On the morning of Oct. 9, 1983, hunters were passing by an open field near a wooded area in the small town of Sunny Side, Ga., when they came across an abandoned body.
A story in the local newspaper published the next day described the dead man as an “unidentified black male” in his early 20s, with a tattoo on his left hand and two missing bottom teeth. He was found wearing blue jeans and a beige sweater. He had suffered multiple stab wounds and was left near a high-tension power line.
Police knew little about the “mystery killing.” They did not know who the man was, why he was slain, or who did it.
All they knew was that the death was brutal, according to the Griffin Daily News article obtained by CNN.
“He had been worked over with a knife pretty well,” an investigator told the newspaper.
Police would identify the 23-year-old man, Timothy Coggins, in the next day’s paper, according to CNN. But it would take more than three decades for authorities to make an arrest in the killing.
In October, months after a tip led investigators to reopen the cold case, authorities arrested five people in connection with Coggins’s killing and obstruction in the case, the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office said in a news conference. They called it a “heinous,” racially motivated crime.
District Attorney Ben Coker described an alleged motive for the killing weeks later: “The murder of Timothy Coggins was due to Coggins socializing with a white female,” he told a judge, the Associated Press reported.
On Tuesday, a grand jury indicted Frank Gebhardt, 59, and Bill Moore Sr., 58, for felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated battery and concealing a death, according to Griffin Judicial Circuit court documents obtained by The Washington Post.
In recent weeks, details from law enforcement officials have painted a picture of how Coggins died and provided a window into the minds of the men accused of killing him.
Coggins was stabbed 29 times and dragged behind a truck, bound by a chain, Spalding County prosecutor Marie Broder said at a probable cause hearing last week, according to the Journal-Constitution. Two of his teeth were knocked out.
Witnesses told authorities that Gebhardt and Moore said they killed Coggins because he had been dancing with a white woman at a club on the night of Oct. 7, 1983, CNN reported.
For decades, the two men — brothers-in-law — bragged about the killing, wearing it like a “badge of honor,” Broder said, according to the Journal-Constitution.
One witness heard Moore say he “missed the good ol’ days when you could kill a black man for no reason,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Jared Coleman said, according to the Journal-Constitution.
“They felt like they were doing the right thing, … like they were protecting the white race from black people,” Coleman said, according to video of his testimony from WSB-TV.
Yet the two men managed to keep the crime secret for decades by threatening people they told about the killing, Coleman said in his testimony.
“If you keep on, you’re going to wind up like that n‑‑‑‑‑ in the ditch,” Gebhardt told one woman, according to Coleman. “You will make me drag you down the road like we dragged that [unintelligible] down the road.”
Gebhardt’s attorney suggested the motive could have been related to a drug deal and noted the lack of any DNA evidence despite “the sheer number of stab wounds,” according to the Journal-Constitution.
“The most important thing in any case is identification,” said Moore’s lawyer, Harry Charles. “We have no information about a picture lineup. There is no witness who came to this court to say ‘Yes, William Sr. was the one who was providing drugs to the victim.’ ”
Three other people, including two law enforcement officials, have also been charged in connection with Coggins’s death.
Sandra Bunn and Lamar Bunn were charged with obstruction of justice in the case. Gregory Huffman, 47, was charged with violation of oath of office and obstruction of justice.
New evidence in the case first came to light in March, Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix said in a news release. In July, Dix told the media he was reopening the case to generate new leads. He warned suspects he was “coming for them.”
Calls came in from all over the state, the sheriff told CNN. At least two came in from Mississippi.
“Previously unknown witnesses had been living with this information since Coggins’ death but were either too afraid to come forward or had not spoken about it until now,” Dix said in a news conference.
Based on the original 1983 evidence and new evidence found through witnesses, Dix said, “there is no doubt in the minds of all investigators involved that the crime was racially motivated and that if the crime happened today it would be prosecuted as a hate crime.”
When he finally arrested the suspects, Dix deputized the original investigators on the case in 1983 so they could take part.
“I wanted them to be there when the handcuffs were put on,” Dix told CNN.
Heather Coggins, Timothy Coggins’s niece, was only 6 years old when her uncle was killed, she said at a news conference. The family has “endured grief for the past 34 years” but “have always wanted justice,” she said.
Heather Coggins said she felt “eternally grateful” that authorities did not give up searching for evidence and for answers.
Timothy Coggins’s mother and stepfather died in the last two years, she said.
But “even on my grandmother’s deathbed,” Heather Coggins said, “she still said Tim’s name.”
“She knew this day would one day come,” Heather Coggins said. “The worst is over.”
Last week, she spoke to reporters after hearing authorities describe how they believe her uncle died, and how Gebhardt and Moore allegedly boasted about the crimes for years.
She said it was difficult to contain her emotions, “listening to gruesome details of a loved one that was by himself and all these horrible things happened.”
“You oftentimes wonder what was he thinking, who did he cry for?” she added. “Who did he mourn for? No one was there to help him.”
Asked about the nature of the alleged killing, of authorities’ belief that it was racially motivated, Heather Coggins appeared upset, but not surprised.
“It’s not a shock that racism existed in 1983,” she said, “because we still see it today in 2017.”
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