Giddings family pressing for search of farm

Telegraph staffNovember 13, 2011 

As yet unsuccessful, painstaking attempts to find bodily remains of slain and dismembered Mercer University law school graduate Lauren Giddings have led her relatives and the authorities to sift through landfills, peer into storm drains and wade in the Ocmulgee River, all in the pursuit of potential disposal sites.

In the more than four months since Giddings was killed, the hunt has taken unconventional turns, including a weeklong landfill search that enlisted FBI agents.

A recent possible search site -- land owned by Hollis Browning, the grandfather of murder suspect Stephen McDaniel -- has been the source of both hope and frustration for Giddings’ family and loved ones.

Browning’s farm in Pike County hasn’t been searched, and authorities say there are barriers to a search happening.

Determined not to give up hope that remains of the 27-year-old Giddings might still be hidden or stashed somewhere, her family has reached out to the grandfather of her accused killer.

Giddings’ family members say Browning agreed in late September to a search of his Flint River-area farm.

Browning, however, in a brief phone conversation with a Telegraph reporter last month, said he had not spoken to Giddings’ relatives.

Browning, 83, lives on a 63-acre plot south of Molena, between Macon and LaGrange. The rolling property of pine forest and pasture, where cattle graze on the front lawn, has been in McDaniel’s family for generations.

Telegraph reporters visited Browning on Sept. 22 and spoke to him about McDaniel, his daughter’s son.

Browning said his grandson had visited him on Father’s Day weekend -- the weekend before Giddings was last heard from -- and that his grandson had then driven back to Macon, where he was studying for the Georgia bar examination.

Police found Giddings’ torso on June 30 in a roll-away trash bin beside her apartment building, where she and McDaniel were next-door neighbors, at 1058 Georgia Ave., across the street from Mercer’s Walter F. George School of law.

Kathy Mann, a member of Giddings’ extended family, called Browning Sept. 23 after learning that McDaniel had visited his grandfather’s rural home the weekend before Giddings vanished.

Mann, of Blue Ridge, in north Georgia, is a cousin of Giddings’ mother and has been a liaison on the case for the Giddingses, who live in Maryland, where Lauren grew up.

Mann said Browning was “very gracious” when she phoned him, and she said he invited the Giddings family to “come anytime and look around,” that he would guide them around his property.

Giddings’ sister, Kaitlyn Wheeler, told Telegraph reporters in late September that the grandfather of the 26-year-old murder suspect had “been awesome” about consenting to the search.

Particulars of how and when the search would be conducted have been in the works since then, but for the time being appear to be on hold, if not off altogether.

A law enforcement source said last week that investigators have no probable cause to search Browning’s property, and that Browning had not consented to let Macon police look there.

Other sources familiar with the case, however, have said that Browning has, in the past month or so, given the go-ahead for an FBI-conducted search of his land.

Meanwhile, police still are awaiting complete results from the FBI and GBI crime lab evidence testing. After more than four months, there still isn’t an estimate on when evidence testing will be finished.

Despite obstacles that have prevented the search of Browning’s property, some members of Giddings’ family feel strongly that investigators should comb the area.

Wheeler has said the search seems logical.

“For me and my dad, I know this search is even more important than the landfill just because it looks like we do have a lead going there. ... I have more of a gut feeling that this could be a more likely place, a place that (McDaniel) could, I don’t know, keep something that he would want to come back for later or something that he didn’t want to put in the landfill to be disposed of,” Wheeler said.

“And obviously if they found something on the grandfather’s property, that would pretty much be a done deal, the case would pretty much be over. Compared to the landfill, where anyone could’ve put her there.”

Others close to Giddings have said they are concerned that not “scouring the earth” could help McDaniel’s defense raise the argument that because police didn’t look there, they didn’t find evidence that could clear McDaniel and identify another suspect.

But Giddings’ mother Karen Giddings said Friday, “We are not looking for evidence. We are looking for Lauren.”

When Mann called Browning in late September, it was the first contact the families have had.

Mann says Lauren’s parents had planned on coming to Georgia in early October, around the time of their 30th wedding anniversary, to look around Browning’s farm, but that they were assured by Macon authorities that any search would be conducted by police.

Of her 30th anniversary celebration, Karen Giddings said, “The only thing missing was Lauren.”

She said, “We feel it very important the grandfather’s property be searched. ... We are all getting frustrated with the pace of the whole ordeal. ... We’re at the point of no patience.”

Karen Giddings said authorities told her that if she and her family were to go to Browning’s property, it could affect the investigation.

She wondered if “we may have missed our window.”

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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