Detectives and prosecutors knew it. They had their man.
It was their man, in the end, who needed convincing.
Stephen McDaniel, according to some of the authorities who scoured his world for clues, had thought he could outwit them, that he could kill his law school classmate, carve up her body with a hacksaw and talk to news cameras like a concerned neighbor as if nothing had happened.
Then, the thinking goes, he’d duck back into his study pad, cozy up with his laptop, his video games and zombie obsession, and drop off the radar. After all, he had just earned his law degree and, as ex-roommates and investigators have suggested, he figured he was smarter than everybody.
“Do I think he thought he was gonna beat it? Yeah,” said former Bibb County District Attorney Greg Winters, who first brought charges against McDaniel.
“I think he thought he was gonna be able to find a way out, and he couldn’t.”
The lead Macon police detective in the murder of Lauren Giddings had suspected McDaniel the instant he saw McDaniel crumble upon learning that Giddings’ dismembered torso had turned up in a trash bin at the Georgia Avenue apartments where Giddings and McDaniel lived.
McDaniel, on the last day of June 2011, on a 94-degree afternoon, had nearly collapsed when a television reporter outside the Barristers Hall apartments informed McDaniel of the grisly find.
“Body?” McDaniel had said, all but hyperventilating -- or appearing to.
He was arrested hours later and has been locked up since.
That was almost three years ago. Now, just shy of the third anniversary of McDaniel and Giddings’ graduation from the Walter F. George School of Law, McDaniel is on his way into the Georgia prison system. He pleaded guilty to murder Monday, a week before his trial was to begin, and was sentenced to life.
A mind gone dark
McDaniel’s long spiral back to reality, or perhaps the realization that he might not have covered his tracks enough, hit critical mass late last year.
Experts combing his computer began unearthing a trove of potentially damning evidence. He had gone online, investigators learned, researching ways to disable a burglar bar like the one on Giddings’ apartment door. Prosecutors said he also looked up garbage pickup schedules around the time Giddings was killed.
As it turned out, the morning after she was reported missing, police found her torso less than two hours before a trash truck would have hauled it away with that week’s refuse.
About two weeks ago, he granted his lawyers permission to go to prosecutors and discuss a plea. Then McDaniel, 28, changed his mind.
“He stepped back and went back into trial mode,” Franklin J. Hogue, one of his attorneys, said Tuesday.
“And then the evidence just kept pouring in.”
Videos that McDaniel made looking through Giddings’ living room window the night she died were among images discovered on his digital camera.
When his defense team presented him with those findings, Hogue said, “He then realized ... there’s no viable defense theory we can give that’s going to explain this, the timing of it, the contents of it, and not result in a swift conviction and a life-without-parole sentence.”
Even in the face of such insurmountable evidence, McDaniel was slow to plea.
“I’m glad we didn’t have to try it for a jury,” Hogue said. “The evidence in the end was overwhelming.”
As for what might have pushed McDaniel over the edge, to lash out, to sneak into his 27-year-old neighbor’s apartment, strangle her and then methodically dispose of body parts, even he doesn’t seem to know.
“The difficulty in explaining it,” McDaniel wrote in his 700-word confession, “lies in my own inability to understand it. ... I acknowledge that something in my makeup ... must explain it, but it is beyond my reach.”
Said Hogue, “You’ve got to wonder what’s at work in a mind that’s gone that dark, how he got to that place.”
McDaniel, who stands about 6 feet tall, weighed 150 pounds when he was jailed in the summer of 2011. Pale and gaunt, he now weighs 125.
Shortly before lunchtime Tuesday he left the Bibb County jail, where he has been kept in isolation for nearly 34 months, on his way to a state prison near Jackson.
“I’m very worried for him,” Hogue said.
“Here Stephen is gonna go into prison, and people are gonna know he killed a defenseless young woman for no good reason. And I think that’s gonna make him a target.”
‘We knew he was the guy’
As rumors swirled and pressure mounted for the cops to give answers and make an arrest in Giddings’ slaying, then-Macon Police Chief Mike Burns tried to reassure the public.
No, there wasn’t a serial killer on the loose. No, there weren’t more bodies.
At a news conference about two weeks into the investigation, Burns said, “We’re going to solve this.”
On Tuesday, Burns, who in private first told Giddings’ father about the condition of her body, said he was glad for her family that McDaniel had finally come clean and the case was finally over.
The now-retired Burns said from the day McDaniel was charged with murder, “We knew he was the guy.”
He said that at times, he and then-DA Winters “got criticized maybe more than we should have. ... ‘Why haven’t they searched this?’ ... It’s not necessarily that we hadn’t done things. It was that we couldn’t tell people we’d already done it. ... There was just information we couldn’t release.”
He said his detectives ran down “any and everything” as the gruesome case gripped the community.
“All homicides are really bad, but one like this you don’t ever forget,” Burns said. “I’ve seen about every way a human can kill another human. ... I would say this would be in the top two.”
‘A little strange, weird’
Like others who have read McDaniel’s account of his crime, his former landlord at Barristers Hall isn’t buying it.
At least not all of it.
In his confession, McDaniel said he crept up on Giddings while she slept in her bedroom, that the floor creaked and she awoke. He wrote that he lunged for her, clutched her neck and, for maybe as long as 15 minutes, squeezed the life out of her.
“I don’t think it’s exactly how it went down,” said Boni Bush, co-owner of the Coleman Hill-area apartments, which sit across Georgia Avenue from the Mercer University law school. “There’s some semblance of truth in it.”
Bush, a Mercer law grad herself, recalled McDaniel as “different, a little strange, weird.”
She said he seemed docile.
“I don’t feel like he exhibited any signs that would make anyone believe he was capable of this,” Bush said.
Bush said she tells new tenants about the killing when they move in, just to make them aware. Otherwise there are no signs of what happened in Giddings’ apartment, No. 2, or McDaniel’s place next door, No. 4.
In his confession, McDaniel wrote that he dumped Giddings’ torso in one of the two trash cans beside their building before daybreak on June 28 -- two full days before it was discovered after her friends reported her missing.
Bush said that after dark on June 29, she threw something away in one of the cans.
She noticed no flies, no rotten smell.
“If (a torso) was in that trash can for two days at that point,” Bush said, “are you gonna tell me that in 90-something-degree weather that I would not have noticed something?”
Contact writer Amy Leigh Womack at 744-4398. Contact writer Joe Kovac Jr. at 744-4397.