DA: Suspects bragged about dragging black man behind truck

The two Spalding County men accused of dragging a young black man to his death behind a pickup truck wore the three-decades-old crime as a "badge of honor," prosecutor Marie Broder said at Thursday's probable cause hearing.

Brothers-in-law William Moore Sr. and Frank Gebhardt allegedly bragged about killing 23-year-old Timothy Coggins to children and adults, girlfriends and acquaintances. They even argued over which one of them was truly responsible for Coggins’ 1983 death — not for fear of being caught, but because they felt the other was taking undue credit, GBI Special Agent Jared Coleman testified in a cramped courtroom inside the Spalding jail.

“They were proud of what they had done,” said Coleman, who works with the GBI’s cold case unit. “They felt like they were protecting the white race from black people.”

Frankie Gebhardt.  right, and Bill Moore Sr. left, sit silently during a preliminary hearing in a courtroom located inside the Spalding County law enforcement complex, Thursday, November 30, 2017. Both 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. 

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And their boasts were accompanied by chilling threats that could prove to be further incriminating.

“If you keep on you’re going to wind up like that (N-word) in the ditch,” Gebhardt told a former girlfriend, according to Coleman.

Those threats continued even after the pair’s arrests.

“Gebhardt has said both in jail calls and in interviews, that if you give me a name of witnesses they won’t testify,” Broder said.

Competing motives

Coggins, described by family members as outgoing and fun-loving, was not picked at random. But there are competing theories as to why Gebhardt and Moore wanted him dead.

The alleged killers, laborers in the local pulpwood mills, were seen by multiple witnesses engaging Coggins outside of a gas station across the street from the since-shuttered People’s Choice Club. Soon after, they were observed driving away in Gebhardt’s gold Mercury Comet, which some mistook for a Datsun or Ford Pinto.

One witness, a 10-year-old boy at the time, told police in 1983, he overheard Gebhardt say Coggins was targeted because he had been “messing around with his old lady.”

A white woman interviewed that same year said she had danced with Coggins at the People’s Choice, though Coleman said authorities have been unable to determine whether she was related to Gebhardt.

“Something had happened between a black man and white woman,” said Coleman Thursday, quoting another witness.

Timothy Coggins was 23 years old when he was killed in Spalding County in 1983.

Credit: WSB-TV None Spalding County Sheriff's Office

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Credit: WSB-TV None Spalding County Sheriff's Office

But another witness said Gebhardt told him he murdered Coggins over a drug deal gone bad. Coleman said the People’s Choice was known as a place where drugs were available.

Whatever the reason, said Coleman, race was a factor.

Moore allegedly told one man he “missed the good ole days when you could kill a black man for no reason,” according to the GBI agent.

Now 58 and confined to a wheelchair, Moore spent most of the hearing looking at the ground, avoiding eye contact with most everyone but his attorney.

Physical evidence lacking

Beyond their own words, and witnesses placing them with Coggins the last time he was seen alive, there’s little to connect Moore and Gebhardt to the brutal crime.

The 10-year-old boy told police Gebhardt said he disposed of the knife used to stab Coggings down a well on his property. But Coleman said authorities couldn’t excavate the well because it would compromise Gebhardt’s home.

(Moore, according to another witness, bragged that he was the one who stabbed Coggins and threatened to “kill Frankie in jail if he kept running his mouth,” according to Coleman. Gebhardt, meanwhile, allegedly claimed that Moore had done nothing but chain the victim to the truck.)

That chain, used to drag Coggins “five to seven times” back and forth under the power lines, has also not been located, Coleman said. And ownership of the truck allegedly used in the crime is unknown.

“The most important thing in any case is identification,” said Moore’s lawyer, Harry Charles. “We have no information about a picture line-up. There is no witness who came to this court to say ‘yes, William Sr. was the one who was providing drugs to the victim.’”

Gebhardt’s attorney, Larkin Lee, noted the lack of any DNA evidence despite “the sheer number of stab wounds.”

The long wait

Sitting just a few feet behind the men accused of killing their loved one, Coggins’ family said Thursday’s hearing was tough to endure.

Family of Timothy Coggins become emotional during a preliminary hearing in Spalding County on Thursday, November 30, 2017. Frankie Gebhardt and Bill Moore Sr. 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. 

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“It’s always difficult when someone isn’t sorry for what they’ve done,” said Heather Coggins, the victim’s niece. “When you understand they’re not sorry for what they’ve done it makes it easier for you not to be sorry for what’s going to happen to them.”

She said many of the details introduced in court were new to the family. It was disclosed for the first time that Gebhardt was a suspect back in 1983. (Moore was not.)

Considering the pair’s alleged loose lips, Heather Coggins said the family wonders why it took 34 years to bring them to justice.

“That is definitely a question we’d like to know the answer to,” she said. “That is a question our family has asked for years.”

The case against Moore and Gebhardt will go before a grand jury Dec. 5. They remain jailed without bond, charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and aggravated battery.

Three others, including two members of law enforcement, face misdemeanor charges of helping Moore and Gebhardt avoid prosecution.

CRIME & PUBLIC SAFETY: Read more about other Georgia cold cases at www.myajc.com/crime/