On the last night of Lauren Giddings’ life, perhaps while she slept, her killer was on the prowl.
With duct tape, Stephen McDaniel lashed a video camera to a 6-foot-long wooden stick and, standing beneath her second-floor apartment, peered in a living room window.
Several videos recorded between about 9 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. lent him peeks through the blinds at her front door and the burglar bar bracing it.
Prosecutors allege that McDaniel had been in the apartment before and had stolen a flash drive belonging to Giddings that contained hundreds of personal photos.
He was obsessed with Giddings, his next-door neighbor at Barristers Hall apartments on Georgia Avenue, across the street from Mercer University’s law school where they had been classmates. McDaniel, 28, and Giddings had graduated a month and a half earlier. Now the 27-year-old blonde was about to move away.
And in the final hours of her life, he was spying on her.
About 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 26, 2011, a masked McDaniel used a master key to slip into Giddings’ apartment while she slept. He had researched methods of defeating Giddings’ burglar bar.
After a tussle, he strangled Giddings, clenching his hands around her throat for as long as 15 minutes, until she stopped moving.
Chilling details of a crime that gripped Macon and the region emerged Monday after McDaniel, in a surprise to all but those close to the case, pleaded guilty.
Last week, after learning of the FBI’s scouring of his camera and finding the deleted surveillance video, McDaniel agreed to a deal.
Franklin J. Hogue, one of his lawyers, described the evidence as “the last straw.” McDaniel had been considering a plea since potentially damning evidence of his Internet browsing came to light in recent months.
As part of a plea deal, McDaniel penned a one-page confession describing Giddings’ last hours and how he dismembered her body. In exchange, he was sentenced to life in prison.
He will first be eligible to request parole in 2041, but District Attorney David Cooke said, “I fully expect Stephen McDaniel will spend the rest of his life behind bars.”
‘Stephen? Please stop.’
The night he killed, McDaniel wore gloves and a mask.
After creeping into Giddings’ apartment, he watched her sleep.
The floor creaked and Giddings sat up in bed.
She “saw me, and said, very calmly, ‘Get the f--- out’,” McDaniel wrote in his confession chronicling Giddings’ slaying and his disposal of her remains.
“I leaped across the bed onto her and grabbed her around the throat. We tumbled out of the bed to the floor and in her struggle to get away, she moved her legs and her lower body under her bed, preventing her from getting away or kicking me,” he wrote.
As they wrestled, Giddings pulled the mask from McDaniel’s face and said, “Stephen? Please stop.”
After Giddings stopped moving, “I dragged her into the bathroom and placed her in the bathtub,” he wrote.
He returned home and spent much of the day on his computer.
That Sunday night, McDaniel returned and dismembered her using a hacksaw, he wrote.
“I removed her limbs and head, wrapped them in several black trash bags, separately, and discarded them in the Mercer law school dumpster,” he wrote.
He cut up the mask he had worn, along with his gloves and his shirt. He flushed them down his toilet.
McDaniel wrote that he put Giddings’ torso in the apartment complex trash can just before daylight on June 28, about two days before it was found.
During Monday’s hearing in Bibb County Superior Court, Cooke said an autopsy ruled Giddings’ death was due to “unknown homicidal violence.” No signs of sexual assault were detected, he said.
McDaniel, in his statement, also denied performing a sex act on Giddings.
“She was wearing the pink running shorts when she died and I never removed them,” he wrote. “They were found on her torso just as I had left them.”
McDaniel’s statement also describes what he did in the days after the slaying.
He said he rarely slept, but used his computer extensively. Although he skipped a bar-exam preparation class on June 27, he went to class June 28 and June 29.
Having joined a group of friends and classmates who searched for the then-missing Giddings on the night of June 29, 2011, McDaniel wrote that he was “in a dream-like delusional state” in which he believed Giddings was still alive.
‘In my eyes, you are the devil’
Giddings’ parents first learned of ongoing plea negotiations last Thursday, the eve of what would have been their daughter’s 30th birthday. After Monday’s hearing, the Giddingses, along with two dozen or so friends and family members, had a noon-hour picnic in Macon’s Washington Park. There is a memorial bench for her there.
Billy Giddings said he believes about a third of McDaniel’s account of his daughter’s slaying.
“He’s had a long time to put it together. That’s about as good as he could get it, and that’s pretty horrible,” Giddings, 58, said.
Karen Giddings, Lauren’s mother, didn’t see how McDaniel could have subdued her daughter.
In court Monday morning, Billy Giddings stood at his wife’s side, holding her at the waist, as she read a statement to the judge.
She began by quoting the Bible and described her daughter as “the light of our life.”
Karen Giddings, 53, said her loved ones are “scarred forever by the sheer, exquisite pain of missing her.”
Although she has prayed for McDaniel and his family, she said it is hard to comprehend how one person could inflict such agony. “We have lived going on three years now an unimaginable nightmare wondering what kind of horror our daughter endured,” she said.
As she spoke there were sobs in the courtroom, which was almost filled with Giddings’ supporters, investigators, judges and other observers. McDaniel’s parents were not there.
Karen Giddings said children in her family “have been robbed of their innocence, burdened at such a young age with whispers of evil doing only seen in horror flicks.”
Billy Giddings later said it was hard being near his daughter’s killer in the courtroom.
“We just don’t want him in our thoughts anymore. ... I hope he lives a long life in the worst possible way,” he said.
His wife added, “I really just can’t stand to look at him.”
Friends of Lauren Giddings since childhood in her native Maryland, Katie O’Hare and Lori Supsic, also addressed the court about McDaniel. Supsic said, “He has caused more pain than I am even sure he could have imagined.”
Choking back tears, O’Hare said, “In my eyes, you are the devil.”
‘A broken, beaten, pitiful man’
In his confession, McDaniel described himself as “divided in mind, unable to account for how I could have committed these horrible acts and, at the same time, also be able to carry on daily routines.” He went on, “It’s difficult for me to explain why I killed Lauren and attempted to conceal my deed the way I did. ... I know that it was very wrong; I am not delusional or without all morals or decency.”
McDaniel said, “Something in my makeup — my psychology, my neuropathy (sic), my own particular pathology, perhaps — must explain it.” He expressed remorse, saying he grieves Giddings daily, but doesn’t expect forgiveness from her family.
“There is no way I can ever deserve it,” he said. “If I could take back what happened, I would.”
Floyd Buford, one of McDaniel’s lawyers, said McDaniel was “nervous” and “somewhat emotional” during Monday’s hearing.
He has cried on occasion at the Bibb County jail where he’s been housed since his arrest on July 1, 2011.
Buford said McDaniel — who was a lawyer except for passing the bar exam — worked several hours a day on his own defense, bringing up issues that he and Hogue considered.
“If this hadn’t happened, I think he would have been a fine lawyer,” Buford said.
After hearing that the prosecution knew about McDaniel’s peering into Giddings’ window with a video camera, McDaniel decided to plead guilty.
McDaniel, Buford and Hogue met with McDaniel’s parents Saturday afternoon so that McDaniel could tell his folks he wasn’t going to trial. “It was a very moving, but private meeting,” Hogue said.
He described Mark and Glenda McDaniel as “good people” who are “confused like anyone would be how their child could do such a thing.”
The McDaniels asked their son if he wanted them to travel from their home in Lilburn for court Monday.
He replied “no,” to try to shield his family from media questioning, Hogue said.
As part of McDaniel’s plea deal, prosecutors dropped the sexual exploitation of children and burglary charges against him.
The federal wrongful death lawsuit Giddings’ family filed against McDaniel also is expected to be settled this week.
McDaniel will admit fault and responsibility for Giddings’ death, but there won’t be a hearing or trial to determine monetary damages.
If McDaniel is ever paroled, the Giddingses will have an opportunity to have a hearing, Buford said.
McDaniel didn’t speak on his own behalf during Monday’s hearing.
While Giddings’ loved ones talked of her and spoke of his crime, he sat still.
In the stone-gray suit he has worn to court for nearly three years, McDaniel gazed down at the defense table, at a legal pad and a pitcher of ice water.
His face was blank, empty, pale. He was the picture of meekness as his victim’s mother declared him a monster.
“Today,” the district attorney said later, “he was a broken, beaten, pitiful man.”
When it came time for sentencing, Judge Howard Simms told McDaniel that he couldn’t fathom the reasons behind his violence. Frankly, the judge said, he didn’t want to know.
“Because if I ever found out, I’m afraid I wouldn’t forget,” Simms said. “I don’t want that running around in my head.”
Simms went on to say that in all his years as a prosecutor and judge, he had “seen and heard literally thousands of criminal defendants. And in all of that time there are only two that I would describe as being truly evil. ... Having sat and watched you for these last few months and looked into your eyes, you make number three.”
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.