In a courtroom half a mile down the hill from the apartments where Lauren Giddings’ dismembered torso was found stuffed inside five plastic trash bags two months ago, new details in her killing and the case against her next-door neighbor and Mercer University law school classmate emerged Friday.
In her honor, some of Giddings’ friends and north Georgia relatives, including her boyfriend, wore her trademark color of pink.
Suspect Stephen McDaniel’s parents from Lilburn sat on a bench behind their son. They held hands the whole time. Glenda McDaniel, her eyes shut, lips moving, appeared to pray in the minutes before the proceeding began.
When the 25-year-old suspect and aspiring lawyer was led into the ground-floor courtroom, his defense attorney looked up and said, “Hey, Stephen.”
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McDaniel acknowledged him with a nod. Then McDaniel took his seat and stared dead ahead. For most of the 55-minute commitment hearing, his gaze was not on the witness stand or the judge but seemingly, if anywhere, on the wall to the judge’s right. It was as if McDaniel was asleep with his eyes open. He bore the dazed look of a man everyone in the room was watching but who had no idea they were even there.
At the end of the hearing, Bibb County Magistrate Judge Bill Shurling ruled there was enough probable cause for the case against McDaniel and that it would be bound over to Bibb Superior Court.
The next step in the legal process is for the case to be presented to grand jurors who will decide if there’s enough evidence for an indictment.
The judge denied bond for McDaniel, who has been in jail since July 1, first on burglary charges unrelated to the murder. He was charged with murder a month later and most recently, earlier this week, with seven counts of sexual exploitation of children. Police allegedly found photographs of children in sex acts on a computer flash drive in his apartment.
But McDaniel’s Friday court date, sometimes called a show-cause hearing, was a preliminary one on the murder charge in a macabre case that has attracted near-unprecedented local attention. Giddings, who grew up just south of Baltimore, was 27, an attractive, outgoing law grad who stayed in town after graduation to study for the state bar exam. She vanished sometime during the last weekend in June.
Her torso was found in a roll-away, residential trash bin outside her Georgia Avenue apartment building June 30.
Macon police detective Sgt. David Patterson testified Friday that cadaver dogs had “positive hits” that same day in the complex’s laundry room as well as in the apartments that belonged to Giddings, McDaniel and in a downstairs unit directly beneath Giddings’ residence.
The downstairs apartment, No. 1, belonged to their classmate and Dublin native Antoine Bostic. Bostic, who has declined to return telephone messages from The Telegraph for much of the past two months, had all but moved out at the time. He was living across town with his girlfriend when Giddings was killed, testimony revealed Friday.
The dogs “alerted” in McDaniel’s bathroom and rear bedroom, Patterson testified. Though McDaniel said it was OK for the dogs to go into his apartment, he first pointed something out, the detective said.
“He had been in Lauren’s apartment the night prior, helping with the search for her. He was concerned that ... he might have picked up something on his clothing or shoes and brought it into his apartment,” Patterson said.
Bibb District Attorney Greg Winters then asked the detective, “Now at this point had any of (the friends and neighbors who were questioned) been told that a body had been found?”
“No,” Patterson said.
Giddings’ torso was in a flip-top trash can used by residents in the apartment building where Giddings and McDaniel lived. They had been neighbors for nearly three years while they were enrolled at Mercer’s Walter F. George School of Law across the street.
At the scene the morning Giddings’ remains turned up, Macon police Sgt. Steve Gatlin, a crime scene investigator, was informed by Patterson, who said he had “observed some flies around the trash cans,” that a body might be inside.
In court Friday, Winters asked Patterson, the lead detective in the case, what Gatlin found.
“Some large, black trash bags,” Patterson said. “Inside was a torso.”
Patterson went on to say that inside McDaniel’s apartment police also found a master key that unlocked every door in the complex, along with a key to Giddings’ apartment and packaging for a hacksaw. A hacksaw with Giddings’ DNA on it was retrieved from a locked closet in the complex’s laundry room. Police opened the closet using the master key found in McDaniel’s residence, Patterson said.
The detective later testified that McDaniel’s undergraduate freshman-year roommate at Mercer in 2004-2005, Thaddeus Money, who now lives in South Carolina, told police that McDaniel “used to talk about the ‘zombie invasions’ and how he would commit the ‘perfect murder,’ what he would do to cover up the murder.”
“And what did he say was the perfect murder?” McDaniel’s attorney, Floyd Buford, asked.
“Sneaking up on someone and overpowering them,” Patterson said.
“Did he say how he would overpower them?” Buford asked.
“With chloroform,” the detective replied.
Police didn’t find any chloroform in McDaniel’s apartment.
Patterson said Money’s statements, however, were consistent with what happened to Giddings.
A phone message left for Money was not returned Friday.
When questioned by Buford, Patterson acknowledged that the cadaver dogs only went into three apartments. The detective said the dogs sniffed around the rest of the complex.
Patterson also said that a maintenance man at the complex had a set of master keys, but Patterson couldn’t remember whether he was one of the people questioned on the morning the torso was found.
Patterson said he didn’t recall the size of the hacksaw, but he said its manufacturer confirmed the hacksaw package found in McDaniel’s apartment was the same kind of packaging for saws like the one found in the complex’s laundry room.
Buford, early in his cross-examination of Patterson, asked when it was that the detective first considered McDaniel a “person of interest.”
“When no one knew about what we had discovered in the trash can and he was taken back to his apartment (after questioning at the police department). ... He was free to go and ... he started giving the news report to the media,” Patterson said. “That’s when he became a suspect to me.”
“Because he gave a statement to the media?” Buford asked.
“No,” Patterson said, “because of what his reaction was to the reporters when he was giving the statement.”
The detective said McDaniel appeared “distraught.”
“So as I understand it,” Buford said, “he became, in your mind, a person of interest in the Giddings investigation because when he gave an interview to a reporter he appeared to be distraught? Is that correct?”
“To me, yes,” the detective said, adding that the cadaver dogs’ alerts also helped him reach that conclusion.
The defense counselor then asked Patterson if he was aware that a private investigator hired by the defense had recently found what appeared to be a pair of blood-stained, blue gloves in the apartment complex’s laundry room. Patterson said he was not.
Buford later declined to elaborate on the significance of the gloves. Search warrants in the case seem to indicate that authorities were looking for items -- clothing, towels or other fabrics -- with blue fibers in them.
Next, Buford asked if the hacksaw in question bore “any DNA from Mr. McDaniel.”
Patterson, after 10 seconds passed, said, “Not that I’m aware of.”
More than half an hour earlier, just before the hearing started, Buford had stepped over into the cozy, 38-by-34-foot courtroom’s seating area to greet his client’s parents.
“Y’all all right?” he said.
After Buford returned to the defense table, Mark McDaniel sat with his legs crossed, his head bobbing at times.
Other spectators -- about 40 in all -- included representatives of the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and a handful of courthouse employees. Bibb Sheriff Jerry Modena and his chief deputies also were on hand.
Toward the end of the proceedings, Buford asked Patterson if there were now any forensic test results back on the alleged evidence in the case that was sent to the FBI’s laboratories.
Prosecutor Winters objected, arguing that “this is not a fishing expedition to see what you can try to find out.”
The objection was overruled, and Patterson said there were no results from the FBI pertinent to the murder charge.
Winters then asked the detective, “Do you have any evidence from the FBI or the GBI that would help give you probable cause, and specifically the GBI, that would help give you probable cause to go forward?”
Patterson said there was, and later, when asked by Buford what it was, said, “Things were discovered on electronic items that were taken from the accused’s apartment.”
When the judge asked if those items relate to the murder charge, Patterson paused for 30 seconds and then asked, “Can I discuss this with the district attorney?”
Told he could not, the detective said, “Does it relate to the warrant today? No. Does it relate to the case overall? Yes.”
Buford argued that the murder warrant was improper, that it failed to mention how Giddings was slain.
“The case,” he said, “should be dismissed right now.”
But it wasn’t.
Stephen McDaniel was led away by deputies, still wearing his stone-faced expression.
Kaitlyn Wheeler, Lauren Giddings’ sister, watched the hearing on the Internet and later deemed McDaniel’s behavior to be “all part of his game, his act. ... I think that’s what he wants people to see.”
As McDaniel walked past his parents, bound for a van ride back to jail, Mark and Glenda McDaniel watched him go.
But their son did not look at them.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.