‘I’ve kept this for 34 years and now it’s time’ — How police say a cold case was solved


Timothy Coggins was found on a grassy stretch of land just off Highway 19 in Spalding County. Abandoned next to high tension power lines, the 23-year-old’s lifeless body was brutally stabbed and sliced. It was Oct. 9, 1983.

His family held out hope for justice.But one month turned to two, then months became years. There were no arrests and no more leads to pursue. The case went cold.

Except for a brief period between 2007 and 2010, the Coggins’ case remained dormant. Investigators from both Spalding County and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations tried to find new leads, but came up empty.

Then in March the GBI received new information — “a piece of the puzzle that was missing that now just fit,” according to the county’s sheriff — and the case suddenly caught fire.

 

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On Oct. 13, five people were arrested in connection with the killing. Two of them were local law enforcement officers charged with obstruction of justice for actions after the case was reopened in the spring. The investigation unearthed secrets some in this quiet suburban community southeast of Atlanta had been harboring for decades.

“We have endured grief for the past 34 years,” Heather Coggins, Timothy’s niece, said after the arrests. “Our journey is coming to an end; their journey is just beginning.”

Time to Go Public

Heather Coggins and her family were on vacation in July when they got a call from the Spalding County Sheriff’s office. Investigators and Sheriff Darrell Dix wanted them to come in. Thirteen of Coggins’ family members, including Timothy’s four sisters and brother, showed up on July 26, Heather said.

Timothy Coggins had been a fun-loving man, who was a great dancer and knew how to talk to just about anyone he met, she said. He spent a lot of time with his siblings.

“We hadn’t heard anything about this case in decades,” said Heather, who was six at the time of her uncle’s death. “They said they had reopened his case and they had a new, solid lead and they’d keep us abreast of the developments as much as they could to keep the integrity of the case.”

The sheriff’s investigators told them they shouldn’t get their hopes up, but that the case now had true momentum.

After speaking to the family, law officers thought it was time to go public. They agreed on the details they felt they could reveal, ones that might bring forward witnesses or others with knowledge of what happened that night on Minter Road.

So, they told the media and the public where Timothy Coggins’ body had been found; in a wooded stretch of land that runs for miles between power lines just off Highway 19 in Spalding County. They said Coggins’ death had been racially motivated and that he had died from trauma. And they said they were looking for more information.

Within days, if not hours, of going public, tips began to pour in, Dix said.

The calls would often start out, “’I’ve kept this for 34 years and now it’s time,’” he said.

Or they would say, “’I lived in Griffin in 1983 and I need to talk to y’all,’” the sheriff said.

From March to early October, investigators from Spalding and the GBI, interviewed between 60 and 70 people. Sometimes, the interviews grew so vivid, Dix said, the person being interviewed would get a look on their face that told Dix they were having a flashback.

“It was like they were reliving a movie,” Dix said. “A lot of time when that happens, you just sit there. It was very powerful.”

Dix said the initial tip was critical in breaking the logjam in the case. He wouldn’t go into specifics because the investigation is ongoing.

“It was just a piece of information, not physical evidence, but the person filled in the gaps,” he said. “It was information from someone who knows exactly what they were talking about.”

Thirty-four years and four days later

Thirty-four years and four days after Timothy Coggins’ body was found, Frankie Gebhardt, 59, and Bill Moore Sr., 58, were charged with murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, and concealing a body. They are being held in Spalding County without bond.

Sandra Bunn, 61, and her son, Lamar, were charged with obstruction of justice. They were released after posting bonds of $706.75.

Gregory Huffman, 47, was charged with violation of oath of office and obstruction of justice. He was released after posting bonds totaling $35,000, according to court records.

Dix said the three obstruction charges occurred after the case was reopened in March, and were not related to the original investigation.

Both Huffman and Lamar Bunn were employed as law enforcement officers at the time of arrest. Huffman, a detention officer, was employed with the Spalding County Sheriff’s office. Dix said he personally fired the former employee on the spot.

Lamar Bunn was previously employed with the Lamar County Sheriff’s office, before joining the Milner Police Department as a part-time officer in June 2017. He is currently on active suspension without pay, pending the outcome of the investigation, Milner police Chief Michael Bailey said.

Gebhardt and Moore were known as “a couple of bad guys,” back in the early 1980s in Spalding County, Dix said. Their notoriety, he said, could have contributed to why it took so long for witnesses to come forward. According to court records, Gebhardt has had multiple aggravated assault charges since 1997. He was also an inmate in the Georgia Department of Corrections for a crime for which he was sentenced in 1984, according to state Corrections data. Moore also has a criminal record, including theft by taking.

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Sheriff’s officials declined to comment on the connection between the Bunns, Gebhardt, and Moore. Dix said Huffman was not “related or acquainted to” the other four, but rather made poor choices in the line of duty.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution researched court records, property records, and public records. They show that the Bunns, Gebhardt, and Moore may have intimately known each other. Property records show that Sandra Bunn owned a property on Patterson Road that Gebhardt has lived in. The Bunns received that property from a Gebhardt in 1984 for zero dollars. Lamar Bunn currently owns the property.

Sandra Bunn and Gebhardt have also crossed paths legally. In 2003, court records show Bunn put a lein on Gebhardt.

Heather Coggins said she didn’t know if her uncle knew the two men now in custody for his murder, but she said she guessed they had not been strangers. She said Timothy knew how to talk with just about anyone he met and made friends easily.

They knew Coggins and Coggins knew them, Dix said, but he would not elaborate how.

This summer, when the case was reopened, investigators said the murder was racially motivated. This week, however, Dix and GBI agents said race was just one of the several motives being considered. Coggins was black and all those arrested are white.

Arrest warrants obtained by the AJC show that Coggins was stabbed and sliced repeatedly, “disfiguring his body” through multiple wounds.Dix described it as “overkill,” a gruesome murder that “appeared to be sending a message.”

Dix said investigators have been so tight-lipped on the details of the case because they “want to make sure there is no change in venue” and to ensure the integrity of the investigation. The crime happened in Spalding County, and they wanted it to be prosecuted in Spalding County, he said.

Family, investigators find closure

Heather Coggins and her family were at the press conference on Oct. 13 to announce the arrests. It was a bittersweet moment.

The family was happy to see progress in the case. But they were sorry Coggin’s mother and stepfather had not lived to see it. Coggin’s mother died in January 2016 and his stepfather died in January this year. Heather said even on her grandmother’s death bed, she would cry out for Tim.

“We have always wanted justice, held out for justice, and knew that we would have justice,” Heather said at the news conference.

Sitting on Dix’s desk were two pairs of handcuffs. One had been used to subdue Gebhardt, the other, Moore. In preparation for their arrest, Dix contacted Clint Phillips and Oscar Jordan, the two investigators who had originally worked the case. Both were still living.

Phillips was too sick to attend the perp walk into the jail, but Jordan was present. Dix deputized Phillips for the day so that he could walk Gebhardt and Moore into the building. Dix said he wanted them to be touching the suspects when they walked into jail. Phillips and Jordan could not be reached for comment by the AJC.

Dix gave Jordan one of two sets of handcuffs that were used to subdue each man. Dix said he thought Jordan was going to cry when he did. The other set, sitting on Dix’s desk, will be given to Phillips.

More arrests could happen in the coming days, Dix said. 

-Atlanta Journal-Constitution data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story



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