The painstaking task of combing a Twiggs County landfill to try and unearth bodily remains of Lauren Giddings began Monday, despite long odds against finding any trace of the slain Mercer University law graduate.
Twenty or so FBI agents from field offices in Georgia and Virginia with expertise in landfill searches have joined a pair of Macon police officers and a handful of volunteers for what amounts to an excavation effort that could last as long as a week.
“Right now, that’s our target -- a week,” said Macon police detective Scott Chapman, one of the primary investigators in the Giddings case. “I’m hoping we’re going to be successful.”
The search began about 7 a.m. Monday. As of 5:30 p.m., authorities hadn’t found anything at the landfill they could definitively link to the Giddings homicide investigation.
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Giddings’ dismembered torso was discovered June 30 in a roll-away trash bin outside her Georgia Avenue apartment building.
Her classmate and next-door neighbor, Stephen McDaniel, has been charged with murder in her death, as well as an unrelated two counts of burglary and seven counts of sexual exploitation of children.
McDaniel, 25, is being held at the Bibb County jail without bond.
Viewed from the air Monday morning, a team of nearly two dozen searchers each an arm’s length apart could be seen methodically picking through a swath of trash at the Wolf Creek Landfill.
After an earth-mover dug up garbage and loaded it onto a truck, the trash was spread out along a hilltop in the middle of the landfill.
The dump, where some of Mercer’s campus refuse is hauled, sits just north of U.S. 80, about 12 miles southeast of downtown Macon.
As an investigator, Chapman said he’s tried to learn everything he can about his “suspect” and tried to put himself into “his frame of mind.”
“No part of that investigation ever led me (to think) that (the remains) were here,” he said. “I don’t have one piece of evidence that tells me that anything’s out here. Still, there has been suspicion that more of Giddings’ remains could be recovered there. Law enforcement and volunteers operating equipment are conducting the search in hopes of bringing peace to Giddings’ family, Chapman said.
Police already have searched other sites, including Rose Hill Cemetery, Macon’s landfill, parks and along the Ocmulgee River.
“Everybody wanted to get involved,” Chapman said. “I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve seen an agency like the FBI just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to come down and do this search for you, and we don’t have one piece of evidence telling us that (remains) are here.’
“So that was awesome in itself right there.”
Chapman said FBI agents are raking through the garbage piece by piece searching for remains.
Because the landfill company keeps “good records,” the search area has been narrowed to a particular area.
The spot where the trash was scooped from was a 100-by-200-foot section of the dump, where trash was buried in late June.
“They have a pretty good idea of exactly where the trash coming from that school from a particular trash can was actually dumped. It is several feet deep, so it took some time digging down to get to that area that it’s believed to be in,” he said.
FBI agents met with Macon police about 10 days ago. At that time, the FBI scoped out the site and concluded that search dogs would not prove beneficial.
“Cadaver dogs smell human remains, but they react on anything -- bodily fluids -- and that could be anything,” Chapman said.
What’s more, because it’s a wide-open landfill, dogs may smell something in one place because the wind is carrying the scent from a dirty diaper a half-mile from the landfill, Chapman said.
FBI agents said they’ve done similar searches in the past and have had a high success rate in finding the items they searched for, Chapman said.
Although it took time to organize the search, it’s being done without any cost to Macon or the Giddings family.
The FBI estimated that a private search could cost about $500,000, but the landfill waived tens of thousands of dollars and private contractors have donated the use of equipment and operators.
“A lot of gracious people came together to make this possible,” Chapman said.
The landfill costs were waived on the contingency that only law enforcement would be involved in the search -- no civilians -- because of liability concerns.
It was also necessary for police to get approval from the state to conduct the search. The law firm that prepared the contract waived legal costs.
Chapman said he spoke to Giddings’ mother, Karen, by phone Friday and that she thanked him and the police for their efforts.
“She said, ‘I haven’t called you guys and bothered you in any way because I truly believe that y’all have done everything that you can do.’ She was very appreciative.”
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.