MACON, Ga. (AP) — Detectives began to suspect a 25-year-old Georgia law school graduate in the death of his classmate after he made “distraught” statements to the media before it was revealed that her dismembered body had been found stuffed in a garbage can, authorities said Friday in court.
The detectives also found among Stephen McDaniel’s possessions a master key to an apartment where Lauren Giddings, 27, lived next door and packaging for a hacksaw. A hacksaw was later found splattered with Giddings blood in a nearby laundry room. And, authorities said, they had McDaniel’s former roommate telling them McDaniel had talked openly about how to commit the “perfect murder.”
The outline of the state’s case against McDaniel was laid out publicly for the first time Friday in an hour-long hearing before a Bibb County Magistrate Court judge, who later ruled there was enough evidence to allow the case to move forward.
McDaniel, who has pleaded not guilty in the killing, did not speak during the hearing. His parents left the courtroom without talking to reporters.
During the hearing, McDaniel’s attorney looked to cast doubt on the thoroughness of the investigation, revealing that gloves with possible blood stains were recently found by private investigators at the apartment building where McDaniel and Giddings lived.
“I don’t believe (prosecutors) formed the basis of probable cause,” attorney Floyd Buford said in court. “The warrant was deficient and the case should be dismissed right now.”
McDaniel was charged with murder in the death of Giddings, a recent graduate of Mercer University’s law school, who was last seen after a night out with friends June 25. Five days later, police discovered her torso wrapped in plastic in a garbage bin beside her apartment building. Authorities are still searching for other remains.
Police identified McDaniel as a person of interest, and shortly after Giddings’ death he was arrested and jailed on burglary charges involving two break-ins at the apartment complex. In recent days, he was also charged with seven counts of sexual exploitation of children after authorities said they found illegal images in his apartment.
Authorities have yet to explain why they suspect Giddings was killed. Giddings had graduated in May, traveled to her family’s home in Laurel, Md., for her sister’s wedding and returned to Macon just long enough to study for the bar exam, consider job offers and pack her belongings. After she was reported missing, officers found her keys, cell phone and wallet inside her apartment, with no sign of a break-in or struggle.
At Friday’s hearing, Macon Police Det. David Patterson said he arrived at the apartment complex across the street from the university and noticed an odor and flies buzzing around a flip-top garbage can outside her complex. A sergeant searched it and found the bag stuffed with Giddings’ torso as McDaniel as others were being interviewed by investigators.
He said he was alarmed that McDaniel made distressed statements to a group of reporters who interviewed him before he knew Giddings was found dead. In the interview, McDaniel said Giddings had told him “she was afraid to stay in her apartment” because she believed someone had recently tried to break in.
“I could have done something,” McDaniel told reporters. “I could have lent her a hand.”
Police dogs searching the complex signaled they found something in McDaniel’s unit, as well as a laundry room found near the back of the building. Investigators who searched the laundry unit found the blood-spattered hacksaw inside a locked closet, and Patterson said the FBI later confirmed it contained Giddings’ DNA.
Patterson said McDaniel allowed the dogs to search his apartment, but expressed concern “he might have picked up something on his clothes or shoes and might have brought it into his apartment.”
The detective said he also contacted an ex-roommate of McDaniel’s who told him “Stephen would talk about how he would commit the perfect murder and the methods he would use.” He said those methods were consistent with how Giddings was killed, but did not elaborate.
McDaniel’s attorney questioned whether police had nabbed the right suspect. He asked why police didn’t send the dogs to search other apartments, and used the discovery of the gloves by private investigators to raise doubts about the police investigation. After court, Buford declined to elaborate and a Macon police spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the gloves.
The attorney also said others could have had access to keys in Giddings’ apartment, including a fellow classmate who moonlighted at the complex as a handyman, and other friends who knew where she hid her key.
“It wasn’t a secret, was it?” Buford asked the detective.
And Buford pressed investigators for more details from McDaniel’s ex-roommate. Patterson said the roommate “told me when they lived together they used to talk about zombie invasions, what would be the perfect murder and how to cover it up.”
Patterson said the roommate was told the killing would involve “sneaking up on someone and then overpowering them … with chloroform,” though Patterson acknowledged authorities found no evidence of the substance in McDaniel’s apartment.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, said they were confident of their case.
“The keys, the dogs, the hacksaw, the comments and the statements,” said Bibb County District Attorney Greg Winters, outlining the case. “These give the court probable cause.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)