Detectives searching the apartment of a Mercer University law school graduate whom they have declared a “person of interest” in the death and dismemberment of his next-door neighbor and classmate found a master key that unlocks other apartments in the hillside complex in downtown Macon.
One of Stephen Mark McDaniel’s neighbors said Wednesday that on the same day Lauren Giddings’ body was found, she learned that McDaniel apparently had means of accessing other residences.
McDaniel, 25, who is being held at the Bibb County jail on felony burglary charges from alleged incidents two winters ago at the apartments, had been scheduled to have a bond hearing Thursday morning, but it was postponed after his attorney filed a motion.
Evelyn Spencer, who lives in the apartment beneath McDaniel’s, said that on the evening of June 30, several hours after dismembered remains of Lauren Giddings’ body were found near their streetside apartment building on Georgia Avenue, a Macon police detective came to her door.
Spencer said he informed her that investigators had found a passkey in McDaniel’s apartment.
“The detective told me ... (McDaniel) had a master key to all these apartments,” Spencer said. “That was shocking.”
Spencer, 66, said the detective even tried the key in her door’s lock -- and it opened.
She said she then asked the detective, “I wonder how he got a master key?”
“He didn’t say anything,” Spencer added.
Ranking police officials have declined to discuss the discovery of such a key.
Hours after Spencer learned of the key, McDaniel was charged with burglary.
Marty Bush, co-owner of the Barristers Hall apartments, said he and his fellow co-owner, along with the apartment complex’s manager, are the only people who have master keys.
The complex has had two managers in the past three years, he said. Bush said the apartments’ locks and master keys are being replaced.
Late Wednesday afternoon, investigators removed a refrigerator from the ground-floor apartment next door to Spencer’s for further forensics testing. That apartment, No. 1, is directly below Giddings’, and police have now sealed it.
Its tenant was in the process of moving during the time Giddings was missing, Bush said. Most of the furnishings had been removed before Giddings’ body was found, and the tenant has since finished moving out.
McDaniel’s bond hearing was canceled Wednesday after his attorney filed a motion asking that a separate hearing be held to determine whether McDaniel’s prior employment at the district attorney’s office created a conflict of interest. He contends that the Bibb District Attorney’s Office should be disqualified from prosecuting McDaniel.
“I think the court needs to inquire into that matter,” McDaniel’s attorney Floyd Buford said.
McDaniel, who along with 27-year-old Giddings, graduated from Mercer law school in May, worked as a law clerk at the District Attorney’s Office to earn credit for school.
District Attorney Greg Winters said he had not viewed a copy of Buford’s motion late Wednesday afternoon and didn’t want to comment without reviewing it.
Buford said he hopes a hearing will be scheduled soon.
If a judge issues an order that there is a conflict of interest and disqualifies the District Attorney’s Office, the office must notify the state Attorney General’s Office, said Lauren Kane, a Georgia attorney general’s office spokeswoman.
The Attorney General’s Office would then appoint a prosecutor from another district attorney’s office outside the Macon Judicial Circuit, she said.
McDaniel has been held at the Bibb County jail since his July 1 arrest, according to jail records.
He is being held in a cell by himself and out of the general jail population for his protection, said Sgt. Sean DeFoe, Bibb County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
Asked to comment about public perception in some quarters that McDaniel might be linked to Giddings’ slaying, based on police statements, Buford said he hopes people will remember that everyone is presumed innocent in keeping with the American justice system.
“He hasn’t been charged with murder and hasn’t been named a suspect,” Buford said.
Touching base with FBI
McDaniel gave police consent to search his apartment June 30. Two additional searches there have been conducted using search warrants, Police Chief Mike Burns said.
The chief said detectives are communicating with FBI forensics experts in Quantico, Va., daily through e-mails and phone calls, but they have not received test results. He would not say whether police have received any partial results.
Some of the more than 70 pieces of evidence were flown to the FBI using a commercial shipping service. Others were “overnighted,” he said.
Burns said it’s possible the results could be returned this week, but it could be later. Authorities previously had said they anticipated results being returned Monday or Tuesday of this week.
The results will make the case, he said.
“It’s the evidence,” Burns said.
Asked if police have recovered any more pieces of Giddings’ remains, Burns didn’t offer an answer.
It has been two weeks now since Giddings’ torso was discovered. Police have not said how she was killed.
“We’re going to solve this,” the chief said.
Officers have logged more than 400 hours of overtime on the Giddings case, but the case hasn’t received any more police attention than the other slayings investigated this year, Burns said.
“As long as we have a lead, we’re out in full force,” he said.
Macon Regional CrimeStoppers announced that the reward for information leading to arrest in Giddings’ slaying has been increased to $12,000 using additional money provided by anonymous donors.
At the Georgia Avenue apartments that have been the focus of the half-month-long search for clues in Giddings’ death, police continued to keep watch over the comings and goings at the complex.
Spencer, McDaniel’s downstairs neighbor, said she is home most of the time and that she welcomes the police presence.
She said she didn’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary around the time Giddings went missing on or around the Saturday night of June 25.
Wednesday afternoon, nibbling a slice of bologna while a “Bonanza” rerun played in the front room of her two-bedroom apartment, Spencer said that during the three and a half years she and her son have lived there, she occasionally heard McDaniel, who lived there most of that time, “run from one room to the other. ... And, oooh, he could curse. My goodness.”
Spencer said he drove a dark-blue import, perhaps a Subaru, with a “Pray” bumper sticker on the back.
She said she sometimes heard him playing what sounded like a video game.
“He’d be up there cursing, ‘Go ahead, you S.B.!’ ... talking to the game,” Spencer said.
She could recall just one conversation with McDaniel, a recent one, during their time as neighbors. She said a few weeks back he told her about a cat that had five kittens in the bushes nearby.
“He was just sitting there looking in all them weeds,” Spencer said.
She said she never saw “any friends, no women or men, visit him.”
Spencer didn’t know Giddings, who lived upstairs next to McDaniel on the north side of the apartments facing the Walter F. George School of Law across the street. Spencer did, however, say hello to Giddings when Spencer was out sweeping.
“She was very friendly,” Spencer said. “Spoke with a smile. Very friendly young lady.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.