Cops couldn’t crack McDaniel, documents show

Telegraph StaffApril 27, 2014 

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Stephen McDaniel may not have known it, but his days as a free man were over.

He sat in a chair in a small, rectangular interrogation room at the Macon police detective bureau. A hidden camera was trained on him.

McDaniel, in the cross hairs of a murder probe the scope of which the city has rarely seen, could have made life harder on the cops. He could have walked out and forced their hand: Handcuff me or don’t.

They would almost certainly have come calling for him had they let him go. But as the last night of June 2011 wore on, McDaniel chose instead to sit and let detectives grill him.

It was after 11 p.m.

McDaniel, who a month earlier had graduated from Mercer University’s law school and no doubt knew his rights, already was the focal point of the barely 12-hour-old Lauren Giddings murder investigation.

Earlier that day, about 9:40 a.m., police searching for the missing Giddings caught wind of an awful smell. They found her dismembered torso in a trash can at the Georgia Avenue apartments where she and McDaniel were next-door neighbors.

Now the clock was ticking -- for investigators and for McDaniel, a 25-year-old from suburban Atlanta who’d lived beside Giddings since fall 2008.

His last minutes of freedom were slipping away.

Last Monday, on the eve of his trial, McDaniel, now 28, pleaded guilty, confessing to a slaying that ranks among the highest-profile crimes in local history.

Giddings, 27, was slain and dismembered. Her arms, legs and head have never been found.

McDaniel, sentenced to life in prison, admitted to strangling her and dumping her missing limbs in a trash bin at the Mercer University law school across the street from their apartments. He and Giddings had graduated from the school a month earlier.

But on that first day when cops repeatedly asked him what had become of her, McDaniel played dumb.

As the night dragged into the predawn hours of July 1, he often ignored questions. His silence spoke for him.

Then he messed around and said too much.

* * *

Videos, audio recordings and reams of investigative documents obtained by The Telegraph tell the story of McDaniel’s cat-and-mouse game with police in explicit detail.

It was 11:08 p.m. when detective David Patterson walked into the interview room.

McDaniel, dressed in black flip-flops, a navy T-shirt and jean shorts, sat staring, his face shrouded by a mane of brown frizz.

Giddings’ torso had been tentatively identified. Since its discovery that morning, her father had traveled down from her native Maryland.

Patterson spoke of Giddings, but he kept McDaniel in the dark about what authorities knew and didn’t know.

“Do you know where’s she’s at tonight?”

“No,” McDaniel said.

“I’m asking you as a friend for help,” the detective said. “Can you help me?”

“I don’t know,” McDaniel said.

Thirty seconds later, Patterson said, “Do you even care that no one can find her?”

“Yes.”

Twelve or so hours earlier, before noon, McDaniel had come to the police station with neighbors and Giddings’ friends to give statements about her disappearance.

His neighbors had consented to searches of their apartments. McDaniel had not. Patterson, all business with an easy Kentucky drawl, asked why.

“It’s the lawyer in me,” McDaniel said, lucid as you please. “I’m just always protective of my space.”

By the time they finished talking, it was about 1:30 in the afternoon. McDaniel had agreed to let Patterson walk through his apartment -- with McDaniel present -- under the pretense of looking for Lauren.

He hung around the apartments all day while police combed the complex. Maybe he had nowhere to go.

A person close to the case has suggested he stayed for another reason: sheer curiosity.

To see what the cops would find.

* * *

At 11:23 p.m. on June 30, Patterson asked why McDaniel was acting differently, why he wasn’t the same chatty fellow he’d been that morning when Giddings was missing.

“Why are you shutting down?”

“I don’t know,” McDaniel said in a hushed, robotic drone.

That afternoon he had granted reporters a now-notorious interview in which he appeared to show concern for his missing neighbor.

“She was just gone,” he’d said, telling how none of her friends could find her.

Then he almost fainted, or acted like it -- or who knows, maybe both -- when a television reporter mentioned that a body had been found.

“You ran your mouth to the news media. ... Now you get down here and you don’t (expletive) know,” an exasperated Patterson said. “You know, you’re just a sorry piece of (expletive) that don’t give a (expletive).”

The detective, perhaps in an act of showmanship of his own, slowly removed his glasses. He slid a snapshot of Giddings down the interview table toward McDaniel.

No reaction.

Patterson insisted that McDaniel knew where Giddings was -- her remains at least.

“I don’t know,” McDaniel said.

“Yes, you do know,” the detective replied.

At one point, another cop would notice McDaniel’s glazed-over stare and ask McDaniel if he was counting the pores in a concrete-block wall.

Another time, in an apparent effort to get McDaniel to provide some semblance of an answer about anything, a detective asked McDaniel if he liked Coca-Cola.

McDaniel said he did.

“Which tastes better,” the cop asked, “Coke or Pepsi?”

“I don’t know,” McDaniel replied.

Patterson kept badgering him about Giddings’ fate.

“You do know. You do know,” Patterson said.

The detective paused a beat.

“You know. ... You know. ... You know. You do know. And everybody in Macon knows you know. ... Snap out of it,” Patterson said. “How many times you gonna say, ‘I don’t know?’”

McDaniel didn’t seem to know.

* * *

At 11:35 that night, detective Scott Chapman stepped into the room.

He showed McDaniel a snapshot of Giddings.

Chapman placed it on a table in front of McDaniel.

“This pretty little girl right here, your neighbor, is missing,” the detective said.

McDaniel denied doing anything to her.

Chapman eased his chair over to McDaniel and put his hand on McDaniel’s shoulder.

Then the detective got loud.

“There’s blood in your apartment, Stephen. You didn’t get it all up!”

McDaniel said nothing.

“Don’t you watch ‘CSI’?” Chapman said.

No reaction.

As midnight passed, the detective, calm again, leaned back in his chair and said, “I know you’re not a monster, man. I know you’re not a bad guy.”

McDaniel didn’t say a word.

* * *

McDaniel told the police he had been getting by on student loans.

His apartment lease was up in two weeks. He was heading back to Lilburn to live with his folks.

At 12:18 a.m., Patterson asked McDaniel about a couple of fresh scratches on his stomach. Police said the marks were consistent with fingernail scratches. McDaniel said he must have cut himself while he was sleeping.

McDaniel answered yes when Chapman, for some reason, asked, “Do you wear the same pair of underwear more than one day?”

Asked why, McDaniel, a survivalist type who stockpiled food and sports drinks in his apartment, said, “Because it’s still clean enough to wear.”

Chapman leaned over a legal pad and ran a hand through his hair trying to scrub some hairs loose. He told McDaniel there was no doubt some of McDaniel’s hair had come out when he did whatever he did to Giddings.

“We want to give you the opportunity to tell it,” Chapman said, “so you don’t look like a monster at the end.”

Chapman said Giddings must have screamed.

“I know you feel bad about it,” the detective said. “I can see it in your face. What came over you?”

Chapman made a show of tap-tap-tapping the snapshot of Giddings on the table.

“I didn’t do it,” McDaniel said.

A minute passed.

Chapman said, “You’re having a massive meltdown right now. ... You can’t live with yourself. ... You hurt her, Stephen.”

McDaniel kept quiet.

At 12:45, Chapman stood and picked up the photo of Giddings.

Before leaving the room, he said, “I’m gonna take this with me. You don’t deserve to look at it.”

* * *

McDaniel stayed in his seat. He looked catatonic, feet on the floor, hands in his lap. Alone.

Five minutes later, Patterson entered with a yawn. He told McDaniel that he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.

“Somebody always leaves something at a crime scene,” Patterson said. “You’re not gonna win. Too much evidence.”

It was past 1 a.m. when detective Carl Fletcher started talking to McDaniel.

Fletcher, now retired, had worked in homicide, vice, gangs.

Fletcher got McDaniel chatting about eHarmony, an online dating site McDaniel visited.

McDaniel hadn’t had much luck.

Fletcher asked about McDaniel’s hair.

“I just decided to grow it out,” he said.

The detective inquired about McDaniel’s grooming habits. He even asked what kind of toothpaste he used -- “Colgate,” McDaniel said -- anything to get McDaniel talking.

Fletcher asked how often he bathed.

“A couple of times a week,” McDaniel said. “When I get sweaty.”

McDaniel said he used deodorant.

The detective then told McDaniel to put on his thinking cap, his lawyer brain, and ponder the puzzle of Giddings’ death.

“If a complete stranger’s gonna come to her apartment and kill her, they’re not gonna take the time to dismember her and throw her in the (expletive) trash can,” Fletcher said. “Why take two or three or four hours to dismember her instead of just (expletive) leaving?”

McDaniel didn’t respond.

“You said you’re intelligent,” Fletcher told him. “Start acting like it.”

The detective informed McDaniel there was a cloud over him, suspicion.

“And it’s raining all over you.”

* * *

The nonstop questions would not compel McDaniel to confess to murder that night.

They would, however, land him in jail.

At some point the talk shifted to McDaniel being a virgin.

There were condoms in his apartment.

What would a virgin who said he was saving himself for marriage need condoms for?

McDaniel was asked where he got them.

He said that a couple of years back he had gone into a couple of fellow classmates’ apartments while they were out.

“Was it just recently you decided to go and look for stuff in the apartments or have you been doing it since you’ve been living there?” Fletcher said.

“I don’t remember,” McDaniel replied.

But he had said enough. He’d admitted to burglary, said he’d taken one condom from each of the two apartments he entered. The doors were unlocked, he said.

Before he was taken to jail, where he would sit for a month before a murder charge was brought, the police had one last thing to do.

They had a search warrant.

“We saved the best for last now,” an officer told him. “I got to pull some hair out of your head.”

The officer made small talk.

“You have plenty of hair, ain’t you?” the cop said. “You ain’t going bald no time soon, are you?”

McDaniel didn’t reply.

Contact writer Amy Leigh Womack at 744-4398. Contact writer Joe Kovac Jr. at 744-4397.

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