Ga. police seek remains of dismembered law grad

July 7, 2011 - 4:29 PM
Missing Law Grad

An impromptu memorial is seen outside the apartment of slain Mercer University law school graduate Lauren Giddings, on Thursday, July 7, 2011, in Macon, Ga. Officials have confirmed that a dismembered body found near the apartment complex is that of Giddings, 27, who had been reported missing days before police discovered her body June 30. (AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser)

MACON, Ga. (AP) — A few hours after Lauren Giddings was reported missing, officers made a macabre discovery outside the recent law school graduate's apartment building: Her dismembered body.

Now that DNA tests have confirmed the body was hers, investigators are pleading for help finding the rest of her remains. Who killed the 27-year-old woman — and why — remains a mystery.

Giddings, a tall, popular blonde, graduated from Mercer University Law School in May. She then went home to Laurel, Md., to be in her sister's wedding. She had returned to Macon just long enough to study for the bar exam, consider a couple of job offers and pack her things.

"What seemed to be everything falling into place has turned into a nightmare," Bill Giddings, the slain woman's father, said Thursday in Macon, where her family had gathered. "We can't wait to find who did this and we can't wait to find the rest of her. It's just wrenching in both cases."

Family and friends said it's hard to imagine why anyone would harm Giddings.

During the three years she studied law at Mercer, the young woman attended Mass every Sunday — and often several times during the week — at St. Joseph Catholic Church in downtown Macon, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Allan McDonald. Members of the local running club she belonged to saw a less serious side of Giddings, who as a newcomer hopped into a small creek to cool her legs not realizing the water was deeper than she could stand in. Friend and fellow runner Jason Keith said a soaked Giddings laughed off the goof without a shred of self-consciousness.

She was a striking blond who stood about 6 feet tall, so tall that law professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore said she dreaded standing next to Giddings in group photos.

"We're all shocked and sad. A light has gone out," Gerwig-Moore said. "Mercer is a small, close-knit community, and we've lost a member of the family."

Giddings also had a soft-spot for underdogs. Her professor said she had wanted to be a capital defender, representing suspects facing the death penalty. Neighbors would see her walking her one-eyed dog, Butterbean.

"She never had a beef with anybody, ever," said Keith, who lives a block from Giddings' apartment. "That's the thing that just kills us. Why would you do this to such a beautiful person?"

Police say Giddings was last seen by friends during a night out June 25. Keith said he didn't worry after not seeing her for several days, figuring she was hunkered down studying for the bar exam.

A friend reported Giddings missing to police the evening of June 29. Officers found her keys, her cell phone and her wallet inside her apartment, and no sign of a break-in or struggle. They also found an email she had sent her boyfriend, an Atlanta lawyer, saying she feared someone had tried to break into her apartment the week before, said police spokeswoman Jami Gaudet.

Outside the apartment building, an officer smelled a foul odor and found the body. Giddings' father told The Associated Press on Thursday that police found only a torso. Police Chief Mike Burns said Thursday that he could not release more details on the case.

Burns did acknowledge police are still looking for some of the woman's remains at a news conference Wednesday, when he announced that DNA tests — using hair from a brush that belonged to Giddings — confirmed she was the victim.

Gaudet said police have been answering a steady stream of calls from Macon residents reporting odd smells or freshly disturbed patches of dirt. They also searched the landfill the same day fresh garbage was delivered, combed the banks of the Ocmulgee River that runs through downtown Macon and used camera probes to peek inside storm drains near the apartment.

So far, they have found nothing.

No arrests have been made in Giddings' slaying, but Gaudet said police have several persons of interest and are working to eliminate them as suspects. A motive for the killing remains unclear, Gaudet said.

Police have identified only one of them — 25-year-old Stephen McDaniel, a fellow law student and Giddings' next-door neighbor. McDaniel spoke with police the day they searched Giddings' apartment, and he later was arrested and jailed on unrelated burglary charges stemming from two break-ins at their apartment complex in late 2008 and early 2009.

McDaniel's attorney, Floyd Buford, did not return phone calls Wednesday and Thursday.

Giddings' father said he had met McDaniel a few times.

"I would describe him as very average — didn't speak a lot, kind of awkward," Bill Giddings said. "He seemed to be a light-weight, kind of a bookworm."

A memorial service for Giddings was scheduled Saturday at the Macon church she attended. Friends have fashioned a makeshift memorial in front of her apartment building, hanging ribbons and mementos on the wrought iron fence that faces the sidewalk.

There's a gavel hanging from the bars, a team photo from when Giddings played softball for Agnes Scott College, outside of Atlanta. On one large, white ribbon someone had written in black and gold ink: "Love leaves a memory no one can take."

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Bynum reported from Savannah.