A year ago Monday, Lauren Giddings graduated from law school. She looked to the future with the same optimism that sustained her through seven years of study, four at Agnes Scott and three more at Mercer’s Walter F. George School of Law.
She would work in criminal defense, the Maryland native told friends and family. She’d be a voice for those who needed it most.
She never got to argue a case. Giddings is dead, killed just weeks after she received her diploma.
Since her torso was discovered June 30 in a rolling trash can outside her Macon apartment, investigators have methodically built a case against her suspected killer, Lilburn native Stephen Mark McDaniel, a law school classmate. Their evidence includes a bloodied hacksaw, Giddings’ panties and an Internet post that brags of sex and dismemberment.
Her head, arms and legs have never been found.
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McDaniel, 26, is charged with murder, burglary and child pornography and remains in the Bibb County Jail under $850,000 bond. He has pleaded not guilty. “He is absolutely adamant that he is not guilty of the charges,” defense attorney Floyd Buford said.
Prosecutors say they’ll seek the death penalty against McDaniel, whose mother once predicted that he’d be a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Students who knew McDaniel, a 2004 Parkview High School graduate, routinely describe him as a “loner,” realizing that the phrase sounds trite, a word stolen from a pulp novel. But it fits, they say.
They also have another adjective: odd. Some recall him sitting in class wearing an undershirt made of chain mail.
Still others remember a young man who acted as if he were smarter than anyone else; in law school, where classes are full of smart people, that trait was particularly rankling.
McDaniel has been in custody since July 1. Plenty of other crimes have commanded headlines and TV time in the months following his arrest. And yet the death of Lauren Giddings reverberates still.
Encounter on the stairs
Did she miss a hint that danger stalked her daughter? Karen Giddings, Lauren’s mother, has mentally replayed the scene countless times.
It’s late spring 2008. Her daughter has just moved from Decatur to Macon. Karen Giddings is ascending the stairs of Lauren’s apartment at Barristers Hall, a 16-unit complex across the street from the Walter F. George School of Law. A thin young man is coming down, and they nearly collide.
“Mom,” says Lauren, “this is Stephen.”
Afterward, Karen Giddings occasionally wondered about her daughter’s classmate. “I thought it odd that he always kept the windows and curtains closed,” she said. “You never saw him.”
She also remembers the last time she saw her daughter and McDaniel in the same place.
That was a year ago today, on the eve of graduation.
The Giddings family – Bill and Karen Giddings, accompanied by their other children, Kaitlin and Sarah – had come to Macon from Laurel, Md. Karen Giddings and her daughters left Lauren’s apartment to meet some of her classmates at The Hummingbird Stage and Taproom, a live-music joint downtown. The night was warm, the air hinting of rain. They walked quickly.
At The Hummingbird, Lauren waded through the crowd of aspiring lawyers, exchanging hugs and laughter. Then she touched her mom on the arm.
“Oh, look,” Lauren said, pleased and slightly surprised. “There’s Stephen.”
McDaniel stood at the edge of the room, playing darts. Alone.
McDaniel’s parents, Glenda and Mark McDaniel, didn’t return repeated telephone calls or respond to messages left at the door of their Lilburn home. But in earlier interviews, his mother has been vocal in her son’s defense, saying she believes a former resident at the complex may be the killer. She has visited him at jail, said Glenda McDaniel, where they’ve prayed together.
“We don’t have to prove Mr. McDaniel’s innocence,” attorney Buford said. “They have to prove his guilt.”
People who went to law school with McDaniel are nearly as tight-lipped about him as his family is. Trained as lawyers, they’re reluctant to comment about a continuing criminal investigation. Still, a sketchy image emerges.
During his first year, McDaniel frequently logged on to an email list serving law school students. Calling himself “Son of Liberty,” police said, McDaniel sometimes sent classmates long emails that underscored his conservative political leanings, including one in which he accuses Barack Obama of being a communist. Many were irritated that the newcomer was willing to waste their time, a precious commodity in law school.
If they hadn’t been so busy, McDaniel’s classmates may have been more tolerant of the first-year guy’s ramblings, said fellow law school grad Mark Shaefer. But they had little time for his musings.
“We are in this little environment,” said Shaefer, describing the lives of law school students. “We’re the most stressed we’ve ever been.
“In context, you can be forgiven” for getting angry at McDaniel’s missives, said Shaefer, a lawyer for a recycling firm in Birmingham. “They were very odd to read.”
McDaniel “didn’t hesitate to talk” in class, said Davis Shaefer, Mark’s brother and a 2011 law school graduate. And he didn’t care if his arguments rubbed others the wrong way.
“You could tell he wasn’t trying to befriend a lot of people,” Shaefer said.
Giddings, he noted, was equally outspoken. She was just as conservative as her neighbor, but still they argued.
“She never missed a chance to stand up and disagree with what he had to say,” he said.
McDaniel rarely socialized with others, said Shaefer, so it’s easy to recall the times when he did. Giddings, he said, once invited McDaniel to a classmate’s backyard cookout. To everyone’s surprise, he showed up.
“He acted like he should have been enjoying himself,” said Shaefer. “But it just wasn’t his scene.”
Boni Bush remembers the moment she learned something might have happened to the tenant in the upstairs apartment. A ringing phone woke her before daylight on June 30. Bush, the complex’s owner, checked the clock: 3:25.
Ashley Morehouse, who had been close to Giddings since their first year of law school, was on the other end. She and some friends were standing in Giddings’ apartment, Morehouse told Bush. No one, she said, had seen her for five days. Had Bush seen her? Bush had not.
Morehouse called the police.
“After that,” said Bush, “it was just a nightmare.”
Police visited the apartments and quickly detected an odor emanating from a trash container. Inside they found a torso, wrapped in plastic. The search for Giddings was over.
Police began questioning Giddings’ neighbors and focused in on McDaniel.
A search of his apartment, they said, turned up a pass key to all the apartments and a key to Giddings’ place.
They charged McDaniel with two counts of burglary after he told them he’d broken into two apartments, stealing a single condom from each, police said.
A hacksaw turned up next. Police said they found it in a locked laundry room behind the complex. It had blood on the base of its blade — Giddings’ DNA, an analysis showed. They also found a bloodied sheet in the laundry room.
Searchers then found packaging material for a hacksaw in McDaniel’s apartment. Also in the apartment: a balled-up pair of panties, hidden in his dresser. DNA tests showed Giddings had worn them.
On Aug. 2, police issued a warrant accusing McDaniel of killing his neighbor.
He was later booked with 30 counts of sexual exploitation of children, after police said they discovered in his apartment a computer flash drive containing pornographic images of children.
In a bond hearing last month, Bibb County District Attorney Greg Winters introduced a lurid twist to the case. According to the Macon newspaper, The Telegraph, Winters said investigators had discovered a posting on an Internet message board from someone who identified himself as "SoL," or Son of Liberty -- McDaniel, detectives deduced.
"Graduate from law school,” Winters read in the hearing, covered by The Telegraph. “Party hard by drinking alone in front of my computer. See my sexy neighbor/classmate come home late. ... Invite her up for a nightcap, make her a special drink called a Mickey Finn,” a drink designed to knock someone unconscious.
“She’s out cold. I finally lose my V-card [virginity]. Oh, no, she OD’d and died. I barbecue her legs and arms to celebrate losing my V-card. Not into organ meat, but throw her torso out, lose it on TV while the cops are discovering her remains, you mad virgins.”
Frank Hogue, one of McDaniel’s lawyers, dismisses the posting.“It does not look at all to be authentic,” he said.
Those who knew McDaniel struggle to lay such monstrous behavior on a shy, shaggy-haired recluse.
“Remember: Stephen’s not been convicted,” said Bush, a lawyer as well as landlady. “Whoever did this, we want them caught and punished.”
Those who knew Giddings grieve, even as they try to get on with their lives.
“You don’t get over something like this,” said Kaitlyn Wheeler, Giddings’ 24-year-old sister. “You just go through it.”
Morehouse, whose call to police touched off the search for Giddings, is now in Augusta, where’s she’s prosecuting misdemeanors for the office of the State Court Solicitor of Richmond County. But her thoughts go back to Giddings, and a happier time.
“She was beautiful, funny, full of life,” Morehouse said. “And she’s someone I greatly miss.”