Stephen McDaniel almost never met the woman he killed.
In his application to Mercer University’s law school in spring 2008, he declared himself “level-headed, down to earth,” “a dreamer and a thinker,” a “highly competitive personality.” He noted his inner drive to win in any situation.
Under the “employment” heading, McDaniel jotted down that after earning a Mercer business degree the previous fall he was baby-sitting his sister’s kids “while taking steps to publish my first novel.”
He said he aspired to be a federal judge but wrote, “Despite having a thorough plan of what lies ahead ... I am not an overly optimistic person.”
Mercer wait-listed him.
But in early June the school welcomed him aboard. That fall he moved into an apartment across the street from the Walter F. George School of Law.
Lauren Giddings, then 24, was his next-door neighbor. She was pretty, athletic, outgoing. He was odd, brainy, a recluse. He asked her out a time or two. She said no but tried to be friendly. He gave her the creeps.
In June 2011, a month and 12 days after they graduated from law school, he slipped inside her bedroom while she slept. According to his April 21 guilty plea confession, she woke and he pounced, strangling her on the floor. He dragged her to her bathtub and cut off her head, arms and legs with a hacksaw.
In recent days, The Telegraph has combed the now-closed McDaniel case file to examine and report the lengths her killer went to cover his tracks and to search for some semblance of an explanation.
Because he never went to trial, the telling in full of his audacity, the depths of his misdeeds, is important. He aimed to do more than kill, something more sinister. He tried to make another human being disappear.
One person close to the investigation deemed McDaniel a budding serial killer, that “we just caught him on the first one.” Perhaps McDaniel, long fascinated with “the perfect murder,” wanted the cops chasing the ghosts of his handiwork.
There is also this, and it is no mere aside: McDaniel may well have been out to toy with the very system of justice that he would have, upon passing the bar, been sworn to uphold.
As Telegraph reporters pored over police documents and interviewed both those who defended McDaniel and others who sought to put him away, another twist in the already wrenching case came to light.
Had prosecutorial and investigative missteps not been remedied or overcome, and were it not for the eleventh-hour discovery of deleted evidence on his computer and camera, there may have been a different ending.
Stephen Mark McDaniel might have walked.
* * *
A lapse of language, an extra five words, could have set McDaniel free.
The Nov. 15, 2011, indictment that launched the court case contended that McDaniel, 28, killed Giddings in a manner “including decapitation of said victim.”
By including that phrase, prosecutors alleged that Giddings was alive when her head was severed, a fact that they would have had to prove at trial.
Had the case gone to trial using that first indictment, McDaniel’s lawyers could have won the case without calling a single witness or presenting a shred of evidence.
After watching prosecutors present their evidence, McDaniel’s lawyers could have asked the judge for a directed verdict of acquittal, yanking the case from jurors’ hands, said Franklin J. Hogue, one of McDaniel’s attorneys.
If no evidence of Giddings’ having been alive during the decapitation was presented, the judge may have set McDaniel free.
“It’s happened a handful of times in my career,” Hogue said.
Former District Attorney Greg Winters said last week that the first indictment “was accurate and would have been supported by case law and the evidence.”
Nothing in the case file seems to prove Giddings was decapitated alive.
District Attorney David Cooke said, “We knew the case wasn’t perfect and that there were many challenges to overcome. That’s why we worked relentlessly to get justice for Lauren.”
On Oct. 29, 2013, prosecutors filed a new indictment. It didn’t mention decapitation. A potential crisis was averted.
Still, the case was circumstantial.
In McDaniel’s apartment, authorities had found Giddings’ panties and packaging for a hacksaw used in the dismemberment. They had found several of his Internet blog posts describing torture and violence toward women.
“I did not see a smoking gun,” Hogue said. “It was a very triable case. It could have gone either way.”
* * *
The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit concluded early on that whoever murdered Giddings probably “targeted” her.
As calculated as he’d been in killing her -- stalking Giddings, both online and also by scoping out her second-story apartment with a video camera taped to a 6-foot stick -- McDaniel appeared to unravel in the slaying’s aftermath. Giddings’ friends came looking for her and before long alerted police. When her body turned up in a curbside trash can at the apartments, McDaniel was no longer in control. His perfect crime was fast becoming his own undoing.
As the sweltering afternoon of June 30 wore on, as McDaniel’s apartment was searched, he came unhinged. He gulped at least 10 bottles of water. Police, in their notes, recalled that he was “pale and zombie-like.” They wondered if he was high. He took refuge in a police department mobile command post, an RV of sorts. He declined a polygraph test. A detective made small talk, asked if McDaniel was worried about the looming bar exam.
“No!” McDaniel said.
A cop asked if he had any questions.
“I want to know what they’re doing outside,” McDaniel said.
What they were doing was getting a sense of who McDaniel was, infiltrating his lair, the apartment cocoon he had fashioned for himself. Not many people had ever been inside, and he liked it that way. At age 25, he was a hermit, seemingly more at home with his cache of swords and guns, his Xbox, his PlayStation 2 and his porn than he was with people.
He stockpiled food the way a survivalist might. On his entertainment center, detectives found a slip of paper with a list of his stores, their shelf life, calorie counts.
Police noticed that he saved all manner of empty containers: Gatorade jugs, two-liter soda bottles, the cardboard centers of toilet paper rolls.
He so rarely drove anywhere in his 1997 Geo Prizm that a classmate and neighbor once joked about its wheels. There were cobwebs on them.
* * *
McDaniel’s apartment wasn’t opened to his family for 22 days. Police kept going in, searching for potential evidence.
His attorneys contend that police couldn’t produce records of which officers had gone in, or show photos to prove the door was sealed.
Had the case gone to trial, the defense could have argued that there were gaps in time when the apartment wasn’t secure.
Two plumbers were set to testify that they were in McDaniel’s apartment during the 22-day period, but no police were there as they made repairs.
“If somebody wanted to come in ... someone else easily could have, for whatever reason, could have put the hacksaw package and the panties in the apartment,” Hogue said.
A police photo from the first day of the investigation shows the hacksaw packaging propped behind a jug of bleach beneath McDaniel’s bathroom vanity.
The alleged lapse in security gave McDaniel’s lawyers an opening, as did inconsistencies regarding the landlord’s University of Georgia-logoed master key and a key to Giddings’ apartment that turned up in McDaniel’s apartment.
In another police photo from the first day of the investigation, McDaniel’s dresser can be seen and the keys aren’t visible in the spot where a detective later testified he saw them, Hogue said.
The judge ultimately ruled the keys would be admitted as evidence despite defense lawyers’ contention that they weren’t included in the search warrant associated with their discovery.
Still, Hogue said he could have shown jurors the photo of the dresser with the keys absent to undermine prosecutors’ story.
“I’m in the reasonable doubt business,” he said.
* * *
“It was hard being a friend with Stephen,” said Phil Banze, a neighbor, who first met McDaniel while the two were participating in Mercer University theater productions in their undergraduate years.
“Stephen was very socially awkward. He was pleasant enough, but he never really was a part of the group. He would never participate outside of the shows with us.”
Interviewed by police in July 2011, Banze was asked if he thought McDaniel could kill.
Banze said no about murder, but said, “I could see Stephen two years ago stealing condoms.”
Of all the people police talked with, fellow law school grad Michael Quinn appeared to be McDaniel’s closest friend in Macon.
Quinn went to McDaniel’s apartment to watch the popular TV show “24” a couple of times. He also went there once or twice to watch a movie.
The two met during the first week of law school at a get-together at the dean’s house.
Later, the two talked about politics and law in the student lounge and hung out.
Quinn didn’t remember McDaniel ever talking about Giddings.
He volunteered to police, “I’ve never known Stephen to be violent ... he’s never been violent or really said anything that would make me think he would be violent.”
One of the apartments’ landlords, Marty Bush, said he tried to schedule maintenance work when McDaniel wasn’t home to avoid “long, crazy conversations ... I had no desire to be a part of.”
Past dorm roommates told police of McDaniel’s penchant for asking people what they’d do if zombies attacked or how they would commit the perfect murder.
William Ingram, a friend of one of those roommates, related a story of how McDaniel walked him into a dorm bathroom after describing how he’d knock a person unconscious and drag them to a tub to chop the person into pieces.
“It made so much of an impression to me that almost every time I see a tub ... I always think of what Stephen McDaniel told me,” Ingram said.
In his police interview, Ingram said, “It’s like a nightmare coming true.”
* * *
Late on the night of June 30 and into the early hours of July 1, McDaniel was grilled by investigators. He withstood a barrage of questioning.
At one point, Detective Scott Chapman asked McDaniel, who’d by then mentioned his taste for pornography, about Giddings.
“You’ve never looked at her and said, ‘Man, I wonder what it would be like to have sex with her?’”
“Yes,” McDaniel replied.
A judge ruled later that although he wasn’t under arrest, a reasonable person would have thought McDaniel was “in custody” when, deep in the interrogation, another detective finally caused him to crack and admit he’d stolen condoms from his neighbors’ apartments.
The admission might have proven useful to prosecutors, had they been able to tell jurors McDaniel was an admitted burglar, a prowler.
But they were barred from using the information because police failed to read McDaniel the Miranda warning, advising him of his rights.
Although McDaniel had recently graduated from law school, police still were required to recite the list of rights immortalized in TV crime shows: “You have the right to remain silent ...”
* * *
“I am a writer,” McDaniel wrote in his law school application.
In hindsight, he may have written his own ending.
Acquaintances have said it was as if he had been preparing for a zombie invasion, the end of the world. Maybe he was right after all. Perhaps the end was coming -- his.
Detectives asked him to name the last book he’d read. McDaniel said it was the zombie thriller “Day by Day Armageddon.”
One of McDaniel’s unfinished works, a 56-page manuscript police found in his apartment, was titled “The Story of Travir.”
A detective who read it, in his notes, described the tale as a cross between “Lord of the Rings” and the Harry Potter series set in medieval times.
It is impossible to know if the story is autobiographical, but the detective who read it recalled in his report that one of McDaniel’s ex-roommates had told how McDaniel “always tried to gain power over everybody he came in contact with by using his smarts.”
The character Travir appears to be someone who relies on wile. “To lose control of oneself is dangerous,” the story says.
McDaniel’s graduating class at Gwinnett County’s Parkview High in 2004 voted him, along with a star running back, most likely to be famous.
In “The Story of Travir,” McDaniel writes, “Without both power and wisdom you cannot achieve the level of greatness and fame that you have, for so long, desired. Without patience, you cannot gain power. ... I will take whatever action necessary to gain glory.”
Other passages, which the detective excerpted in his report, appear to hint, eerily so, at the mindset of a killer lying in wait.
Maybe it is pure fantasy.
Or maybe it foreshadows the author’s demise.
“If you act in haste and without knowledge of what your actions will bring about, the result will be ruin ... due to your brazen carelessness,” McDaniel writes.
“Strength lies not only in the sinews of one’s arms, but in wisdom as well. Do not think I am weak and fearful because I do not charge madly into battle. I am strong because I know when to strike.”
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.