How racially-motivated cold case murder of a Georgia Black man was finally solved decades later

SPALDING COUNTY, Ga. — TONIGHT ON 20/20: Timothy Coggins, murdered - why? Witnesses are coming forward in a 34-year-old murder with shocking new details, new leads & new hope. “In the Cold Dark Night” airs tonight at 9 p.m. on Channel 2.

To Jesse Gates, that October night in 1983 seemed like any other in Griffin, Georgia.

The former Spalding County sheriff’s deputy was out driving when he came upon his good friend Timothy Coggins walking down the street.

Recognizing his vehicle, Coggins waved him down. They had been friends for a long time, Gates said, so he pulled over and Coggins asked him for a ride to a dance club outside of town called People’s Choice.

During the roughly 15-minute drive over, Gates, who was one of the county’s few Black officers at the time, said Coggins, also a Black man, mentioned he was dating a white woman.

“I said, ‘Man, you need to watch yourself on dating them sisters like that because we live in Griffin, Georgia, and not Atlanta, and some people just don’t accept things like that,” Gates said.

TIMOTHY COGGINS MURDER CASE

As Gates pulled up to the club, he said he noticed three white men hanging around outside. He thought that was “strange,” he said, because “white guys did not come to that club” and he felt uneasy about the whole scene.

But Coggins got out of the car and headed in. Gates never saw him again.

“I had no way of knowing that I had dropped that boy off to his death,” he said.

Coggins was found brutally murdered near a power line in an open area in Sunnyside, Georgia -- a few miles outside of Griffin -- on Oct. 9, 1983. The area is marked by an oak tree that was a well-known gathering place for drug deals and parties.

He had suffered multiple stab wounds and was tortured — his body chained to the back of a vehicle and dragged before it was dumped by a wood pile, according to the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office.

Former Spalding County sheriff’s deputy Oscar Jordan, another one of the few Black officers on the force at the time, said he was called into the coroner’s office and asked to identify the body.

“He had seven stab wounds to the front of his chest. … And then he had a cross cut across the chest. And then, [on his] back, it was the same way. I was later told that it represented the Confederate flag,” Jordan said. “When I reported back to the sheriff ... I told him I did not know who this individual was. There was no way that I could know, because he was so disfigured.”

“The worst part about it [is] they didn’t kill him,” he added. “[The] autopsy showed he bled out. Thrown behind a pile of wood. Left to die.”

Coggins was just 23 years old.

After his body was found, sheriff’s deputies went door to door in Griffin, trying to identify Coggins. Eventually, they knocked on his sister’s door.

Coggins’ brother, Tyrone Coggins, said his death took a heavy toll on the family.

“We were shocked. We’re like, ‘Who would hurt this guy?’” he said. “You know, this was Tim. This was the smooth guy. The guy that never bothered nobody. Always helped somebody.”

His sister, Telisa Coggins, remembers her brother Tim as someone who was very sweet and outgoing. He was the kind of person “who could get along with anybody,” she said.

In fact, she had been at the People’s Choice club with him the night he disappeared. She said she remembered a white woman started going to the club and she thought her brother was teaching the woman how to dance that night. She said she also remembered a white man looking for her brother and that same white man walking out of the club with him as she went to the restroom.

“By the time I got out the door, they was gone,” she said.

The sheriff’s office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) gathered evidence and conducted multiple interviews in the Coggins case, but weeks turned into months and no arrests were made.

Gates, who was an active sheriff’s deputy in the ’80s, said he believes Coggins’ death was centered around the white woman and money. Notes from the officers who had been working the case at the time indicated their theory was Coggins had taken money as part of a drug deal. Coggins was known for making small drug deals around town, authorities said.

Jordan, who was also an active sheriff’s deputy in the ’80s, said, “We never learned where the money went to, but I can recall being told that Tim was absolutely terrified, and he was desperately trying to get up that money.”

Gates and Jordan worked the case for weeks until they started getting close to finding a suspect and were taken off, Gates said. He said he believes it was someone who lived in the trailer park near the area where Coggins was found.

“You had a lot of vicious people in that trailer park, and I knew somebody in that trailer park called that sheriff,” Gates said.

Jordan said he was told the investigation had reached a “dead end,” whereas Gates said he was told “it wasn’t my job [to investigate this case] because I was a road deputy, and I wasn’t a so-called investigator.”

“I don’t think the attention that should have been put on this case was put on this case,” Jordan said. “Probably due to, you know, the color [of his skin].”

Months gave way to years, and then decades, without any arrests.

The case sat dormant for 33 years.

Then, in 2016, the Coggins case was re-examined and new investigative leads began to emerge. GBI special agent Jared Coleman, who was assigned to re-examine the Tim Coggins’ case, said he alerted the then newly-elected Spalding County sheriff Darrell Dix when he thought he had a new lead.

Dix didn’t hesitate to take a fresh look.

“My motivation to solve this case without a doubt is the fact that it’s the right thing to do,” Dix said. “I believe that there’s a lot of honor involved in doing it, and I want to give closure to the Coggins family. I wanna let Timothy Coggins rest in peace. And by doing that, that’s doing the right thing.”

Dix said that in the years since the murder, some of the evidence that had been collected had gone missing. But he said officials found something that gave them insight into the Spalding County Sheriff’s Department and the local police department at the time Tim Coggins was killed.

“We were looking everywhere that we could, and we went to where there are some old property archived downtown,” Dix said. “And while we were looking for stuff dealing with the case, we came up with this small black notebook.”

Read the full report from ABC News’ Lauren Effron, Marc Dorian, and Anthony Rivas.