In a case that has yielded few publicly shared breakthroughs or hard, fast facts -- aside from the sad and disturbing truth that a promising young woman was slain and dismembered -- one thing is certain.
The hunt for Lauren Giddings’ killer hinged on a matter of hours.
Possibly even minutes.
Were it not for middle-of-the-night calls from the recent Mercer University law school graduate’s friends and family to the police on June 29 and early June 30, detectives might never have sleuthed out the trail.
And had the police not followed their leads soon after daybreak on the last morning of June, the mystery of Giddings’ death might easily have slipped into that investigative labyrinth of the unknown, where the vanished fall through the cracks and their loved ones never know what happened to them.
But solid police work and, perhaps, a bit of fortuitous timing, avoided another near-instant cold, missing-persons search akin to, say, the 2005 Tara Grinstead disappearance in Ocilla.
Macon police case No. M11-122162 soon spawned an all-hands-on-deck effort to track down a killer.
That’s because authorities found Giddings’ torso stuffed in one of those residential trash bins with wheels on it -- down a stairway mere feet from her front door -- about 9 a.m. on June 30, a couple of hours, and maybe not even that long, before a private company shows up to empty the bins.
“It’d have been a missing person from here on out,” Macon Police Chief Mike Burns said Wednesday. “I think we beat trash day by two hours.”
The chief added, “When I got there (to the scene), we started talking about why (the torso) was put there, and I was told, ‘Well, if we’d waited two more hours it would’ve been gone.’ And then we would have had a missing person. ... We wouldn’t have known if there’d been a crime involved or not.”
Burns said, “I’d hate to say it’s ‘fortunate,’ but this case would have been much, much more difficult if it’d been two hours later. Not that it’s not difficult enough.”
The chief noted trash collected where Giddings lived, at Barristers Hall apartments at 1058 Georgia Ave., goes to the city landfill, which was combed early on for human remains.
Garbage carted away from the campus of Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law, directly across the street from Giddings’ apartment and the very institution she graduated from in May, is taken to a landfill in Twiggs County, Burns said.
Giddings had been living alone in Macon, studying for the bar exam. Police say she was last heard from June 25, and in the days that followed those who knew her became increasingly alarmed at not being able to get in touch with her.
In wee-hours calls June 28 and 29, Giddings’ childhood friend from Maryland, Lori Supsic, who now lives in Chicago, phoned local police. Meanwhile, Giddings’ sister, the recently married Kaitlyn Wheeler, in Maryland, called area hospitals to see if Giddings or someone matching her description had been admitted and was somehow incapacitated.
Asked about the stroke of timing involved in finding the 27-year-old Giddings’ remains, Wheeler said by phone Wednesday that “at a time like this, it’s hard to feel blessed, but we are so blessed ... that she isn’t still missing.”
“We’re trying to at least crawl forward,” Wheeler said. “If she was still missing, we would still be at a dead stop in our lives, searching.”
‘There is a God out there’
Wheeler, 24, Lauren’s middle sister, said people may not realize how near her family came to being saddled with the emptiness of not knowing her eldest sister’s fate, to being emotionally adrift in the realm of the unexplained and of false hopes for who knows how long that somehow, maybe, their Lauren was still out there, unable to reach them.
“It was extremely close. If we wouldn’t have called the police until the next night. ... We have thought about that,” Wheeler said. “That just shows you that there is a God out there and he’s watching out for us.”
She mentioned how on a Fox News program that featured Lauren last weekend it was brought up that people couldn’t understand why a killer would put Lauren’s remains in a trash bin that was right next to the building she lived in and not hidden.
“We had to almost scream to them (on TV) that it was trash day,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said she felt helpless after her sister’s death, but serving as a spokesperson for her family has given her a purpose.
“I know 110 percent that Lauren would have done it for me,” she said.
Wheeler said her sister’s funeral -- “We’re calling it a funeral” -- is scheduled for the evening of Aug. 6 at the family’s church in Laurel, Md. A visitation is planned for the evening before that.
Police are planning to meet with the district attorney’s office early next week, Burns said at a Wednesday news conference.
Officers have met with prosecutors throughout the Giddings investigation, but Burns said this meeting will be “to discuss everything we know.”
Police don’t anticipate receiving final results of lab tests performed by the FBI on evidence in the case before that meeting.
Burns also said that his department has had e-mail correspondence with the FBI about the evidence, but that he could not divulge details of those messages aside from a passage that he read aloud:
“Please remember that this process takes time if you want it done well. There is no guarantee on how long it will take, but know that technicians are working diligently to get quick and accurate results.”
Macon detectives “are being very deliberate, very methodical in the Giddings homicide,” he said.
Burns declined to say how many “persons of interest” remain in the case or whether there are any besides Giddings’ neighbor, 25-year-old Stephen Mark McDaniel.
McDaniel is being held at the Bibb County jail on two unrelated burglary charges.
During the news conference, Burns dispelled the following rumors: reports of a black woman’s body being found at the Ocmulgee River; that a postal carrier had been telling people that there have been other women killed across the city that police weren’t acknowledging; that there have been two other female torsos discovered; and that a serial killer is on the loose.
“We’ve got rumors running rampant. We’ve got speculation,” Burns said. “We’re not hiding bodies. ... We don’t have a serial killer running loose.”
He also discredited rumors alleging that the killing was a mob hit or that police are just saying McDaniel is a person of interest to keep the public from panicking.
Only four people know every detail about the case, Burns said: the two lead detectives, Burns and Maj. Charles Stone.
“If anybody thinks they know something about the case or they hear something about the case, if they’ll call one of the four of us, we’ll be able to tell them what’s rumors and what’s not,” he said.
Wheeler, Gidding’s sister, said her family sometimes reads news website comment pages where some of the rumors about the case may germinate.
“Honestly, it’s been somewhat entertaining to us when we check in. I mean, some things are obviously disturbing,” Wheeler said. “But some of the little theories they come up with have made us have a few laughs. ... Really, I feel sad for the people that are commenting on there because they obviously have nothing better to do with their time. But that’s their problem.”