SPALDING COUNTY, Ga. - Prosecutors in the 34-year-old racially motivated murder case of an African-American man admitted half of the evidence taken from the crime scene vanished over the years since 1983.
Frank Gebhardt, and another man who will face trial later, are accused of killing Tim Coggins back in ’83 because he was seen dating a white woman.
Assistant District Attorney Marie Broder told jurors this cold case demands justice.
“You will hear it scream that it was a field off Minter Road that became a killing field,” Broder said. “You will hear it scream to you of unspeakable horror that happened to Timothy Coggins.”
The former ME testified he found around 30 stab wounds on Coggins' body; says death could've taken 15-mins or longer and would've been painful. pic.twitter.com/UQ0vYu35G8— Richard Elliot (@RElliotWSB) June 20, 2018
Investigators said Gebhardt and the other man stabbed Coggins around 30 times, then dragged his body behind a pickup truck into some woods along Minter Road in Sunny Side.
Just months after the murder, the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office ended its investigation stating it simply couldn’t solve it.
Broder characterized that initial investigation as shameful.
“The investigation in 1983 was horrific. Shameful. Incomplete,” Broder said.
The GBI and current Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix reopened the case and convinced witnesses to come forward after what they said were years of intimidation by Gebhardt and others.
Deputies arrested Gebhardt last year.
Jesse Gates, a former deputy sheriff and friend of the Coggins family testified he saw Coggins the night he vanished and warned him that, given the racial climate in Spalding County, he should avoid dating white women.
“I said, now Tim, if I told you once, I told you twice, you need to be careful about dating Caucasian women in Griffin,” Gates testified. “He said, 'Mr. Gates, you’re just old-fashioned.'”
Investigators said Gebhardt and others intimidated potential witnesses into silence over the past 34 years.
Coggins’ sister testified that her family was threatened on two occasions shortly after her brother’s murder.
“A loud noise hit the front door,” Talesa Coggins told jurors. “It was a brick, and on the brick, it said, ‘Hush. You’re next.'”
The trial is moving at a much faster rate than anyone anticipated. The state could rest its case by the end of the week.
Here are 5 things to know about the trial:
1. Racial animus seen as factor in Coggins’ death
Witnesses have shared competing theories about motive, but prosecutors have remained resolute that the victim’s skin color hastened his death. Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ben Coker said Coggins, an African-American, was killed because he was socializing with a white female. Coggins was last seen on Oct. 7, 1983, leaving a bar with a white woman. He got into a car with three men, one of whom is believed to be Gebhardt.
2. The killing was particularly brutal
Coggins sustained multiple cuts to his neck, back and stomach before his body was dragged behind a pickup truck. It was “overkill,” according to Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix, tailored to send a clear message.
3. Coggins’ murder — and the ensuing cover-up — was allegedly carried out by one family and an unrelated accomplice
Gebhardt, 60, is charged with felony murder along with William Moore, his brother-in-law. Gebhardt’s sister, Sandra Bunn, and nephew, Lamar Bunn, were charged with trying to help him avoid prosecution. A fifth suspect, Gregory Huffman, formerly a detention officer with the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office, was charged with obstruction and violating his of oath of office. Gebhardt is the first to stand trial; Moore initially was to be tried with him but the defense successfully petitioned a judge to sever the charges.
4. Gebhardt and Moore were always suspected by police
The two men escaped prosecution for more than three decades due to inconsistent accounts from witnesses and a lack of physical evidence. The knife used to stab Coggins and the chain used to drag his body behind the pickup truck were never recovered.
5. A key witness
A crucial tip from a witness last March “filled in the gaps” and revived the case, Dix told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A flood of tips began pouring in after that. Over the next few months, investigators interviewed more than 60 people about Coggins’ death. The five suspects connected to Coggins’ death and cover-up were arrested last October.
Christian Boone with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this article.
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