by Jake Anderson
There are true-crime cases that stick with you in strange ways. Sometimes just the face of a victim smiling years before their death breaks your heart. Other times, one specific detail of a crime gnaws at the back of your mind and keeps you up in the dark of the night, disturbed but thankful the universe has spared you such raw horror.
The tragic, brutal death of Lauren Giddings, a 27-year-old law school student who was murdered in Macon, Georgia in June of 2011, stuck with me because of a single video. It was merely a shotgun interview with one of her neighbors, conducted by a local news station correspondent at Lauren’s apartment complex in the earliest days of the investigation when Lauren was still a missing person.
Viewed retrospectively, the video is bone-chilling.
The interviewee was Stephen McDaniel, a fellow Mercer University law school graduate who was a friend and neighbor of Lauren’s and was assisting in the search. Stephen’s unique physical appearance at the time, punctuated by his bushy, troll-doll hair and a gaunt, skeletal face and frame complemented what can rightfully be described as one of the creepier missing person interviews.
It was Thursday, June 30th, 2011. Lauren had been missing since Saturday. The local correspondent, standing beside her cameraman, who was zoomed in on Stephen’s face, asked the young man about how he knew Lauren.
“We were both JD students, graduated back in May,” he said, softly.
“What kind of person was [Lauren]?”
“She was nice as can be…a people person,” Stephen responded.
“Do you know anyone who might have wanted to hurt her?”
“The only thing we can think is that maybe she went out running and someone snatched her….” Stephen replied with the calm intensity one would expect of a person whose school friend has been missing for four days. “One of her friends had a key, and we went inside to see if anything was amiss and there was no sign of a break-in.”
Then it happened. The reporter asked the question.
“What about the parking lot area….? I know that’s where they were looking–I think that’s where they recovered her body, whatever they recovered from there…”
This recent news had obviously not yet made its way to Stephen.
The change that came over his face was as palpable as a total eclipse of the sun.
“Body….?” Stephen uttered in a crushed tone. His face suddenly tensed with the countenance of someone who is having a silent panic attack, someone whose inner stability has just completely collapsed.
“Did you see anything there?” The reporter asked. A long pause. Stephen was just staring at her. “Did you see anything there?”
“I…” he tried to talk, but he looked nauseated, likely feeling poisoned by the sudden release of his body’s stress hormones.
“I mean we don’t know if this is the same person….” The reporter added, realizing Stephen was struggling with something.
Was this a young man devastated by the sudden suggestion that his missing friend’s body had been discovered by police? Or was he reacting to something else, perhaps the mention of a specific area, the parking lot area?
“Are you ok, sir?”
Stephen looked broken, his mouth agape.
“I think I need to sit down,” he managed to utter and then stumbled over to the curb and collapsed onto his ass, faced away from the camera, and stared off into the distance.
When the footage resumed–presumably a few minutes or more later–the interview continued but Stephen was now emotional and hyper-ventilating. The reporter asked if he was studying for the bar, but Stephen was rambling in a whiny, anxiety-addled voice, “I mean, no one had seen her since Saturday and we don’t have a lot of interaction except for classes…..[tearing up again] I don’t know anyone that would want to hurt her….She was going to be moving out…today, she was going to move out today.”
As Stephen started to hyperventilate again, the reporter asked, “What’s going on in your mind right now? What are you thinking?”
A pause and then, voice cracking, “Why would anyone do this?” Then he completely broke down. “Maybe I could have helped…we checked the law school library but she wasn’t there!”
Watch the exchange below:
Notice that after learning that a body was found in the parking lot area of his apartment complex, from which his friend had gone missing, Stephen doesn’t once ask whether the police believe the body to be Lauren. Yet the moment the parking lot area is mentioned, his demeanor completely changes and he is virtually incapacitated with emotion.
Is this a devastated friend with an unusual way of processing new information? Or is this a killer learning on live television that his victim’s body was discovered by the police?
Macon Police Department interrogation
After an initial talk with cops in which he was accompanied by Lauren’s other friends, it appears Stephen was asked back to the precinct to speak with detectives. This was after the news interview, which the detectives presumably saw. It took place at approximately 11 PM in a small surveilled interrogation room attended by two Macon County homicide detectives, Detective Scott Chapman and his partner, who employed a tag-team approach often seen in police interrogations.
Stephen responded to all their questions in a weak, robotic, terrified voice. It’s impossible to overstate the oddness of his body language and verbal responses.
“What’s wrong, Stephen?” Detective Chapman asks in an aggressive, patronizing tone, pulling his chair closer and leaning in with a photo of Lauren. “Do you remember me from earlier? I need to know about this girl right here…do you know her?”
“When was the last time you seen her?
“2 or 3 weeks ago.”
Were you friends? Do you know where she’s at tonight? Have you seen her in this dress?
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, son.”
Stephen snaps his head awkwardly to meet his gaze.
“Look, just tell me what happened, brother. I need your help. I’m a detective and I’m asking you for your help.” Chapman pats him on the shoulder and back, “Help me out…[Stephen had told them he previously worked as a law clerk for the prosecutor’s office at the Macon judicial circuit] You worked for a prosecutor, so you’re on our side,” Chapman says with a friendly laugh. “What would you do if you were investigating this case? What do you think happened?”
“Someone took her.”
“How did someone take her?”
“Maybe while she was running.”
“You don’t think someone got her when she got back to her apartment? You do know that a white female body was found right next to her apartment…..we don’t know for sure if it’s her but we’re pretty sure it is. In your expert opinion, having gone to law school, who in your apartment could have done something like this?”
“I don’t know.”
Chapman’s frustration begins to surface. “I don’t know what to tell her family. ‘I don’t know,’ what do you want me to tell them, ‘I don’t know?’ Are you a sorry piece of shit that wants me to say that? Your ass stood out there on the news and ran your mouth but now you’re here and you don’t fucking know? You know but you’re just a sorry piece of shit that don’t give a fuck. Her mom cried all the way down to Macon, Stephen.”
“Earlier you were normal, why all of a sudden are you acting like this? I don’t understand, why are you shutting down? Are you scared?”
Do you have a girlfriend? Did you think Lauren was your girlfriend? Did you want to have sex with Lauren? What’s up with that underwear in your apartment that was cut up like a mask?
No…no…no…I don’t know….
When detectives’ interrogation tactics aren’t paying off, they often become agitated and aggressive. They often claim this is yet another tactic to apply pressure. It definitely works sometimes – as in the later Chris Watts’ interviews – but in this case, Stephen remained in his shell, doling out monosyllabic, one-word answers so pathologically and nonsensically that the detectives get angry. When suspects turn out to be innocent, these kinds of interrogations can retrospectively look psychologically abusive; when guilty, detectives can look brilliant.
As the interview continues, Stephen admits to owning a rifle, an AK-47, a pistol, a samurai sword, and a big knife. “I used to collect swords,” he says.
“Why do you need all these weapons? Were you molested as a kid?”
The other detective comes in and asks, “Have you ever shot a gun?”
“You bought 3 guns but never shot one?”
The rest of the interrogation features the detectives asking increasingly aggressive questions and employing common psychological ploys. These ploys can be hard to watch at times when they veer into blatant misogyny and victim-blaming. For example, they might tell the suspect they don’t think he’s a monster and that he’s a good person who was just screwed over by the victim.
His behavior at this point does not necessarily scream guilt. I’m sure there have been plenty of suspects who were simply on the spectrum of either autism or a generalized anxiety disorder – or simply terrified of being interrogated. To paraphrase a line from the film Glengarry Glenn Ross…most innocent people are scared of cops. You know who isn’t scared of cops? Criminals (at least the sociopathic ones).
In his distinctively Alabaman southern accent, the detective establishes that Stephen is a virgin and then pounds his fist on the desk in frustration (for tastefully humorous analysis of the interrogation, check out this True Crime Loser video).
Stephen effectively stonewalls detectives. In fact, whether fueled by terror, sociopathy, mental illness, or the aforementioned fear of cops, Stephen’s performance in the interrogation was solid for a suspect who has declined to lawyer up. He sat with interrogators for two hours, gave up virtually no information, and did not deviate in his tone, demeanor, or behavior.
At this point, there was still no direct evidence tying Stephen to the murder. In fact, there was no direct evidence tying anyone to the murder. Investigators worried a killer may walk free.
A Disturbing Portrait Emerges
In the weeks and months after the initial interview, the investigation grew progressively more disturbing as detectives and prosecutors uncovered new evidence.
After the discovery of Lauren’s dismembered torso and Stephen’s initial police interview, it seems the investigators focused on two different simultaneous tracks: the search for direct physical and forensic evidence; and understanding the history of Stephen’s behavior and his relationship with Lauren (which could help establish motive).
What unfurled was the story of a nightmarishly deranged mind and the kind of predatory behavior that will make you think twice about your neighbors and acquaintances.
The portrait police ultimately stitched together paints Stephen as a psychotic incel with depraved desires who, over the course of several years, worked up the momentum to begin acting out his sick fantasies in reality.
Stephen had always been on the weird side, it seems, but his eccentricities had been confined to idiosyncratic characteristics like writing fantasy fiction and wearing chainmail to class. His only brush with the law was when he was accused of stealing condoms from people’s rooms. The few people who knew him well enough to consider themselves his friends said Stephen sometimes gave people the creeps but hadn’t showcased any violent tendencies.
In an exhibit that was later read in court, Stephen wrote a post describing a fantasy of losing his virginity (or, as he called it, his “v-card”) and then barbequing the acquaintance’s legs and “organ meat.”
When he was accepted into law school, he moved into an apartment across the street from the campus. It was here that a downstairs neighbor reported often hearing the sounds of Stephen running back and forth between rooms, cursing.
At this apartment complex, Stephen had another neighbor: Lauren. In time, they would also serve together in the school’s Federalist Society chapter. Lauren was President and Stephen was Vice-President. When her parents visited from Atlanta, Stephen skulked around and met them. When Lauren’s dog was hit by a car, he was there by her side while she cried. He seemed to be integrating himself into her life.
Stephen reportedly asked Lauren out several times. She politely declined. Despite what must have been an awkward situation, Lauren, an attractive, gregarious, and outgoing athlete, was nice to the pale, reclusive Stephen. But secretly he made her uncomfortable.
Her instinct, it turns out, was spot-on. Sadly, if she had even an inkling of the extent to which Stephen was obsessed with her and psychologically unhinged, it’s possible such a tragic ending could have been averted.
Macon police finally charged Stephen with Lauren’s murder. During the trial, prosecutors presented nearly 200 pieces of evidence. Naturally, Police Chief Mike Burns and his detectives had played this evidence close to the vest during their investigation, carefully preventing any leaks to the media. It was only during court proceedings that the public learned the full horror of what investigators discovered.
Their evidence included:
~The discovery of a large, bloody sheet in a washing machine in the apartment complex’s laundry room. Inside that same laundry room, investigators found a hacksaw in a locked storage closet. Though the hacksaw had been cleaned, the blade still contained human flesh and blood that matched Giddings’ DNA. Police also found packaging for the hacksaw in McDaniel’s apartment.
~Police discovered a “balled up” pair of underwear containing Giddings’ DNA in McDaniels bedroom sock drawer.
~Investigators established that McDaniel had possessed a copy of the apartment complex’s master key, which gave him access to every apartment.
The evidence that ultimately compelled Stephen to confess, however, was a videotape. Not the videotape mentioned at the beginning of this article regarding his reaction to learning her body had been found (which, though damning in retrospect, isn’t by itself a strong piece of evidence proving guilt).
Rather, investigators recovered a video clip that had been deleted from McDaniel’s camera.
According to The Telegraph, which broke the news of the existence of the evidence, the video constituted “nothing short of a killer’s reconnaissance,” irrefutable evidence that Stephen had stalked Lauren directly prior to her murder.
Chillingly, the tape establishes that only hours before Lauren’s murder, McDaniel duct-taped his camera to the end of a 6-foot stick, positioned himself on the ground floor outside Giddings’ apartment, and lifted the stick up so that he could film through the half-drawn blinds of Lauren’s second-story window. McDaniel angled the camera so that he could see Giddings’ front door from the inside and study its locking mechanism.
McDaniel had meticulously planned how he would enter Lauren’s apartment in the pre-dawn hours. Kristin S. Miller, a friend of Lauren’s family who later represented the Giddings in their civil suit, described the video as “the most horrific, hideous … premeditation [she’d] ever seen.”
Due to this evidence, Stephen McDaniel eventually confessed and took a plea bargain that spared him the death penalty (Lauren’s parents also did not want prosecutors to seek the death penalty). Stephen received a veritable life sentence. He won’t be eligible for parole for 30 years and, given the evidence that eventually surfaced, it seems unlikely he would ever be released.
The video of Stephen’s stalking endeavors was the crucial final piece of evidence the prosecution needed to compel a confession and a plea bargain. We won’t ever know for sure, but without that video, it’s certainly possible (perhaps even probable) that Stephen would not have been advised by his lawyer to confess.
This is evidenced by the fact that he ultimately went back to court to argue that his lawyer had given him negligently bad advice and that he should have never confessed. So without that video and the confession it elicited, it’s very likely there would have been a full-blown trial that could have easily ended in an acquittal. Murder trials with significantly more forensic evidence have fallen apart due to procedural errors or clever defense strategies.
How easily Stephen could have walked is further evidenced by additional information that came out during this phase of the trial.
Prosecutors revealed that the trashmen were supposed to empty the dumpster in which Lauren’s torso was found, something Stephen had been counting on. However, on that particular day, they missed the pickup. This is why he was so shocked in the video.
Without the discovery of Lauren’s torso, there’s a chance prosecutors would have lacked the evidence needed to coerce McDaniel’s confession – and therefore a reasonable chance he would have walked.
But as chilling as this thought is, it’s nothing compared to the content of Stephen’s confession and the final portrait of Lauren’s death–and her killer’s mind–that materialized.
What actually happened the night Lauren died is this:
~Stephen crept into her apartment wearing gloves and a mask (unclear what kind of mask he wore or whether he picked the lock using his “reconnaissance footage”).
~Lauren saw him enter her bedroom and said in a very calm voice, “Get the f*** out.”
~Stephen leaped across the bed and grabbed her by the throat. They fought and ended up on the floor, where Lauren’s legs got caught under the bed frame, preventing her from fending off the attack.
~During this struggle, Lauren ripped off the mask, at which point she realized her assailant was someone she knew. She pleaded with him, “Stephen? Please stop.”
~Stephen proceeded to choke the life out of her for 15 minutes. He then dragged her body into the bathtub, leaving at around dawn to go back to his apartment to research on his computer.
~Stephen returned later that evening with a newly bought hacksaw and dismembered her body. He wrapped her head and limbs in separate black trash bags and disposed of them in the Mercer law school dumpster. He disposed of Lauren’s torso in their apartment complex’s dumpster, where it was found two days later.
A day after discarding her body parts, he participated in a search party that looked for Lauren, after which he was interviewed on live local TV. Thinking he had strategically dispatched Lauren’s torso, Stephen instead learned a body was found in his own apartment complex’s dumpster. It’s hard to fathom the emotional framework of someone capable of such sadistic cruelty but clearly, he has a full-blown panic attack as he realizes police will soon be all over him.
Despite his confession, Stephen returned to court to appeal his conviction, arguing it was the result of negligent advice from his defense team. Stephen arrived donning a markedly different physical appearance, a more polished look that matched his attempt to represent himself. Stephen had once planned to be a lawyer: here was his first and likely last moment to try a case. But the move backfired so spectacularly it casts doubt on whether he had any chance at ever practicing law.
By asserting negligence by his trial lawyer, Floyd Buford, Stephen was forced to put Buford on the stand. This is the same man who at one point early in the trial had described his client as “sort of a Renaissance man.”
Under oath now though, Buford sang a different tune, issuing a damning statement:
“I was strongly in your corner but this new evidence of you spying on her that came in forced a plea…the horrific confession in which you said you sat down and cut off every finger from her hands and threw them in the toilet and flushed them…searched online for having sex with dead people…on top of which you possessed the most horrific child pornographic photos…”
Needless to say, it doesn’t look good when your own lawyer tells the court that you’re a horrifying monster.
The appeal opened the door to understanding the full depravity of Stephen’s mind. His Internet browsing habits had included a large cache of child porn and searches for “molest sleeping girl.” This is evidence that will assuredly be presented again in 30 years when Stephen applies for parole. It is also evidence that will likely make its way to other prisoners incarcerated near him.
During the criminal trial, appeal, and civil case, it was also revealed that prior to her murder, Lauren suspected something was amiss and feared for her safety. She told a friend she was afraid to stay in her apartment because she thought someone had tried to break in.
Tragically, the dots were not connected in time to neutralize a sadistic psychopath. A bright, promising young woman suffered a horrifying, violent death. It’s a case that reminds us that harassment, misogyny, stalking, and violence against women is a 24-7, life or death issue requiring the highest levels of social vigilance, oversight, and responsibility.
RIP Lauren Giddings.