The first time Thad Money met Stephen McDaniel, he couldn’t help laughing.
McDaniel was in his Mercer University dorm room playing a video game. Money, a transfer from the United States Air Force Academy, popped in to say hello, but had to retreat to his bedroom so he wouldn’t crack up in front of McDaniel.
“I walk back to my room and I double over laughing for 30 minutes,” Money recalled. “He’s sitting at his computer playing this stupid MS-DOS ‘World of Warcraft’ game. ... He’s wearing chain mail.”
That was in August 2007. Now, four years later, McDaniel faces murder charges -- charges based, in part, on Money’s memories of some of their conversations.
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Money, from Monroe, a town between Atlanta and Athens, previously had attended The Citadel for a year before heading to the Air Force for a year and a half, where his dreams of being a fighter pilot were dashed. He was honorably discharged.
Money, a political science major, would finish college in Macon. McDaniel, his roommate, was on full scholarship, a business major bound for law school.
“Imagine coming in the first time,” Money said. “You’re coming into a normal school and the first thing you see is your roommate wearing chain mail. ... It was hilarious.”
Money, now 25 and a financial adviser in South Carolina -- he said his name in his chosen profession “has been a blessing” -- eventually would befriend McDaniel in their single semester as roommates.
But some of the things Money said McDaniel told him have him doing anything but laughing now.
* * *
One of Money’s former Mercer professors got in touch with him in early July.
Stephen Mark McDaniel had been named by police as a “person of interest” in the killing and dismemberment of Lauren Giddings. She had been McDaniel’s law-school classmate and next-door neighbor.
“My first response was, ‘Are you kidding?’’’ Money said by phone Monday in an interview with The Telegraph. “I was shocked.”
The information about McDaniel that Money shared with detectives was cited in the murder warrant that authorities served McDaniel Aug. 2.
Though Money declined to divulge specifics of what he has told investigators, Money’s recollection of McDaniel portrays the 25-year-old aspiring attorney as an unusual and at times “creepy” person, but also as a young man Money came to appreciate.
Giddings, 27, was killed sometime between June 25 and early June 30, the morning police discovered her dismembered torso stuffed in a residential garbage cart beside her Georgia Avenue apartment.
The hillside complex faces the Walter F. George School of Law, where Giddings, from Maryland, and the Lilburn-raised McDaniel were members of the 2011 graduating class. Both, like some others in their class, had stayed in town after graduation to study for the Georgia bar examination.
Authorities have said McDaniel had a master key to the apartments and another key for Giddings’ door. They say they found packaging for a hacksaw in McDaniel’s apartment that matched a saw found in the complex’s maintenance room that bore Giddings’ DNA.
In the fall of 2007, McDaniel and Money shared a common living room and bathroom at Mercer Hall, a four-story dorm nestled between Greek residences near the student center. Their bedrooms were private, with locks on the doors.
“Stephen believed he was smarter than everybody else,” Money recalled. “I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve been to schools with a lot of smart people and he’s as smart as anybody I’ve ever met.”
McDaniel, he said, was fascinated, often obsessed, with asking people he’d meet two questions, questions to see if they were, in his opinion, sharp enough.
The first question: Where would you go if there was a zombie invasion?
“He’d want to know if you could find a defensible position and if you could find a place you wouldn’t run out of food easily. ... It was just a pure logistics question,” Money said. “Although he was completely convinced that a zombie invasion would happen.”
The second question: If you could plan the perfect murder, how would you do it?
* * *
Money said he has told police, in explicit detail, what McDaniel’s “perfect” plan supposedly was.
Police have said those specifics are in line with what they believe happened to Lauren Giddings.
“I’m not gonna go into how he said he would do anything,” Money said Monday, three days after his name came up in McDaniel’s Magistrate Court hearing.
“After he told me how he would do it,” Money said, “I said to him, ‘Well, Stephen, I’ve been to military school, I’ve had combat training, I’ve had hand-to-hand training, I’ve taken martial arts. I’m strong, I’m fit and I can handle myself. So thank God for that. You would never be able to get (your plan) over on me.’”
“Well,” Money said McDaniel told him, “that wouldn’t matter.”
“And I said, ‘Why?’’’ Money said. “And he said, ‘I’d just find a way to bum-rush you with chloroform or something.’’’
Money said he just looked at McDaniel and said, “Remind me to sleep with my door locked.”
To which Money said McDaniel replied, “Well, that wouldn’t matter.”
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’’’ Money said. “He said, ‘Go in your room and lock the door. Put a timer on 30 seconds and I’ll be in there before the time runs out. He was in there in 29. ... He took his knife and wedged the little (lock) open.”
* * *
McDaniel and Money were in a campus production of a play called “The Disciples.”
Money played “an overzealous Christian guy” and McDaniel was “a gay, Jewish psychology major who was just really confused,” Money said.
Money had, at the time, been “bitter” about missing out on becoming a pilot. McDaniel cheered him up by encouraging him to try acting.
“He helped me through a lot. ... He gave me an outlet that I needed badly,” Money said, “and I really appreciate him for that.”
Money said he knew that going to the police with what he said he knows about McDaniel was the right thing to do.
“If anything, I feel like Stephen betrayed himself by letting everybody know what he’d do. ... I’m not here to throw Stephen under the bus,” Money said. “I’m not here to cast an undue light on him, and I’m definitely not here to help him get convicted. The only thing I’m here to do is provide information that he gave to me to the police to help the Giddings family get justice for their daughter.”
He said there was no way he could have foreseen that what McDaniel told him would play out in real life.
“If I ever thought (that), I would have called somebody and said, ‘Hey, listen, this guy said he would do this. This is how he said he would do it, and he is going to do it.’ ... I mean, what am I going to do? Call somebody and say, ‘Hey, listen, my roommate, who’s super-creepy and has this plan to hurt somebody but has never hurt a fly, you know, is creepy?’ What are they gonna do?”
Still, Money said, other people have also heard McDaniel mention perfect-murder scenarios.
“Stephen would get really excited when he told his version,” Money said. “So excited that sometimes we’d have to shut him down in the middle of it. Like, ‘Dude, you’re freaking us out too much.’ ”
Some of the information Money has shared with authorities, he said, is “pretty damning.”
Giddings’ sister, Kaitlyn Wheeler, who lives south of Baltimore near where she and her sister grew up, said by phone Monday that she was glad Money came forward.
“I hope he doesn’t blame himself for anything,” Wheeler said. “A lot of people say stupid things and you write it off.”
* * *
Money feels sorry for McDaniel’s parents.
In the course of the homicide investigation, detectives have said they discovered digital images of child pornography on a computer flash drive in McDaniel’s apartment. He faces seven counts of sexual exploitation of children.
“I did consider Stephen a friend ... (but) he creeped me out more than once. In a very eerie, scary way,” Money said, though he would not say why.
He said McDaniel’s parents were “great people.”
“I’ve posted more than once on my Facebook to have (friends) pray for them because I know this is eating them alive,” Money said.
He said McDaniel is “brilliant.”
“He was smarter than everybody else and he knew it,” Money said. “If you were gonna play in his circle, you had to be as smart as he was. ... He didn’t care about having friends.”
Money, who said he was one of the few Republicans in Mercer’s political-science program, recalls talking to McDaniel after the 2008 presidential election. McDaniel, a firm conservative, was none too pleased with the outcome.
“I didn’t even want to talk to him about it because if you got him started he would just rant,” Money said. “He made Rush Limbaugh look like a Democrat. He would make Rush Limbaugh look like Al Sharpton.”
Money said, from what he has seen of McDaniel after law school, the roommate he knew then looks nothing like he does now, that McDaniel now looks “strung out.”
“I don’t know what got to him (at law school). ... Maybe it was proved to him that he wasn’t the smartest guy in the world,” Money said.
“He was obsessed with power. Everything to him was a power game. He wanted power. I don’t want to elaborate more than that.”
Money, asked if he ever feared for his own safety, said, “Let’s put it this way. He talked about what he could do and how he would do it. I just never thought he would do it to me because I played on his level. He liked me. We were friends. I actually slept on the couch most nights. ... If I ever thought he would have done something like that, I would have said something to somebody. It was all completely hypothetical.
“But am I surprised? Not at all. That something like this would happen and he’d be named the suspect? No. Not at all surprised about that. I’m just surprised that the act itself was done. If anything surprises me, it’s that he’s gotten caught already, that he got caught so easily.”
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.