Night of Panic: The evening before Lauren Giddings was found dead, her friends and kin sounded the alarm

Telegraph staffJune 24, 2012 

In the days before Lauren Giddings became a name in a murder case, before anyone who held her dear knew she was slain, there was this:

Nothing.

She was just gone.

Then, before the tears, hurt and anger set in, before the horror was unveiled, there was a night of panic.

Giddings vanished a year ago Monday. It was four days, though, before anyone went looking for her.

Giddings, an aspiring lawyer, was cramming for the Georgia bar exam. Her friends, assuming she was sequestered in her apartment studying, thought little of it at first as days passed and their text messages and calls weren’t returned.

They started searching for her June 29 and kept looking late into the night and early morning.

When some of her remains turned up in a trash can the next morning, the discovery and investigation that followed revealed no explanations.

Explanations, like the whereabouts of parts of Giddings’ dismembered body, have remained elusive. Details of her death -- and speculation over who may be responsible for it -- have captivated and bewildered locals at times in the past 12 months and raised countless questions. Among them: Why her?

Giddings, a May 2011 Mercer University law graduate, wanted to do defense work. She was weeks from taking the bar examination, holed up in her Coleman Hill apartment, preparing, days from moving out, hopeful of beginning a career in Atlanta.

At 27, she dreamed of being a mother, having a houseful of children and a place to raise them that no doubt harkened back to the Giddings clan’s spread where she’d grown up amid cousins and kid sisters in the suburbs southwest of Baltimore.

Last summer was barely a week old when, as those closest to her have come to view it, Giddings, along with all her promise, was stolen.

“I keep thinking that Lauren just would be mad as hell having this happen,” her mother says, “being attacked and having her life taken.”

Giddings’ torso had been disposed of, stuffed in a flip-top, curbside garbage can beside her apartment building.

For police, finding it was a stroke of fortune on what was trash pickup day at the complex.

Within hours, possibly sooner, it would have been hauled to a landfill.

Without it, Giddings might have become one of the supremely lost, the unfortunate souls who disappear into forever without a trace.

Yet before anyone knew that, hours of limbo would crawl by.

Law school classmates, at the behest of Giddings’ sister and childhood friends who were in touch with Giddings almost daily but who hadn’t heard from her since the night of June 25, began their search on a Wednesday four evenings later.

Their fear sunk in slowly.

A daughter, sister, beloved classmate and confidante was missing.

Those trying to find her ran out of places to look, and it was beyond late. They knew she was out there, somewhere. They couldn’t sleep.

A few hours after daybreak, word came that a body had turned up at the apartments where Giddings lived on Georgia Avenue. The place faces the Walter F. George School of Law across the street.

By then, Giddings’ father was driving toward Georgia from her Maryland hometown.

Her mom was about to board an Atlanta-bound flight at the Baltimore airport, but Giddings’ 18-year-old sister, Sarah, mustered the nerve and called and told her not to go.

Alarm and worry had veered into full-blown despair.

Kaitlyn Wheeler, the middle Giddings sister, figured they should break the news to their mother in person.

“Having to tell a mom that her daughter died,” Wheeler says, “is probably the worst thing you could ever do.”

* * *

Giddings, an athletic blonde with regal features and a buoyant personality, had more real friends than some folks have on Facebook. One classmate describes her as a passionate “breath of fresh air.”

Giddings’ social opposite lived next door. Like most tenants in their apartment complex, they were budding lawyers. Many of the neighbors were in the same graduating class.

Stephen Mark McDaniel, who earned an academic scholarship to Mercer as an undergraduate, preferred keeping to himself. He was well-read, intelligent, meticulous.

Zombies fascinated him. At times he unnerved acquaintances when, with a crazed look on his face, he is said to have told them how he would pull off the perfect murder.

“Stephen definitely had a sinister side,” says Thad Money, his roommate during McDaniel’s senior year as a Mercer undergrad in 2007.

“He would start talking about power and how he wanted power over people and how he was smarter than everybody who was around him. ... If you just watched his face when he got really excited telling the story of the perfect murder or the zombie invasions ... it was scary. ... And the smile, oh it was just the creepiest when he’d get so excited. The grin, it was just ... evil.”

In 2004, during his senior year at Parkview High in Lilburn, McDaniel, known to have been working on a fantasy novel, and football player Brad Lester, an acclaimed running back who later played at Auburn University, were voted most likely to be famous.

For McDaniel, the honor may have been for his literary bent. From what classmates have said about him in published reports -- that he was a misfit who sometimes hissed at people -- it is also possible the distinction was a veiled poke.

Four or five hours after Giddings’ torso turned up, McDaniel, then 25, granted reporters an interview along the sidewalk near the apartments.

He seemed to nearly hyperventilate when a television reporter mentioned that a body had been found.

That night he was jailed on an unrelated burglary charge, accused of stealing a condom from a neighbor’s apartment several months earlier.

Prosecutors tacked on a murder charge 33 days later. He was then accused of having a computer flash drive with child pornography on it. Authorities have said he also had a key to Giddings’ apartment and a pair of her panties.

McDaniel’s first weeks behind bars were the toughest on him, says Floyd Buford, one of his attorneys. The stress of being locked up weighed on McDaniel, as did the prospect of his legal career crumbling.

Buford recalls telling McDaniel, an avowed Christian who drove a Geo Prizm with the vanity license plate “PRAAAY” on back, “to have faith in God and pray a lot.”

“I emphasized how much his family loved him, and that I believed in him and I was going to do everything I could to help him,” Buford says.

McDaniel’s mother and father visit him nearly every weekend.

Their Toyota minivan’s license plate reads “PRAAISE.”

In early February, his parents, Mark and Glenda, emerged from the Bibb jail about an hour before sunset. They bore the withdrawn, weary look of kin who’d been sitting vigil in a hospital emergency ward.

When a reporter introduced himself in the parking lot, Mark McDaniel, a house painter, spoke in a near whisper. He had on a Mickey Mouse polo shirt. There was a splotch of gray paint on his left elbow. He acknowledged that he and his wife cherish the weekly visits with their boy.

“They’re a mother and father that love their son very much,” Buford says. “They may have missed one (visit). ... They’re strong people. They’re good people.”

Stephen McDaniel’s maternal grandfather Hollis Browning doted on him.

Browning had high hopes for him and envisioned him securing a plum legal job and settling down with a wife. Browning planned to pay his grandson’s first month’s rent when he passed the bar exam and found a new place to live.

Browning, 83, pitched in money to get his grandson a lawyer when McDaniel was jailed for burglary.

A month or so before Browning’s death on April 24, Buford arranged a telephone call between McDaniel and Browning, who was in the hospital.

The day Browning died, jailers granted Buford an emergency phone call to his client to break the news.

“It was difficult for Stephen. ... He was choked up,” Buford says. “He just thanked me for the call.”

One weekend in the days after McDaniel was arrested, Browning was among the family members who helped move his belongings out of apartment No. 4 at the Barristers Hall complex on Georgia Avenue.

At the time, Browning figured his grandson would fight the burglary charges and get on with his career. He never expected the bombshell allegations that followed.

A year ago this Monday, McDaniel was still leading his solitary life.

No one considered him a burglar or a possessor of kiddie porn, much less a killer. The mind-taxing bar exam loomed.

But his world was about to be rattled in a most public way.

In part because on a 70-degree night last June, the ones who loved and missed his next-door neighbor the most were not about to give up the hunt.

* * *

Just after dark on June 29, Lori Supsic was lying in bed in her Chicago apartment, watching an episode of “The Bachelorette” on her computer.

Her cell phone rang, but she didn’t answer it. She wanted to finish the show. She recognized the number that flashed on her phone. It was one of her friends from back home in Maryland, Katie O’Hare.

She and O’Hare and Lauren Giddings were best buds.

They’d met in kindergarten and were inseparable. They stayed close through college and still e-mailed, texted or called one another just about every day.

Supsic figured she’d return O’Hare’s call later.

Then Supsic heard her sister, who lives with her, say something from the next room that gave her pause.

“Why is Katie O’Hare calling me?” her sister asked.

Supsic sensed something was wrong. She called O’Hare, who asked her if she had heard from Lauren recently.

Supsic had not. She remembered sending Lauren a text message two days earlier, on Monday, and following up on Tuesday after not hearing back.

“It was something that I knew she would have responded about,” Supsic recalls.

After talking to O’Hare, Supsic dialed Lauren’s number. The call went straight to voice mail. Supsic called O’Hare back.

By then, O’Hare had spoken to Lauren’s sister, Kaitlyn Wheeler, who was concerned herself.

Wheeler hadn’t heard from Lauren either, so a couple of hours earlier Wheeler had sent a Facebook message to one of her big sister’s law school pals in Macon, Ashley Morehouse.

Wheeler asked Morehouse to drop by Lauren’s apartment, nestled a block or so uphill from the historic Hay House, between Spring and College streets.

“She had already warned us, ‘I’m locking myself away,’ ” says Wheeler, who’d just turned 24. “We knew that she was really busy. No one started to panic at that point.”

Morehouse, on her way to dinner at El Sombrero, a Mexican restaurant just across the Ocmulgee River, recalls arriving at the apartment between 6:30 and 7 Wednesday evening. Lauren’s Mitsubishi Galant was parked out front.

Morehouse walked up the stairs and knocked on the crimson door of apartment No. 2.

No one answered.

“I just assumed that we were all in study mode, and not having talked to her in a few days wasn’t that odd,” Morehouse says.

For recent law grads like Lauren and Morehouse, the grind leading up to the bar exam is “studying every waking moment” or feeling guilty if you aren’t, Morehouse says.

Before heading to dinner, Morehouse called Wheeler back to tell her she hadn’t found her sister. Morehouse offered to swing by later, though.

Wheeler then sent a text message to Kristin Miller, a close friend of her sister’s who’d gone to college with Lauren in Atlanta.

Recalling that night, Miller says she remembers thinking it odd that she, too, hadn’t heard from Lauren after sending a message a couple of days earlier. It was “something I knew she would think was hilarious, and I was surprised she didn’t text me back,” Miller says.

Still, as a lawyer herself, she reasoned that Lauren was busy.

Over the next few hours, Wheeler tried to reach anyone who might know where her big sister was. Wheeler, who knew her sister’s passwords, even logged onto Lauren’s Facebook and Gmail accounts.

“That was my point of panic,” Wheeler says. “She hadn’t sent any e-mails since late Saturday night. She hadn’t been on Facebook at all. ... I knew then that something was terribly wrong.”

About 10 p.m., Wheeler and her husband, Dan, drove to her parents’ house in Laurel, northeast of Washington, D.C. The newlyweds had recently moved into a new apartment. Internet service wasn’t connected and cell phones didn’t work well there.

Her father, Billy Giddings, had already gone to bed. But he was aware that friends and family hadn’t been able to reach his eldest daughter. He wasn’t panicked.

Wheeler says her mother, Karen, wasn’t home. She was out of town, but Wheeler was in touch with her and a dozen or so others in Lauren’s inner circle.

“I was hoping really that I was going to look like the biggest fool in the world,” Wheeler says, “and that Lauren was going to come walking back from the library or from the bar and be like, ‘What the hell is everybody doing in my apartment?’ ”

* * *

After seeing that Lauren hadn’t been on Facebook or e-mailed anyone, Wheeler called Macon hospitals.

Then she decided it was time to call the police. But in talking to Supsic, Wheeler learned that Supsic already had. An officer was being sent to Lauren’s apartment.

Supsic, in Chicago, says she called the cops about 11 p.m. Georgia time. Twenty minutes later, Supsic called back, and the dispatcher told her an officer went to the apartment complex and didn’t find any sign of forced entry.

The officer then called Supsic and suggested that Lauren may have gone away for a few days. Supsic didn’t think so. She told him something wasn’t right.

“I was getting really frustrated with him just because I was becoming a little frantic. ... I realized something was very wrong,” she says. “I just knew that Lauren didn’t just walk away from her apartment.”

The officer said Supsic couldn’t file a missing persons report until the morning and that she should find “some comfort” in knowing that there was no sign anyone broke into the apartment.

As midnight approached, Wheeler was still on the phone with people in Macon.

She gave Ashley Morehouse the go-ahead to use a spare key, which Lauren kept in a white vase on her patio table, to get inside the apartment.

“I didn’t know what I was gonna walk into. ... I really didn’t know at that point,” Morehouse says. “It was nerve-wracking.”

Inside, Morehouse and a couple of classmates with her found Lauren’s purse and keys on the couch. Her cell phone was on her bed with a dead battery. Someone turned on the phone and found that Lauren hadn’t made any calls or sent messages from it since Saturday. Her schoolbooks and laptop were also there. Only her student ID seemed to be missing.

Lauren’s next-door neighbor, McDaniel, came over at some point, but because McDaniel now stands charged with killing Lauren, Morehouse won’t talk about their encounter that night. Another friend who was there, however, has described McDaniel’s presence as “very weird.”

After Lauren’s friends looked around, Morehouse called Wheeler and said, “Everything you’d take with you if you went somewhere was in the house.”

Wheeler called her uncle, her mother’s brother-in-law who’s a cop in Washington, D.C. He told her to tell Morehouse and the group at the apartment to go outside, lock the apartment and call 911.

Around the same time, two Mercer University police officers were dispatched to the apartment. After talking to Morehouse and others there, the officers, at their chief’s request, called Macon cops.

Macon police officer David Descoteaux was sent to the apartment at 12:52 a.m. While he was there, another officer phoned on-call detective Shaun Bridger.

Bridger didn’t go to the apartment that night, but he said he’d follow up later, Descoteaux’s report noted.

Meanwhile, Morehouse, still hopeful that Lauren was somewhere studying, walked around the complex. She and others looked in bushes nearby. They searched the law school and its library across the street.

They didn’t go home until about 3 a.m.

When Morehouse left, she was beyond worried, thinking, “I don’t know where my friend is.”

* * *

About daybreak on June 30 in Atlanta, Lauren’s friend from her undergraduate years at Agnes Scott College, Kristin Miller, woke her father.

It so happened that Miller’s father had gone to law school at Mercer with a man who was now the mayor of Macon. Miller, who worried that Macon police might not be taking Lauren’s disappearance seriously enough, asked her dad to give him a call.

Miller wanted someone with authority here to understand how dire the situation might be, “because she is not some girl who would just disappear like this and not talk to her family.”

Miller’s father left a message with the mayor’s secretary.

A few hours later in Chicago, Lauren’s childhood friend Lori Supsic called her boss. She was too upset to work.

Not long after that, Supsic was the first person close to Giddings to see an online news report that a body had turned up at Lauren’s apartment complex. She called Giddings’ uncle, the D.C. cop.

“My whole world came crashing down around me,” she says.

Authorities had yet to confirm that the body they found at 9:40 a.m. was Lauren.

By then, Lauren’s sisters, Kaitlyn Wheeler and Sarah Giddings, had dropped their mother off at the airport in Baltimore for her 10:30 a.m. flight to Georgia. The two sisters gave their mother hugs and said their goodbyes.

Instead of going back to their parents’ house, the sisters went to their grandmother’s to fill her in. An aunt and uncle who live nearby came over.

Wheeler noticed that her uncle, Bobby Giddings, kept staring at the ground. It was a gesture that made Wheeler wonder if maybe he had something he needed to get off his chest. So she asked him.

“I think they found something,” he said. “We don’t know. ... It’s on Facebook. It’s on the news. They don’t know if it’s her.”

After hours of anxiety, it had become clear to Wheeler that something awful had happened.

“There was no doubt in my mind at that point,” she says.

Her mother’s flight hadn’t begun boarding. Lauren’s sister Sarah called and told her not to get on the plane, telling her, “Everything’s OK. Everything’s going to be OK. Just don’t board. You don’t need to go down there.”

At the airport, in the car, Wheeler told her mother the worst.

Lauren was dead.

* * *

Morehouse didn’t feel safe for a month.

“I wouldn’t walk around at night,” says Morehouse, a 27-year-old upstate New Yorker, who lived in the gated River North neighborhood while she attended law school.

“I locked myself in the house and I was never alone. None of us (Lauren’s friends) were ever alone. Even driving in the car by yourself, we wouldn’t do it. ... At the time, we didn’t know who had done this. ... We didn’t know if somebody was targeting Lauren or Lauren and her friends. So it was terror, a constant state of fear.”

As an escape, Morehouse buckled down for the bar exam.

“It gave me a sense of purpose,” she says. “Instead of getting up every day and just being scared all day, I got up and studied. ... It kept something normal.”

She and Lauren met on the first Friday of law school in 2008.

There had been a get-together at Lauren’s apartment. She and Lauren hit it off. They were both out-of-staters.

“We really did get along well because, no offense, but Georgians have a certain mentality and then Northerners have a certain mentality. ... We’re outspoken, we say what we want, unfortunately, when we want,” Morehouse says. “It can get us in trouble. We just connected on that.”

Morehouse thinks Lauren’s style and chic wardrobe would have made her a formidable attorney. She would no doubt have argued cases with panache, with her hard-nosed, mid-Atlantic sensibility and a spritz of lemon tonic that would’ve kept jurors rapt.

“We’re always wearing our dark suits and have our serious faces on,” Morehouse says. “Lauren had her blond hair, her pink outfits. She wasn’t afraid to be who she was. ... She did bring something different to a field that is so stuffy. ... She was always smiling. How many times have you been in a courtroom when people are smiling?”

Morehouse says Lauren was able to relate to normal people in her work and is confident she’d remain that way had she lived.

“I think she would have been good at telling (a client who) didn’t have a shot at becoming free, or if she knew they were gonna go to jail for a while ... she would just be the one who would maybe ease the tension and sort of look at the brighter side of things,” she says.

By the time Morehouse took the bar exam last July, McDaniel, already in jail on burglary charges, was also a suspect in Lauren’s murder.

“After he was arrested for the burglary, I was shocked. I had no idea that he was capable of a simple burglary, because you go to law school thinking you’re gonna uphold the law. And to think that one of your classmates committed burglaries, that’s shocking in itself,” Morehouse says.

“When I heard about him being arrested for the murder, I was not surprised at that point. I had heard rumors and I had kind of made my own conclusions.”

Nearly a year has passed, and she still she can’t speak of Lauren without verging on tears.

“It still deeply affects everybody. It’s just something you learn to deal with, I guess. ... But talking about somebody whose life ended quickly and in such a brutal manner, it’s sad. ... It rocks your world,” she says.

“This is a nightmare. No one should have to live with this. I’m still hurting as one of her friends. I’m not even her sister or her mother or her dad. I can’t imagine how they deal with things every day.

“You just have to believe that for some strange reason we’re gonna become stronger because of this. But I’m still learning what that reason is.”

Bar exam results came out last October.

Morehouse wasn’t sure what to expect.

She says, “There were a good two weeks where I just didn’t study. ... My mind was elsewhere.”

When she learned that she’d passed the bar, she thought of her slain friend.

“I think she helped me pass, because I don’t know how else I would have done it,” Morehouse, who has since landed a law job in Augusta, says. “I said a silent thank you to her.”

* * *

Late one afternoon in March, Karen Giddings was on a pitcher’s mound in Atlanta.

There was a college softball tournament in Lauren’s honor at her alma mater, Agnes Scott.

The Scotties, Lauren’s former team, were about to play. Karen, 51, and several family members had flown or driven in for the weekend. The Scotties wanted Karen to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

She was sporting Lauren’s old jersey, No. 3. Beneath it she wore pink long sleeves and, in another nod to Lauren’s signature color, her sneakers had pink laces.

Karen underhanded an on-the-money toss to the catcher then took one, two steps and, shoulders back, thrust both arms skyward. All eyes were on her, the grieving mother, and there she was flinging her arms in the air, triumphant.

She was, in that moment, unbowed.

Going home to Maryland afterward was difficult for Karen.

Lauren had moved away from home nearly a decade earlier and lived most of that time in Georgia. After she was killed, it was easy for Karen to pretend Lauren was still living down South. But there Karen had been, in Atlanta, and ... no Lauren.

The softball tourney and events like it that memorialize her daughter “keep chipping away at the fact that Lauren is not there,” Karen says. “Pain keeps settling in more and more. ... I realize what people say about never being able to get over profound loss. You just sort of incorporate it into your very diminished life.”

After that March trip to Atlanta, Karen endured a couple of the worst days she’s ever known.

“I think part of my problem is that I have tried to be that beacon, and I feel like people are watching me. ... I want to be strong for my family and have that sunny disposition,” she says, “but, you know, there are some days it’s just too hard to be happy. A lot of people say getting up in the morning and being happy is a choice. Some days it’s just too hard to make that choice. Now I realize I have to allow myself to, because I guess I’m afraid that when I go into that dark hole I’m never gonna come out. ... It’s taught me to let myself feel those emotions and, you know, just sloth around the house if I have to.”

In the most depressing times, the thought that keeps running through her mind about losing Lauren, about her life ripped away, is that “I just don’t know why.”

Sometimes she tries to imagine Lauren in the afterlife.

“Of course, I think Lauren’s in heaven, but to think of her on this white, fluffy cloud, it wouldn’t be good enough for her,” Karen says.

“I talked to a priest friend of mine, and he said, ‘She’s not floating around. She’s at this heavenly banquet. There’s a feast and there’s wine.’ ... I try to visualize that, because that is Lauren.”

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

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