A closer look at Stephen McDaniel, the man accused in Lauren Giddings' killing

How the Mercer law graduate introduced himself to the world

jkovac@macon.comAugust 7, 2011 

He was the guy with the corkscrewy, grizzly-bear-colored mane. With the tired blue eyes of a bookworm who had just pulled back-to-back all-nighters. And perhaps he had. Seven years of college had come and gone, and still there was studying to do.

Then, suddenly, there was not.

There was ... a nightmare.

Stephen McDaniel was whisked into it.

His is the plight of a person catapulted to the fore of a high-profile crime.

It was a crime, the police would tell anyone who asked, that had not leapt forth from the script of some prime-time drama. DNA swabs and electron microscopes would not be joining forces and, inside of an hour, be serving up the killer in a petri dish.

This was not, the cops would say, a television show.

But that is very much what it would become: a soap opera of the most wrenching order. A true story.

It would play out on Internet message boards, in newspapers and on websites. And on TV newscasts and, no doubt most painfully, in the lives of two families -- the dead woman’s and that of the guy with the unforgettably frizzy hair -- where it was no soap opera at all, but rather, reality.

And it would unfold before the masses. More than a few of whom would thank the good Lord that it wasn’t them or their kin. Or, most crushing of all, their daughter who had been violated in a way that defies explanation.

“If you think about it,” the slain woman’s father would say, “it’s about as bad as it gets. ... It’s just so off the scale ... just so hard to believe.”

For the unexplained to assert itself, to truly grab hold, it requires an audience. As it happened, the guy and his cornucopia of curls -- well, a young man a couple of months shy of 26th birthday -- found one.

In one of those rare moments when the news crews stumble upon sound bite gold, TV is exactly where the eventual prime target of a murder case would vault into local living rooms and, later, via cable news outlets and Web video and old-fashioned newsprint, become a curiosity on his way to becoming a suspect.

He was a law school graduate weeks from testing his mettle, taking the bar exam, the next step in perhaps someday fulfilling his mother’s highest hopes.

Then, in a stroke of newsworthy fate, to put it in the legalese that this young man was no doubt versed, here came before the court of public opinion a young man a month and a half out of law school.

His was the face of a boy’s, enshrouded in a bird’s nest of frizz. He looked tired. He broke down while a camera rolled.

Was his on-video performance an act? The desperation of an exposed villain coming unhinged?

Or was his despair a gush of genuine concern and fright and disbelief all spilling out because his neighbor was missing and, very possibly, dead?

Here, too, had come the police, and then the reporters, and then here came the miserable news. The gone-missing person he knew might now, instead of missing, be dead.

There on a sidewalk, a young man whose mother had hopes of him becoming a Supreme Court justice became the disconsolate fellow of 25 who would, in the weeks to come, face a felony murder charge for allegedly killing and cutting apart that once-missing neighbor of his.

That neighbor had been a woman in his graduating class, a 27-year-old who folks say was so sweet. She lived and, it appears now, died in an apartment near his, perhaps even her own, next door to his.

But for all he seemed to know and say, this woman, his neighbor, whose name was Lauren Teresa Giddings, was still missing early on the afternoon of Thursday, June 30.

Then, from a reporter with a cameraman at her side, he heard otherwise.

A body had turned up.

Stephen Mark McDaniel, the son of a Ph.D. and seminarian turned house painter, a deep thinker who was known to sign his name and put “true-born ‘Son of Liberty’ ’’ next to it, looked spellbound, entranced.

A tendril of hair obscured his left eye.

He gazed to the camera’s left.

He paused a beat, then another, and in a deflated, flat-lined voice he spoke.

“Body?”

* * *

The boy next door had morphed into the man on the street.

“Man on the street” is journalism lingo for someone plucked at random for an interview.

When a weekend weatherman and sometimes-reporter subbing as a cameraman for Macon’s Fox affiliate, WGXA-TV, first spied McDaniel striding across the street, away from the apartments on Georgia Avenue and toward the law school, the cameraman figured the fellow in the dark-blue Billabong T-shirt might be someone worth grabbing.

Interviews had been hard to land that day. Reporters flocked to the scene but found few people willing to talk. It was going on 2 in the afternoon, more than four hours after Lauren Giddings’ torso had turned up wrapped in plastic inside a roll-away trash can beside her street-front apartment building.

The summer was barely a week old.

Wind out of the east at better than 10 mph fanned a blow-dryer of 90-degree misery over the historic hilltop overlooking downtown.

The weatherman who had become the cameraman, a 25-year-old from the coast of Maine -- “we don’t have murders or anything like that,” he says -- noticed McDaniel and assumed he might be one of the missing woman’s neighbors.

“I asked him if he would be willing to talk to us about what was going on,” the cameraman, Tyler Southard, recalls. “I asked him if the police had asked him not to say anything about what he saw ... and he said no.”

With McDaniel in tow, Southard walked over to the reporter he was videoing for, introduced him to her and then Southard, his right eye to the viewfinder, started shooting.

“Once I realized that he didn’t know they’d found a body, you’d see his reaction sort of change and I zoomed in a bit more on him so I could catch his facial expressions,” Southard says. “The whole time we were doing the interview, I never got a feeling something was fishy. I didn’t get a weird impression. Usually I pick up a vibe on people. ... I didn’t know what was gonna happen, so I just kept rolling on him the whole time.”

McDaniel, who wore a digital watch on his left wrist, occasionally swatted at and tried to corral his chestnut cloud of windblown locks. He seemed to know about the frantic search for his neighbor who’d gone missing five days earlier on Saturday, June 25.

He appeared concerned, a mess.

He was, as they say, good TV.

It hadn’t struck Southard as unusual that, after McDaniel was gone, a police spokeswoman came over and wanted to know what the man on the street had said.

It wasn’t until the next day, when McDaniel was jailed on unrelated burglary charges, that Southard thought, “Maybe we just interviewed a murderer.”

By then, the cameraman’s footage had hit the airwaves, where anyone who was interested could watch and listen to Stephen McDaniel.

* * *

Lauren was my neighbor. Umm, we’re just trying to find out where she is at this point. ... No one has seen her since Saturday. I mean, the last time anyone heard from her was an e-mail that she sent out.

* * *

McDaniel was apparently informed that a body had been discovered by the Fox reporter Southard was teamed with at the scene. Her name is Michelle Quesada. Then she asked, “Had you heard, had you seen anything there?”

McDaniel stared.

“Had you seen anything there?” Quesada asked again.

McDaniel spoke, but barely: “I ...”

Quesada, as if to sugarcoat the apparently upsetting news, said, “I mean, we don’t know if this is the same person, you know what I mean? Like, they took out a body there earlier. We don’t know if it’s the same person or not. That’s how we’re trying to ask people if they know who lived there. ... Are you OK, sir?”

“I, I think I need to sit down,” McDaniel said.

His neighbor Lauren Giddings was nowhere to be found.

Or was she?

Either way, Stephen McDaniel would be among the first to tell the world the kind of person his neighbor had been.

* * *

She’s as nice as can be. I mean, very personable. Very much a people person. ... We don’t know where she is. ... The only thing we can think is that maybe she went out running and someone snatched her. ... We went over (to her apartment), one of her friends had a key. We went inside and tried to see if there was anything amiss, but, I mean, she had a door (brace) that was sitting right by it, so there was no sign that anyone broke in. I mean, the door was locked when everyone got here. I mean, we, we just don’t know where she is. ... I don’t know anyone that would want to hurt her. She was as nice a person as there is. ... (Losing breath, as if about to hyperventilate, near sobbing, answering a question about what is on his mind.) Why would anyone do this? ... (On verge of tears and then crying.) ... If I had heard something, maybe I could have helped.

* * *

Glenda McDaniel says her son’s June 30 news interview was an act of kindness.

More than a month would pass before Stephen was charged, as he was Tuesday, with murdering Giddings, who was, Stephen’s mom says, someone he considered a friend.

“He was thinking that his friend was still missing,” Glenda McDaniel says. “He didn’t know that the body had been found. And so he was thinking, ‘This is a good thing to do, because this will help get more word out and will help in locating her sooner.’ ... He was concerned. He had been up most of the night with her friends helping to look for her. He came home for a very short time and slept, just kind of collapsed a couple of hours to get some sleep.”

She says, “And then they found the body, and he gets this bombshell where the reporter says, ‘Well, what about the body?’ He says, ‘Body?’ And you can watch him going into shock about his friend. ... He’s just staring, you can see in his face, he’s trying to wrap his brain around the idea that she’s dead. It’s not even registering. He’s just going into shock. ... You can hear his heart breaking when he says, ‘Why would anybody do this?’ He is such a gentle person. He will not even squash a bug. He’ll catch a bug and take it outside and release it. ... Then I hear them trying to say that he’s killed and cut somebody up. Lauren was his friend.”

They had been neighbors since the first year of law school in 2008, the campus practically in their front yard, right across the road in one of downtown Macon’s most timeless settings, where their college’s clock-tower bell gongs on the hour, but where the antebellum homes hardly seem to age.

Giddings and McDaniel, who 85 days ago graduated from the Walter F. George School of Law, had lived next to one another since they moved in, when Giddings and her family joked that the apartment complex’s façade resembled a LaQuinta Inn.

Eric O’Dell, who taught McDaniel at Mercer during McDaniel’s freshman year as an undergrad in 2004, recalls that “it’s fair to say that Stephen was kind of quirky. He was really bright. ... I was trying to motivate him to live up to his brightness. He was not necessarily always giving his full effort. I honestly sensed he was a lot smarter than the effort he put in. And I think Stephen might agree.”

O’Dell had McDaniel in a fall semester course that year as well as a spring semester, great books course the next. O’Dell says McDaniel, a medieval buff, was known to wear chain mail, armor mesh, to class.

“It was quirkiness inherent with freshmen,” O’Dell says. “I thought, ‘That’s different.’ It was like seeing a really bizarre tattoo. I never had another student wear chain mail (to class). I remember on (a questionnaire) he wrote that he had an interest or a collection of swords. ... There’s an undeniable and objective quirkiness that Stephen had. He called attention to himself. When I saw ... Stephen giving the interviews (June 30), it concerned me.”

David Whitmire, who lived in Barristers Hall, the apartment complex where McDaniel resided, sometimes went out with McDaniel for burgers. Whitmire says he visited McDaniel’s apartment a couple of times and remembers the place being tidy.

“He’d be a great roommate,” Whitmire, 58, says.

Lauren Giddings’ father, Bill, thinks back to the time his daughter and McDaniel became neighbors and wonders if he missed something, noting that McDaniel was “just a nerd, kind of.”

“I was,” Bill Giddings says, “checking him out literally from the day he moved in.”

But, he adds, “Lauren seemed comfortable.”

Last week, as his daughter’s Saturday funeral in her Maryland hometown drew near, Bill Giddings, who is 56, pondered the proper punishment for anyone convicted of doing whatever vile things were done to the oldest of his three girls.

“Life in prison, in a penitentiary in Georgia,” he said, “I’ve got a pretty good idea it may be as bad as hell.”

* * *

The last thing that anyone, there was a e-mail that she sent out after 10 that (June 25) night where she, she sent it to, I think it was someone in Atlanta, a friend of hers in Atlanta, and he, she said that she, she was afraid in her apartment, that she thought that someone had tried to break in on Thursday night and that she was afraid to stay in there. … (A friend of Lauren’s) pulled it up and we, we read it off the (computer) screen. … (If she had asked for help) I could have done something. … I could have lent her a handgun. I’ve got a little handgun that I have for defense. … If she was afraid in her apartment then, I mean, get her out of there.

* * *

Glenda McDaniel also speaks of hell.

The 56-year-old mother and grandmother, who has adopted four of her daughter’s six children, the oldest of whom is 10, has had no choice but to explain where their uncle Stephen has been for the past month.

The children, at least to some extent she says, know he has been locked up and that his neighbor is dead, her body in pieces.

The McDaniels, who live near Stone Mountain, are devout churchgoers. Glenda and Stephen’s father, Mark, were married in May 1977, nearly 34 years to the day Stephen would graduate from law school.

Their daughter, whom Glenda McDaniel says battled a crack-cocaine problem -- which led to a number of arrests -- couldn’t take care of her children, and that’s why she and her husband took them in. Now the family faces the accusations against Stephen. It has weighed on the children.

“Wednesday morning,” she says, “my 6-year-old, Asher, woke up crying. And I asked him what he had dreamed about. He had dreamed about Stephen. ... He said, ‘Mommy, I need to go to Macon.’ I said, ‘Why, darling?’ He said, ‘I want to go to Macon so I can help find her body, because her family is so sad.’ ... To think that a 6-year-old would have that much compassion and worry over something like that.”

After Stephen was charged with murder, she told the kids so that they wouldn’t hear about it on the TV news or in conversations grown-ups might have around the house.

Glenda McDaniel says she told them, “The Bible says, ‘All God’s promises for good he keeps.’ ... And Stephen belongs to God, and we are gonna claim those promises and we are gonna trust God. And my 8-year-old said, ‘Satan is trying to steal Stephen.’ I said, ‘Yes, dear, he’s trying to steal Stephen. He’s trying to steal our testimony. He’s trying to steal our faith in God. He’s trying to steal our peace, and we’re not going to listen to Satan.’ And the 10-year-old said, ‘Well, Satan is powerful.’ I said, ‘Yes, Satan and his demons are powerful. And one day they will be chained forever.’”

* * *

That’s what she said in the e-mail. She thought that someone had tried to break in to her apartment. She said it, like, “Macon hoodlums tried to break in to my apartment on Thursday night.”

* * *

Stephen was born Sept. 9, 1985. He grew up in the just-outside-the-Atlanta-perimeter suburban enclave of Lilburn, a couple of miles from where fellow Parkview High School alum and baseball major leaguer Jeff Francoeur is from.

Stephen graduated from high school in 2004. His mother says he won a presidential scholarship to attend Mercer. He majored in business.

She says when he was younger, about 8 or so, he played King Josiah in a church musical.

Around the same time, up until he was 13 or so, he sang alto in the Atlanta Boy Choir. His interests included 3-D puzzles and church mission work. He helped fix up places of worship across the state.

He liked “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars.” He read history and adventure books. He revered Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln. He became “very conservative politically,” his mom says.

In high school, he took P.E. in summer school so he could concentrate on electives like Latin and music during the regular year.

Stephen, she says, shares his father’s taste for samurai films.

Mark McDaniel, 58, on an Internet blog he started in January 2007, posted three times on and, inside of a week, abandoned, wrote: “Why am I interesting. Well, at first glance I appear to be a crashing bore, but looks can be deceiving. I am a house painter but have more education than most doctors. I have a Ph.D and have eclectic tastes in music, films, and books. I enjoy some samurai films, mostly the ones with less violence. Try ‘Twilight Samurai” and “The Hidden Blade.” ... My hobbie (sic) is reading, so I have probably read more books than most. That’s all for today. Be good.”

At Stephen’s 2008 graduation from Mercer, there is a picture of him in his cap and gown. He is about to embark on his legal studies. His parents are on either side, his left arm cradling his diploma. There is a ring of some sort on his left index finger. He looks to have inherited his mother’s thin smile and plumpish cheeks.

A family album snapshot from four years prior shows him in a relative’s living room easy chair, a framed map of Ireland on the wall behind him. He’s in jeans, legs crossed, with a bright-eyed, fresh-faced grin sweeping beneath a starter moustache.

He appears to be wearing the same Billabong T-shirt he was wearing the day in late June when reporters flocked to him. In the photo, he looks like he could have just walked in off tour with the boy band Hanson.

He took maximum course loads most every semester in college, his mother says. “He really didn’t have much time for social functions and socializing. He did have friends. ... But he wasn’t a party animal. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t do drugs. He wasn’t the kind of person that would have gone out to the bars much.”

“He was not a hermit,” Glenda McDaniel adds, “but he was focused on his work. And he didn’t spend a huge amount of time socially with people because he was focused on his studies.”

She frets over how skinny he looks these days. His booking sheet at the Bibb jail lists him as 6 feet tall, 150 pounds. The heft of his hair, though, seems to pad his lankiness. In court the other day, when he stood before a magistrate to hear the murder charge against him, he had wanted to pull his hair back, rein it in with an elastic band, so it wouldn’t poof out so. But his mother says jailers took the elastic away from him as he was leaving his cell.

“So he would look more unkempt. ... They’re trying to portray him in as negative a light as they can,” Glenda McDaniel says.

Though he grew up in a household with a troubled sister four years his senior -- according to jail records from the past decade, she has been charged with forgery, theft and other counts in metro Atlanta -- Stephen’s mother says, “Stephen was always very secure in who he was.”

And, over the past month, detectives have done a lot to learn precisely who that is.

Take the picture, for instance.

A drawing done in crayon.

It had been taped to Stephen’s bedroom mirror in apartment No. 4.

His mother says the cops seemed especially interested in it.

It had in it a rainbow, a tree, a sun, things a child would draw.

“I love you,” the writing on it said.

It was signed “Lauren.”

“Lauren McDaniel.”

The police “were all excited about that,” his mother says.

They were thinking “here he is fantasizing about his neighbor, that she’s gonna become his wife.”

The cops, she says, later learned that Stephen has a 10-year-old niece.

His parents adopted her from their daughter. She is their oldest grandchild. Her name is Lauren.

Stephen calls her “Munchkin.”

* * *

The police were called last night and they came and they looked around, they didn’t see anything. ... No sign of a struggle, no sign that anyone had broken in, just nothing. Just she was gone. I mean, all of her stuff was there. Her ID was there, her wallet was there, but she was ... she was just gone.

* * *

When Stephen was 4, his folks called him “Little Mr. Clean.”

He kept his things just so. Neat.

“He very much wanted to please,” his mother says, and he grew to be protective of his family.

A week or so before he turned 16, when terrorists launched the 9/11 attacks on America, the event “had a huge impact on him.”

“It was always something he was concerned about,” Glenda McDaniel says. “If there was another attack on U.S. soil, he wanted to be prepared. ... He had read up on what things would be concerns if something like that happened, such as contamination of the water source. So he had lots of soft drink bottles (in his apartment) that when they were empty, he filled them up with water and stacked them neatly under his kitchen sink.”

She says he is “somewhat of an organized pack rat. ... I found receipts (in his apartment) dated all the way back to 2001 and 2002 for various things.”

Last week, a dozen 2-liter soda bottles culled from Stephen’s apartment were sitting on the balcony outside Lauren Giddings’ apartment.

The landlady dumped one of the bottles on a flower bed.

* * *

(Answering reporter who asks, “Are you holding out any hope right now?”) I mean, I, I hope, but, I mean, if, if, if they found (a body) on, on the property somewhere ...

* * *

Stephen Mark McDaniel has been reading his Bible.

Well, it isn’t his. Another inmate gave it to him.

His mother says he has read the New Testament all the way through and is now well into the Old.

She had wanted to give him a family Bible. Jailers said that was a no-no.

The last time she visited him, last Sunday, was two days before authorities served him with a murder warrant.

The warrant mentions two keys Stephen supposedly had.

One, a master key, is said to have opened every door in his apartment complex.

The other, the warrant notes, unlocked the door to Lauren Giddings’ place.

Damning?

No, says his mother, who believes someone planted the keys to frame him. And, she says, Stephen knows who. She says it was by divine intervention that he awoke to a bang one night two days before Lauren disappeared and saw a man at her door.

Stephen’s mother says he now holds the key to unlocking the identity of the true killer.

The two keys found in Stephen’s place, she says, do not prove a thing.

Stephen, she recalls, has had run-ins with keys before.

“When he was 2 years old,” Glenda McDaniel says, “we used to say very few things in this world were Stephen-proof. ... He stuck a key in an electrical outlet twice before he figured out this was not a good idea.”

Telegraph staff writers Amy Leigh Womack, Phillip Ramati and Liz Fabian contributed to this story. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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