broder (right), the Griffin Judicial Circuit chief assistant district attorney, takes notes at Spalding County Superior Court during jury selection for the Franklin Gebhardt murder trial on June 18, 2018. On the left is District Attorney Benjamin Coker.

The case was closed after only a few months. When it was reopened in March 2017 by the GBI’s cold case unit, much of the physical evidence that had been collected from the crime scene was missing.

Tire impressions of the truck that allegedly dragged Coggins’ body back and forth under the power lines off rural Minter Road, where his body was found, were gone. Same for the victim’s bloody sweater, which contained hair samples. Also missing: A wooden club and an empty Jack Daniels bottle.

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“Where did it go?” asked defense co-counsel Scott Johnston, who told jurors the state shouldn’t get a pass just because the case is old.

Coggins’ mutilated body was found near Gebhardt’s residence in the city of Sunny Side, which had about 330 residents then and only 134 now.

The state is dependent on witnesses who say they heard Gebhardt brag that he killed Coggins, though Broder said Gebhardt never called Coggins by his name.

“(Gebhardt) tells people he killed a N-word,” Broder said.

Defense co-counsel Scott Johnston at Spalding County Superior Court on June 18, 2018. His client Franklin Gebhardt, a white man, is on trial for felony murder in the 1983 stabbing-and-dragging death of Timothy Coggins, a black man. Prosecutors contend the killing was racially motivated.

The prosecution’s witnesses come with some baggage. Two men who testified Wednesday are serving time in prison. The state said the men were not offered any deals, such as a possible reduction in their sentences, in exchange for their testimony.

Christopher Vaughn, who was 10 years old when he discovered Coggins’ body while hunting with his father, said Gebhardt told him, just a few months later, “they had killed the man we had found over there. … Him and Bill Moore. He was in a good mood.”

Moore, also charged with felony murder, is scheduled to go on trial in October.

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Vaughn, a convicted child molester, said Coggins was targeted because he was involved with Gebhardt’s girlfriend. A black man sleeping with a white woman was “something that would not be tolerated” by Gebhardt and Moore, Vaughn testified.

Johnston, in his opening statement, urged jurors to consider the source.

“Listen to who is saying these things,” he said.

Robert Smith, in prison for meth possession, said he heard Gebhardt reference Coggins’ murder as recently as 2016.

“‘He didn’t live to tell about that white girl he was with,’” Smith said, quoting the defendant.

Defense co-counsel Larkin Lee noted that Smith’s testimony contained details not shared with investigators in 2017, including an anecdote about a wild party at the Sunny Side trailer park where Gebhardt and Moore lived. Smith said he witnessed the two suspects butcher a cow in one of the trailers.

“Were you holding back stories or did you just think of some new ones?” Lee said.

Defendant Franklin Gebhardt at Spalding County Superior Court on June 18, 2018.

From all of the witnesses who testified Wednesday, a common theme emerged about the racial climate in the Griffin area 35 years ago.

“It was terrible,” testified Jesse Gates, a former Spalding deputy who saw Coggins talking to three white men outside the People’s Choice, a black nightclub in Griffin. Coggins told him about his white girlfriend, calling her “one of the most prettiest girls you’ll ever see,” Gates said.

Telisa Coggins, one of Coggins’ sisters, said she saw her brother dance with a white woman at the People’s Choice. After he was killed, the family received ominous threats, she said.

Coggins testified that a decapitated black dog was left outside their door along with a note that read, “You’re next.”

Testimony resumes Thursday. Broder said the prosecution expects to wrap up its case by the end of the week.

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