MOLENA -- Hollis Browning couldn’t wait to get the phone call.
It was a call that he flat-out knew would come in the months ahead.
It would be from Stephen, that smart grandson of his, his daughter Glenda’s boy, who finished law school at 25 and would no doubt be doing the family proud someday at the Justice Department.
Browning, a retired railroad man, a widower, imagined answering the phone at his Flint River farmhouse and hearing the kid say, “Granddaddy, I passed the bar. I’m gonna get me this job.”
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Browning envisioned telling him, “You go get you a nice apartment, and I’ll pay the first month’s rent.”
Perched on his front steps, his pale-blue eyes alight for a moment at the possibility, Browning spoke late last week of his cosmopolitan wishes for the young man.
“I could see him just flying away,” the 83-year-old said of his suburban-Atlanta-raised grandson, Stephen Mark McDaniel. “I was pulling for him.”
The steps where Browning sat overlook Dripping Rock Road and a yard shaded by pecan trees. Cows graze on the lawn. A broken-down ’46 Ford pickup sits around back near a smokehouse. Beyond that, a stand of pines stretches wide across a 63-acre Pike County spread that was left to Browning’s wife by her late father.
Browning gazed toward his barn, his okra patch beside it, and explained why that much-anticipated phone call will probably never come.
It is because of something he first heard about on the first morning of July.
Browning had spent the night at his son Paul’s place.
When he woke at daybreak, Paul’s wife was crying.
“I’ve got some bad news,” she said. “Stephen’s in jail.”
* * *
Browning had last seen his grandson on Father’s Day.
There’d been a get-together at Buckner’s Family Restaurant, an all-you-can-eat-a-rama along Interstate 75 between Barnesville and Jackson.
Afterward, Stephen’s parents headed home to Lilburn.
Driving his black Geo Prizm, Stephen -- still living in Macon after graduating from Mercer University’s law school in May -- followed his grandfather the 40 or so miles out to the Browning farm.
Stephen didn’t stay long.
The property, once home to a pear orchard, lies about 15 miles northwest of Thomaston, not far upriver from Sprewell Bluff State Park. Browning and his wife, Wonnis, who died in 1992, retired there in the late ’80s. Browning, who refurbished the house and outbuildings, now raises a dozen or so cattle and grows vegetables.
On Stephen’s visit, Browning said, they toured the farm by car, “looked at the animals.”
Stephen mentioned the looming bar exam and the rigorous study course he had enrolled in to cram for it.
“It was right expensive,” Browning said. “I gave him for graduation whatever the expense for the bar exam special studies was.”
He said his grandson appeared “fine, absolutely normal” that day.
“The last thing I knew he was studying hard, all night just about, up till late, reading a lot,” Browning said. “And he said it was going better than he thought it would. I knew he’d be passing. Wasn’t no doubt in my mind at all.”
* * *
Within a week of that visit, Stephen’s law school classmate and neighbor would go missing.
The last day Lauren Teresa Giddings’ friends or relatives heard from her was on the following Saturday, June 25.
Five mornings later, on June 30, police found Giddings’ dismembered torso. It had been concealed in plastic trash bags, left in a roll-away garbage bin beside her Georgia Avenue apartment building in downtown Macon.
Giddings, 27, had lived in a second-floor apartment next door to Stephen since the fall of 2008, the year they began classes at the Walter F. George School of Law across the street.
Stephen, who turned 26 last week, would, within hours of the grisly discovery, become a suspect in Giddings’ slaying.
He wouldn’t be charged with murder until Aug. 2, but he was locked up on unrelated burglary charges in the wee hours of July 1 after police linked him to a pair of keys: a master key that unlocked all the apartments at the complex, and another key that opened Giddings’ front door.
After learning of Stephen’s arrest, Browning told Stephen’s father, Mark McDaniel, to find Stephen a lawyer, that “I’ll pay the retaining fee.”
On advice from a Mercer professor, the family hired Floyd Buford, a former state representative and Mercer law grad whose father had been the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia in the 1960s. Buford arrived just in time for Stephen’s first hearing in Bibb County Magistrate Court on the burglary charges.
“We expected to put up bond and go home,” Browning said.
But because there were two burglary charges, felony allegations, bail would not be set.
Browning then asked to see his grandson, who was being held in isolation in the lockup’s sick bay. Browning said a jailer told him, “Stephen’s not acting right.” A nurse informed him that Stephen was out of sorts.
“We are not set up to treat him here. ... We get people that’s all distraught or high, maybe off of drugs,” Browning recalled the nurse saying. “She said, ‘In his case ... we can’t do anything here. Your lawyer could order him evaluated with the proper place or proper individual.’ ”
Browning was shown to a visitation room and a series of windowed booths with phones that lend prisoners their most intimate contact with the free world.
Through the glass, his grandson seemed distant. Stephen barely spoke.
“Normal,” Browning said, “he’d have grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, Granddaddy!’ Bright, prompt, up front. ‘Here’s your young ’un.’ ”
That day, Browning said, Stephen seemed a complete stranger. “Complete, not kind of.”
In front of him was a young man he knew to be sharp and sure, “a bookworm” destined for success, now stripped of that vigor, in a stupor.
“In a trance,” Browning recalled. “It was a different Stephen.”
* * *
As Browning would remember it, Stephen whispered, “Hey, Granddaddy.”
“How you doing, boy?” Browning asked.
“My head hurts.”
“Does it hurt all the time?”
“It comes and goes,” Stephen said, his voice low, his eyes “looking yonder,” as his grandfather would later put it.
“I’m nauseated,” Stephen said.
“Are you eating?” his grandfather replied.
“Well, you’ve got to eat to keep up your strength and not be dehydrated,” Browning said before asking, “Did you get your toothbrush?”
“Yes,” came the reply, soft and quiet.
“Is there anything that I can do for you?” Browning asked.
“I don’t know.”
Before long, Browning walked out.
“I just left. I mean it was just ...” Browning said, his voice trailing off.
“And that’s the last time I’ve seen him. ... I don’t know what to make of it. ... You’re looking at something that’s dread, dark, unbelievable, inhuman. I don’t know what it is. ... I don’t understand. I just plain don’t understand at all. What I relate that to is your own child that’s full of energy and bubbling over ... and you come in and he’s just sitting there quiet and you can’t get nothing out of him,” Browning said.
“You feel like picking him up and taking him to the doctor, but you don’t know why. But (Stephen’s) grown. He’s not a little boy. So it just breaks your heart. You just have to accept what is in front of you whether you like it or not.
“I don’t know of anything I can do about it. Not a thing. I did what I thought was right at the time, to get him a lawyer immediately. ... I thought he’d go over there and pay his bail and they’d take him home. But, my God, when I saw him he just looked ... different.”
* * *
Browning was born in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood, near the old Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills.
He spent some of his youth south of town, in the country. For a time, he attended a one-room schoolhouse.
“I went to seven schools and still don’t know nothing,” he said. “I plowed mules. I’ve dropped corn.”
He fed the family pigs slops and melons and yellow-bloomed hogweeds by the sackful, ones he picked himself.
“I lived in a different world,” Browning said.
He seems to long for simpler times, days when kids earned a dollar a day pruning peach trees, when mothers saved tin cans and jars and hardly locked their doors, when crime didn’t seem so common.
His mother used to tack a note outside when they’d leave the house: “If you need anything, help yourself.”
He recalled how “everybody in the whole country neighborhood paid 5 cents for a skeleton key. It’d fit every house you wanted to go in. Only reason they used it was to keep the wind from blowing the door open or the dog getting in the house. And you’d find it under a rock or flower pot.”
* * *
Browning hasn’t kept up with the case against his grandson all that much.
It’s too painful.
A friend of his who has a computer gives him updates.
“It’s enough for me to hear a little bit. I really don’t want to accept the truth, I guess. If it is the truth,” Browning said. “I’m gonna let them prove things, see. And they probably will. Then I’ve got to accept what the truth is. I’m not a fool not to accept facts.”
He hasn’t much talked about the situation with his daughter, Glenda McDaniel, Stephen’s mother.
“I know that her heart’s broken, and I don’t want to stir up an injured place,” Browning said. “That’s kind of like pulling a broke arm. Just leave it alone.”
He can scarcely absorb the charges himself.
“I’ve had a perfect grandson for 25 years,” he said. “If this is true, he’s went from an excellent grandson to something that, that I can’t comprehend. It’s beyond me. ... If there was 1,000 people out there, I would’ve thought 999 would’ve been in trouble. Not him.”
Browning hoped Stephen would settle into his dream job and “meet a nice young lady” and then call him one day and say, “We really like each other.”
Browning imagined Stephen telling him how he hoped this woman he’d met would have hailed from, say, “North Carolina or Tennessee” and tell how ”they have a farm” or how “her father’s the head of a certain company and she’s an only child or she’s got one sister or so and so.”
“That,” Browning said, “would have tickled me to death. But I never heard him talk about girls.”
* * *
It has been exactly three months since Lauren Giddings was last seen alive.
At least by anyone who cared about her.
Browning has cried for her, for her family.
“It was such a loss,” he said.
But Browning said there have been no overtures of sympathy extended by Stephen’s family to the loved ones of his alleged victim.
“Well, you see, Stephen’s family don’t think he’s guilty,” Browning said. “I think they would express their sorrow of their loss, but as far as tying it together, I don’t think Glenda is ready to tie anything together.”
Browning can only pray that someone else is responsible for Giddings’ death.
But then, Browning said, his grandson is “the only one in the cage so far.”
“I’m afraid,” he said, “that there’s a dark side in a lot of people that you don’t want to accept. I don’t know. The Stephen I know was upright and normal.”
Browning can’t come to grips with how all of Stephen’s schooling, all that he accomplished has seemingly been “slammed in a moment.”
“His whole life in front of him now will never be worth nothing,” Browning said. “You cannot undo what all this has done, true or false. ... If he’s found innocent of all charges, everything wiped away, it’ll never be the same.”
Browning said he hasn’t decided yet whether he will attend his grandson’s trial, if there is one. He also said investigators have not called him. Nor have they paid him a visit. And that doesn’t surprise him.
“I’m the granddaddy. I’m not the parent,” he said.
“If all this that (the police) have got is true, then I guess I’m a broken-hearted grandfather.”
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.