He drove 700 miles, aching with love and longing, that awful June Thursday, the day they found Lauren. He drove alone, freighted with dread and despair.

His heart raced; he fought back panic; his mind screamed, Please ... let them be wrong. He drove from 8 in the morning until after nightfall, through Virginia and the Carolinas and deep into Georgia. He drove as fast as he could.

Bill Giddings, father of a slain daughter, reached Macon about 9:30 that night. Five of his relatives and a Baptist minister met him.

They crowded into the office of a police major at city hall. The major, the police chief, the district attorney and two detectives greeted Bill somberly, offering condolences, and Bill could see the stress on the tired faces.

He sat heavily on a couch in the first-floor office. He thought: Where is her body? Where is Lauren? When will they take me to her ?

“I thought I was there to identify her,” Bill would say later, his sad eyes fixed in an empty gaze. He is 56, owns a small company in Laurel that hauls construction debris. Remembering that trek to Georgia, the hours of numbness and confusion when he struggled to grasp what was real, he says, “I just wanted to see her.”

Yet the hesitant officials in the room “kept beating around the bush.”

Chief Mike Burns, a 37-year veteran of police work in his home town, looked at the anguished father on the sofa, wondering how to tell him the truth. “There’s no good way to do it,” the chief says now. He waited quietly while Maj. Charles Stone and the detectives gently questioned Bill about his daughter.

The night before, their department had taken a report of a missing person: Lauren Giddings, 27, a new graduate of Mercer University law school in the city. She was a bright, popular young woman with loving parents and sisters in Maryland, an aspiring public defender who had been studying for Georgia’s bar exam. She had turned up that morning, June 30, an obvious homicide victim.

Who might have wanted to hurt her? Bill could think of no one. For more than an hour, Stone and the detectives inquired into Lauren’s background, her habits, her relationships. And they heard from Bill what they would hear from many others — that Lauren had a generous spirit born of her devout Catholic faith, that she had been filled with kindness, that she had tried to find good in everyone.

She was Bill’s firstborn. Why haven’t they taken me to her ? The chief, seated at Stone’s desk, could read Bill’s puzzlement. “He knew there was something more there than we were telling him,” Burns says. And there was: “Everybody was really struggling with how to tell him what happened to his daughter and how we found her.”

Burns, 59, who has a son Lauren’s age and three adult daughters, decided, “I wanted to talk to him father to father.” He asked most of those present to leave the room.

The Rev. Craig McMahan, dean of Mercer’s Newton Chapel, stayed with Bill, as did one of Bill’s relatives, a D.C. police officer. District Attorney Greg Winters stayed, too, and watched as the chief leaned forward, his voice low and deliberate.

“I looked at the father,” Burns recalls, “and I told him, you know, ‘You’re going to be reading this in the newspaper.’ I said: ‘Sooner or later, it’s going to come out. And father to father, I think you need to know from me first.’ ”

Facing the chief, Bill sat drained and dazed on the couch. “When I was talking to him,” Burns says, “he had sort of a blank look, like, ‘Tell me.’ . . .

“And when I told him, I could see a tear come out of his eye.”

Frantic wait for news

Back in Laurel that Thursday night, in a three-bedroom house shaded by oaks and pines on 20 acres of dormant farmland, Karen Giddings, Bill’s wife of three decades, waited frantically for news of their eldest daughter.

“My whole family was here,” Karen, 50, says, her voice weary and monotone, her face expressionless. With Lauren reported missing and human remains discovered in Macon that morning, she recalls, “I was in such a state that they had to get me something, and I just went to sleep.”

How many of these tragedies had she seen unfold on cable TV? The ritual communal deathwatch — someone young and attractive, mysteriously gone; the police bagging evidence behind bright yellow tape; the heartsick parents desperate on camera, pleading against the seemingly inevitable. Karen used to shudder: What must that mother, that father, those two poor people, be feeling?

“You never believe something like this will happen to you,” she says.

Until one day it does. Then you’re haunted by why — by the vagaries of it all and a litany of excruciating what-ifs, by the countless little turns of circumstance that put your loved one in the wrong place at the wrong time. Should you have seen it coming? Could you have prevented it? The answer, infinitely agonizing in its own way, is no.

“It’s like an ongoing nightmare,” Bill says, sitting with his wife in their kitchen a few weeks after Lauren’s death. A Giddings Hauling ballcap and a salt-and-pepper goatee frame his drawn face. Staring at the table, he says: “It got real bad. Then . . . then you find out more details and it gets even worse.”

Closing her eyes for a moment as she gathers herself, Karen says: “I’ve tried not to hear everything. Of course, my mind goes there. But I quickly try to direct it away. They’ve tried to keep things from me, and I’m very grateful to them.”

She and Bill raised Lauren and their two other daughters in this house, tucked in a grove off a dead-end gravel path in Howard County. Lauren grew up with dogs and rabbits, peacocks and goats, turkeys and chinchillas. She grew up loving bluegrass and steel guitar and would always be a country girl at heart.

At St. Mary of the Mills School, from kindergarten to eighth grade, she was deeply moved by church teachings, by the qualities of compassion and charity, which she would show toward others the rest of her abbreviated life.

“Oh, how amazing she was,” says Lori Supsic, one of her two best friends. Supsic and Katie O’Hare, both 27 now, met Lauren at St. Mary of the Mills. Two decades later, living in distant cities, they would be among the first to realize that she was missing.

“She would be friends with anyone,” Supsic says. And here was a virtue that might have contributed to her death: Lauren had uncommon empathy for the underdog, for the socially alienated and maladroit. “People who maybe others made fun of in school, Lauren would be friends with them,” Supsic says. “And not necessarily because she felt sorry for them, but because she saw the good in every person.”

Lauren Teresa Giddings, strikingly pretty, grew to be almost six feet tall. She was confident and driven. She played softball and field hockey at Columbia’s Atholton High School, graduating in 2002. She had hoped to become a doctor.

The first of the three sisters to leave the nest, she was headed to college, a thrill for her parents, who had gone straight from high school to jobs. “She had such a passion for learning,” Karen says. The two studied guidebooks together for months and toured more than two dozen campuses, “a very bonding mother-daughter type thing.”

“I loved every minute of it. . . . To see her following her dream. . . .

The dream took her to Georgia.

Lauren chose Agnes Scott College, near Atlanta, a small liberal arts school for women. There, she soon learned that her future would not be in medicine. Instead, she set a course that would lead her to Macon, to study law.

“I remember the phone call vividly,” Karen says. “Her calling me and saying: ‘I’m having a hard time with chemistry. I don’t know if this is right for me.’ . . . I think she felt she was letting me down. And I told her: ‘Lauren, don’t worry about it. If this isn’t for you, do what makes you happy.’ And I could just feel the relief in her.

“And then she found her own path.”

With a political science degree from Agnes Scott, she worked for a year at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank, before interning in the Atlanta office of the giant law firm King & Spalding. In August 2008, she entered Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law.

She rented an apartment across Georgia Avenue from the campus, in a private complex called Barristers Hall, which caters to law students.

The same week, one of her new classmates, a strangely bashful and jittery young man named Stephen McDaniel, moved into the apartment next door.

Others at Mercer would regard him as an oddball, and he would make few friends.

But Lauren would always be kind to him.

It was just her nature.

‘So awkward and shy’

While she was searching the Web that summer for a place to live in Macon, Lauren showed her mother photos of Barristers Hall, with its wrought-iron fence, striped awnings and azalea beds under spreading fruit trees.

“I thought it was adorable,” Karen recalls. “And when we went down there to help her move some stuff in, I really loved it.”

The complex is small — just a pair of identical, boxy two-story buildings painted beige. Each building has eight apartments: two upstairs and two down in both the front and rear. Tenants’ doors open to the outside, and second-floor balconies stretch the length of each building. Lauren, who paid $575 a month for a two-bedroom, joked that her new home looked like a motel. “La Quinta,” she dubbed it.

As the only second-floor occupants on the street side of the building closer to heavily traveled Georgia Avenue, Lauren and McDaniel shared an outdoor staircase in the center of their common balcony, facing the complex’s small parking lot.

“I remember him coming up the stairs, and she introduced me,” Karen says. This was the week Lauren moved in. “He was so awkward and shy — he almost jumped 10 feet — and shyly said, ‘Hello.’ I mean, he looked like he was going to fall over.”

She thought nothing of it at the time. Like Bill, Karen felt comfortable leaving Lauren in one of Macon’s safest and prettiest neighborhoods, Coleman Hill, its shaded avenues graced by elegantly restored Victorian-era homes.

With 91,000 residents, the city is the economic and cultural hub of the state’s largely rural middle region, about 80 miles south of Atlanta. “The Heart of Georgia,” Macon calls itself. Halfway through 2011, Lauren’s killing would be just the fourth homicide case of the year for Burns’s 300-member police force.

Lauren fit perfectly in the city and the school. She enjoyed Macon’s charm, and she immersed herself in the social and intellectual life of Mercer. As for romance, she was in a relationship with David S. Vandiver III, an Atlanta lawyer 20 years her senior whom she had met during her King & Spalding internship.

She joined an offbeat running club, the Hash House Harriers. She attended Mass almost daily in the soaring Romanesque sanctuary of St. Joseph Catholic Church, a few blocks from her apartment. She organized monthly “family dinners” for her close circle of friends in the Class of 2011, giving them much-needed respites from the law school grind.

“Her smile would light up a room,” one of those friends says.

And what style she had: Rarely would Lauren go anywhere without her golden hair coiffed and her makeup just so. She’d doll herself up in a snazzy dress and heels, usually pink, and tote her one-eyed Pekingese-poodle, Butterbean, like a purse dog.

Her friends all laughed. She was a Hollywood character sprung to life, the bright, kooky Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde.” Lauren loved that movie.

McDaniel, who will soon turn 26, is six feet tall and lean, with a billowing mane of curly brown hair. He has an undergraduate degree from Mercer’s school of business and economics. In the Telegraph of Macon, an aunt describes him as “one of nicest, smartest people I’ve ever known,” adding, “I’ve never heard him say a cross word.”

He grew up near Atlanta, and by now virtually everyone in Macon knows who he is. They’ve heard about the hacksaw, about the pilfered condoms, about the secret master key to the 16 Barristers Hall apartments. Before Lauren’s death, almost no one gave McDaniel much thought; people dismissed him as just a shaggy-haired eccentric with arrested social skills, a bookish misfit not worth caring about.

Lauren was different. “She tried to encourage him, to get him out of his comfort zone,” Karen says. The two were never friends yet always friendly. Coming and going on the balcony stairs, they chatted often, and Lauren would urge him to smile, to loosen up and have some fun. “Because he never went out,” Karen says, recounting what Lauren had told her about the student next door. “His windows were always drawn.”

One of Lauren’s sisters, Kaitlyn Giddings Wheeler, recalls: “If anyone would joke around about him, say something about him being dangerous, then Lauren would nicely tell them, ‘Well, if he’s dangerous, I’ll be the only one who’s safe.’ Because they did get along, and she was very nice to him. She really did trust him.”

He was solitary but not a recluse. Like Lauren politically, McDaniel espoused strong conservative principles, and they both joined Mercer’s chapter of the Federalist Society in their first year of law school. In 2010-11, their final academic year, Lauren was president and McDaniel vice president. And they were a study in contrasts — one the vivacious, glowing public face of the organization, the other a shy, diligent backstage worker.

“Dependable as hell,” one member says of McDaniel. “If we needed a cooler full of ice, the cooler was full of ice. If we needed fliers put up, they got put up.”

Who knows what the awkward, diffident VP thought when he looked at the beautiful president, so articulate, personable and self-assured?

“The yin and yang,” the member says. “And you need that.” You need the “gregarious, outgoing” leader and “the nameless, faceless people behind the scenes.”

Who knows what feelings he kept to himself?

Adoration? Resentment?

Graduation day was May 14. Two nights earlier, Lauren and her family celebrated at the Hummingbird Stage & Taproom in downtown Macon. The bar was packed with joyful classmates. Karen glanced up and saw McDaniel and pointed him out to Lauren.

“Oh, look, he showed up!” Karen remembers her daughter saying. Lauren had suggested that McDaniel come. “She was surprised to see him,” Karen says, “but happy.”

He was standing in a corner throwing darts. Alone.

Last days and hours

On Friday night, June 24, Lauren went out with friends. Two of her classmates, both acoustic guitarists, were performing in bars downtown. She and her pals hit the Rookery first, listened for a while, then crossed the street to Bottoms Up.

The evening was a welcome breather after weeks of intensive study. Georgia’s bar exam was scheduled for late July, and Lauren was determined to pass. It surprised no one who knew her well that she wanted to become a public defender, to devote her career to the poorest of the accused.

As she occasionally would do after a night on the town, she slept at a friend’s place Friday. Her boyfriend, Vandiver, who was in California that weekend, has privileges at a Macon country club, and on Saturday, Lauren used his name to get in. She wanted to swim and relax by the pool.

About 6:30 p.m., as she was headed back to Barristers Hall, alone in her 2004 Mitsubishi Galant, she stopped for fast food at a drive-up window monitored by an overhead camera. The wrappers and receipt would later be found in her car, so maybe she ate before she got home.

Then, in her apartment, about 10:30 that Saturday night, she sat at her computer for the last time, typing an e-mail to Vandiver.

With her lease due to expire in a week, she was about to start packing. She planned to bunk at friends’ places until she found a job and a permanent place to live. Butterbean, an incessant yapper, was in Maryland with her parents. She had left him there after the Christmas break, wanting one less distraction in her final semester.

She told Vandiver how much she had enjoyed Mercer and how wonderful Macon had been. Just in passing, without specifics, she told him that she thought someone had tried to break into her apartment recently. “Hoodlums,” she surmised.

She told him she was happy. She told him how excited she was about the future, wherever it might take her.

And she was never heard from again.

‘Something was wrong’

Four nights later, on Wednesday, June 29, Katie O’Hare, one of Lauren’s best friends since childhood, was the first to grow concerned. Her worry soon turned to fear, and then to something worse.

“I’ve described it many times, the feeling,” says O’Hare, a health-care worker in Baltimore. “I know it’s real, but it doesn’t seem real. It’s surreal. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience.”

She’s describing what it’s like to realize that someone you love is missing. That evening and into Thursday, as the news spread in scores of urgent calls and messages, more and more of Lauren’s friends and relatives were waylaid by the same ungodly blood-rush of emotions.

You never believe something like this will happen to you.

“It’s terrifying, absolutely terrifying,” Lori Supsic says.

O’Hare had sent a text message to Lauren that Wednesday, about eye makeup, and Lauren hadn’t responded, which wasn’t like her.

“Then I called her phone after work, and it was off,” O’Hare says. So she messaged Lauren’s sister Kaitlyn, asking if she had talked with the new lawyer lately. Kaitlyn, 24, says, “I immediately got that feeling that something was wrong.”

And it blew up from there — phone calls and text messages, e-mails and Facebook posts: Anyone know where Lauren is? Suddenly everyone who had tried to contact her that week learned that no one else could reach her, either.

From Chicago, where she works in advertising, Supsic reported Lauren missing to Macon police late Wednesday night. An officer swung by Barristers Hall and checked Lauren’s door, which was locked. Nothing seemed amiss. Then a posse of her law school friends hurried to the apartment, retrieved a key that Lauren had hidden in a candle jar on the balcony and went inside.

Emerging from his apartment next door, McDaniel followed them in, looking distraught and perplexed, like the others.

They saw no signs of a struggle, but Lauren’s keys, purse and cellphone were there. And she wasn’t.

The police began to expand their search. Downstairs, beside the building, they made the awful discovery in the morning.

Chief Burns was there; he saw it and felt his throat tighten. “You think that could be your daughter that they did that to.” And he began to wonder: What right words are there to tell such news to a family? Hours later, as he sat in Major Stone’s office, eye to eye with Bill, he had no answer.

“I don’t know if you can ever fully prepare yourself,” Burns says. “You know, it’s hard to tell somebody, ‘Your daughter’s been dismembered, and her torso was thrown in a trash can.’ You know? It’s hard.”

Bill had set out for Macon that morning in his Honda Pilot, too frantic to sit around waiting for a plane. His brother George and brother-in-law Perry Hoak, a D.C. patrol officer, flew in to be with him. Three Giddings relatives from Georgia were there, too. Yet as he listened to the chief speaking softly, father to father, Bill felt entirely alone.

Neither man recalls the words now, only the gist of them.

“He got into more details about the decapitation and so forth,” Bill says. “The only thing they had was her torso. Everything else was missing.”

The torso, wrapped in plastic, was in a rollaway, flip-top rubbish bin just below the balcony that Lauren and McDaniel shared. Police officers looked in it only a few hours before trash haulers would have taken it to a landfill.

Head, arms, legs: Six weeks later, they haven’t been found.

As for Stephen Mark McDaniel, Mercer Law, Class of 2011, he’s in the Bibb County jail, charged with murder and burglary.

“Some of us have speculated that if he’s the one who did it, it was because she was the only one who was really nice to him,” Karen says. “Maybe he had some psycho love affair with her, and she was getting ready to leave, and he couldn’t let her go.”

She falls silent, lost in thought.

Burns and his detectives have said little publicly about the investigation as crime labs examine scores of items taken in searches of McDaniel’s apartment. His attorney, Floyd Buford, says that McDaniel is innocent and “very upset” about Lauren’s death.

While being questioned by police shortly after her remains were found, McDaniel allegedly admitted to illegally entering two apartments at the complex a few years ago (not Lauren’s) and stealing one condom from each, Burns says. He was locked up in that case when the murder charge was filed last week.

Police say McDaniel had a master key that opened all the doors at Barristers Hall. And they say detectives have linked him to a hacksaw found on the property, a saw with Lauren’s DNA on it.

On Saturday, Karen, Bill, Kaitlyn and Lauren’s other sister, 18-year-old Sarah, gathered with friends and loved ones for a funeral at St. Mary of the Mills Church before Lauren’s cremated torso was interred.

Then they went home, not knowing whether they’d ever find the rest of her.

“Our faith believes that her spirit is who she is,” Karen says. “We’re trying to hold onto that, and it’s really being tested now.”