Stroke of fortune helped cops catch Giddings’ killer

Telegraph staffApril 29, 2014 

McDaniel

Stephen McDaniel walks to the bench to enter a his guilty plea April 21.

WOODY MARSHALL — wmarshall@macon.com Buy Photo

It was a stroke of luck. The garbage man was late.

When a pair of Macon police detectives pulled into Lauren Giddings’ Georgia Avenue apartment complex the morning she was reported missing, they parked their cars, blocking some curbside trash cans.

Minutes later, the garbage truck arrived and its driver “just waved at us like he wasn’t worried about it,” investigator Scott Chapman recalled.

The truck kept going.

That morning, June 30, 2011, police found Giddings’ torso in one of the trash cans.

The discovery launched a murder investigation that would ultimately include more than two dozen detectives, the GBI and FBI.

Had the trash been picked up, Giddings might still be a missing person.

At the time, her killer, Stephen McDaniel, had yet to become a suspect.

But he thought the trash had been picked up, that the cops wouldn’t find a thing, Chapman said.

It wasn’t until later that day when a TV reporter told him a body had been found that “you saw him flip his mind,” the investigator said.

The TV interview and other headline-grabbing details of Giddings’ dismemberment, in part, generated an avalanche of leads and investigative dead ends. The ensuing legwork kept the lead detectives working around the clock for weeks.

Their efforts were sweeping and encyclopedic. Reams of documents and case notes reveal an investigation that was nothing short of dogged.

According to police files examined by The Telegraph, authorities ran down countless leads and tips. Some were promising. Others were flat-out dead ends.

“Our job requires us to follow up on all leads,” Chapman said.

Had they not, it might have been questioned later why a tip wasn’t vetted, leaving their case open to second-guessing.

David Patterson, the other lead detective, said, “We didn’t know it was Stephen at the beginning anyway.”

Although Chapman said police “suspected Stephen for certain reasons,” they didn’t know for a fact he was the killer in the beginning. Detectives had to follow up on leads for other suspects as well.

McDaniel wasn’t charged with murder for a month. He pleaded guilty to strangling Giddings last week.

“The only thing that we could do was just talk to anybody and everybody that was willing to talk to us,” Chapman said.

‘Crazy-looking man’

Two days before Giddings was last seen alive, a Wal-Mart cashier remembered that McDaniel, the “crazy-looking man from the TV,” had checked out at her register.

He was with another man, a guy who seemed to be in a bad mood, who bought a tarp, rope and hacksaw blades, the cashier told detectives.

The cashier asked the customer if he was “doing a home-improvement project,” but the man didn’t answer, and McDaniel walked off with him.

Trouble was, it wasn’t McDaniel.

A wild-haired and seemingly distraught McDaniel had by then gone on camera for reporters. Viewers had for days seen clips of McDaniel crumpling into a sobbing heap after hearing a body had been discovered.

Detectives reviewed surveillance footage from June 23, 2011, the day the cashier thought she saw McDaniel.

Although she was wrong, McDaniel did go to the store and buy rope, two ponchos, a flash drive and some Sour Patch candy about five hours after the supposed sighting.

Police scoured the Georgia Avenue corridor, searching for other security camera footage.

The cameras at Barristers Hall apartments, where Giddings and McDaniel were next-door neighbors, were fakes.

It had been at least five years since cameras worked at the AT&T building beside the apartments. Had the cameras worked, they might have provided a good view of the garbage can where Giddings’ torso was dumped.

City Engineer Bill Causey helped detectives comb the sewers, storm water drains and wells near the apartments, searching for evidence.

Pipes that couldn’t be searched by humans were traversed by a robot.

Detectives also searched the Gray Highway corridor. Along with the footage from Wal-Mart, detectives viewed tape of every car washed at Fountain Express Car Wash between June 25 when Giddings went missing and June 30 when her torso was discovered. Neither Giddings’ nor McDaniel’s car showed up.

Along with searches of two area landfills, police also hiked the banks of the Ocmulgee River looking for Giddings’ remains.

They also received a tip about a foul smell south of Hawkinsville, about 50 miles downstream from Macon.

Investigators even talked to a man who claimed to have seen a one-eyed dog in Columbus that he suggested might be Giddings’ dog, Butterbean.

Someone called 911 and told police about a woman and her boyfriend who had moved to Statesboro soon after the killing. The caller said the woman claimed “she could never come back to Macon.” Detectives later learned the couple moved before the murder.

Another 911 caller said he’d seen a black man and a white man, one of whom had a knife, on Coleman Hill, and they were “peculiar.” He said he could identify the two, but detectives noted that the man “sounded intoxicated.”

Inmate reported strange gesture

Investigators considered a paroled man who lived near the North Avenue Kroger who was suspected in a dismemberment killing more than a decade ago. Nothing linked him to Giddings.

Police talked with a woman who reportedly told people she’d heard a man talking about the killing in a way that made the woman think he killed Giddings.

When interviewed by police, the woman denied making the comments, and the man said he didn’t kill her.

Detectives interviewed a man who was in the Bibb County jail with McDaniel in February 2012. The man said he asked McDaniel why he was locked up.

McDaniel gestured like he was strangling himself.

Giddings’ torso was found wrapped in five black Hefty bags. One detective went to every convenience store from Spring Street to the Gray Highway Wal-Mart to see if any sold them. Only Wal-Mart did.

Cops did their best to fashion a timeline of Giddings’ final hours. On the last afternoon of her life, she had gone to the pool at Healy Point country club in River North.

At 5:48 p.m., she used a credit card to buy food or a drink for $7.50. Not long after that, she stopped by the Zaxby’s not far from her apartment.

The exhaustive search for Giddings’ killer was so vast that it included checking every garbage can for several blocks and walking through cemeteries.

“We would have time to go home and take a shower and maybe catch an hour or two catnap, and we were back at work,” Chapman said. “It was like that for weeks.”

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

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