On October 9, 1983, the body of Timothy Coggins was found in a ditch near some powerlines in a wooded area off U.S. Route 19, close to the tiny community of Sunny Side in Spalding County, Georgia. He had been horrifically mutilated. So much so that it seemed that his killers had been trying to make a statement.
In fact, Coggins’ injuries were so savage that his casket was kept closed at his funeral. In life, he had been an outgoing and lively young man, just 23 years old, a dancer and a talker who loved a good time and could strike up a conversation with anyone. Part of the reason that he was murdered was that he had talked to the wrong person. Another part was his skin color.
In the early 1980s, Georgia was a place of charged racial tensions. The Civil Rights movement had helped to deliver radical reform with the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), but social attitudes in the state had not yet caught up with federal legislation. Coggins was an African-American man. And many people, including his family, contend that he was murdered for hanging out with a white woman.
Indeed, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) failed to make much progress in catching Coggins’ killers, which led his family to wonder if institutional racism might be hampering the investigation. They wondered if justice would ever be served. Leads were pursued, but they led to nowhere. And after several weeks, the case was closed.
According to Heather Coggins, Timothy’s niece, the GBI had not considered the murder high priority. “We kind of felt that the case didn’t really matter – not forgotten, just unimportant,” she told The History Channel website in July 2018. “That he was just another black man from a poor part of town, who was murdered and nobody really cared.”
But according to local newspaper The Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC), police suspected that Coggins had been killed by two local men: a pulp mill worker called Frankie Gebhardt and his brother-in-law William Moore Sr. However, a lack of physical evidence and consistent witness accounts prevented them from making arrests.
Indeed, Gebhardt apparently boasted about killing Coggins on several occasions over the years. “If you keep on, you’re going to wind up like that n***** in the ditch,” he allegedly told a girlfriend, according to AJC. He also bragged about the murder to his fellow inmates while serving jail time for aggravated assault. Why nobody went to the police is unknown, but perhaps they feared payback from Gebhardt.
But more than three decades after the murder, a witness did finally come forward. And the information provided by that witness was so useful that in December 2016, Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix and the GBI reopened the case. “A piece of the puzzle that was missing that now just fit,” said Dix to AJC in October 2017.
Investigators then made a public appeal for more information. They received an avalanche of tips, many from witnesses wanting to get things off their chests. Dix and the GBI interviewed 60-70 people. And some of their accounts were apparently very lucid. “It was like they were reliving a movie,” Dix said to AJC. “It was very powerful.”
The investigators then recovered vital evidence from a well on Gebhardt’s property. With the aid of a hydrovac, they extracted decades of garbage that had been tossed inside it. Sifting through the trash, they found an undershirt and tennis shoe that may have belonged to Coggins. They also found a chain, two blades and a knife handle – weapons that may have been used in his murder.
In fact, Gebhardt and Moore had murdered Coggins on the night of October 7, 1983 – and it was an exceptionally cruel murder. They apparently waited for him to emerge from a local disco with a white woman then lured him into their vehicle. Then they proceeded to stab and cut him more than 30 times. They punctured his lungs and mutilated his genitals. After that, they tied to him to the back of a truck with a logging chain and dragged him around until he died.
In July 2017 Dix announced that he was “coming for” the killers. Three months later, he made good on his promise and arrested five suspects. Along with Gebhardt and Moore, the authorities hauled in one Gregory Huffman and Gebhardt’s sister and nephew, Sandra and Lamar Bunn.
Gebhardt was the first to be prosecuted. And the prosecutors described the original investigation as “shameful” and “incomplete” in their opening statement. Indeed, one of the cops assigned to the case in 1983, Clint Phillips testified that he been told to focus his energy on other less important crimes, such as mailbox vandalism. Furthermore, over the years, several pieces of important physical evidence, including tire track samples, had disappeared.
The prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of several witnesses who had heard Gebhardt talking about his role in the murder. And of the half-dozen men who testified against him, five were criminals serving jail time. In fact, the witnesses included a white supremacist, a meth dealer and a pedophile. However, none of them appears to have been offered reduced sentences in exchange for their testimonies.
Nonetheless, their insalubrious backgrounds allowed Gebhardt’s defense to argue that he was the victim of opportunistic scheming by a motley crew of criminals. They also pointed out that the evidence recovered from his property was circumstantial and far from conclusive. In the end, the final verdict was delivered by a 12-person jury consisting of 10 white and two African-American members.
Gebhardt was accused of malice murder, felony murder, concealing the death of another, aggravated battery and aggravated assault. He was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. Moore subsequently pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and concealing the death of another. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison plus 10 years of probation.
Meanwhile, the other three suspects who were arrested with Gebhardt and Moore are currently awaiting trial for different crimes. Sandra and Lamar Bunn have been charged with obstruction of justice. Huffman has been charged with obstruction of justice and violation of oath of office. Lamar Bunn is currently suspended from his role as a police officer. Huffman lost his job as a correctional officer.
It is very unusual for a cold case to be solved. According to a 2011 study by the Department of Justice, just one in 20 ever lead to an arrest. And just one in a hundred conclude with a conviction. The incarceration of Gebhardt and Moore was an unexpected outcome, and it goes some way to equalize a past injustice. But does it go far enough?
“The moment is definitely bittersweet,” said Heather to The History Channel. “The moment is sweet: that we finally got a verdict, someone was finally even arrested – better yet, someone is going to spend the rest of their life in prison. But it’s bitter because my grandparents are not there to see it.”
“‘Justice’ would have come 34 years ago,” she said. “The people who are accused of doing this were able to live their lives, have kids, have grandkids, see the joys of that. And that’s something Timothy never got the chance to do.”