Warning: The content ahead includes unsettling depictions of violence driven by racial motives. Reader discretion is strongly advised.
In Griffin, Georgia, Timothy Coggins, a Black man, met a tragic end on October 9, 1983. His lifeless body was discovered beneath a prominent oak tree known locally as the "Hanging Tree." The brutality of his murder involved being dragged behind a vehicle, stabbed, and marked with "X" carvings representing a Confederate flag.
The 23-year-old spent his final night at the People's Choice bar, where eyewitnesses reported encounters with white men searching for him. Following them outside proved fatal. Despite a two-week investigation yielding no results, the cold case was revisited 34 years later by a Georgia Bureau of Investigations agent, Jared Coleman.
With scant notes from the original case, Coleman identified a suspect, someone briefly considered when Coggins was first found. The arrests came swiftly, implicating Frank Gebhardt, a mill worker, and William Moore Sr., Gebhardt's relative.
Prosecution, led by Assistant District Attorney Marie G. Broder, unfolded in June 2018. Gebhardt was convicted of murder, receiving a life sentence plus 30 years. Subsequently, Moore accepted a plea deal resulting in a 20-year sentence. Broder, now the D.A. for the Griffin Judicial Circuit, shared insights on how the killers orchestrated their own downfall in the pursuit of justice for Timothy Coggins.
You mentioned that Timothy Coggins was killed for not adhering to the rules of Griffin in 1983. Can you elaborate on what those rules were?
In 1983, certain areas in Griffin were deemed off-limits for Black men, and establishing any form of friendship with someone involved in a semi-relationship with Frankie Gebhardt was especially forbidden. The working theory suggested that Timothy Coggins was targeted for socializing with Ruth Guy, who had a loose connection with Gebhardt at the time.
Although their relationship was reportedly more on the sexual side, with Gebhardt referring to her as his 'old lady,' it wasn't formalized. The racist motive behind the murder likely stemmed from the infuriation of witnessing Coggins flirt with the same woman connected to Gebhardt. This theory formed the basis for the prosecution's case.
The disappearance of evidence from the crime scene, including a wooden club potentially used in the assault on Coggins, has been noted over the years. How significant of an issue was this in constructing your case?
The primary challenges we faced in building the case were the age of the incident and the scarcity of physical evidence. While I have dealt with cold cases in the past, tackling one that predates my birth presented a unique challenge. Additionally, the original case file had very limited physical evidence, and there are suspicions surrounding the reasons for this.
In a 2020 interview, Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix mentioned that during the search for evidence in Coggins' murder in 2016, they discovered some evidence had gone missing. They also found a notebook from a former sheriff’s deputy who claimed to have infiltrated the KKK, revealing that the group had also infiltrated police departments.
After 34 years, the necessity for tangible evidence became crucial. Gebhardt had reportedly mentioned disposing of evidence in a well on his property, leading to the decision to have the well flushed. Can you describe what it was like to witness that process?
The morning of the well flushing was anxiety-ridden for me; I was sick with nerves throughout. It's important to note that we couldn't visually perceive what was being brought up. Everything was coming up through a tube and entering a large truck. My optimism grew when they began encountering trash.
We could observe remnants of burnt trash around the tube's edges, and at that moment, a sense of hope welled up within me. Gebhardt had previously confessed to disposing of everything down there, covering it with burned trash for years in an attempt to conceal it. This discovery suggested that we were on the path to finding crucial evidence.
Among the items recovered from the well were sneakers resembling the ones Tim wore, a T-shirt displaying slash wounds, and a knife. However, was it the case that the knife failed to yield any DNA evidence?
Indeed, that's correct. None of the items retrieved yielded any DNA evidence. We were aware beforehand that using water to flush the well would likely eliminate any existing DNA. Considering that this evidence had been submerged in well water for 34 years, the expectation of finding viable DNA was essentially nonexistent.
Looking back on the trial after a few years, what aspects of that experience remain particularly noteworthy in hindsight?
The pressure to secure a guilty verdict for Timothy weighed heavily on me, taking a toll both physically and emotionally. The stress manifested in a noticeable weight loss of 12 pounds, unnecessary yet unavoidable, accompanied by hair loss and disrupted sleep.
Reflecting on the trial, I take pride in my opening arguments. While I don't often boast about my performances, I believe it was one of the best. I emphasized the significance of letting the crime scene speak and the varying degrees to which it can reveal the nature of the crime. In this instance, I vividly conveyed that the crime scene screamed about the horrifying events that unfolded on that tragic day for Timothy.
In the trial, you presented witnesses who testified about Gebhardt discussing the killing of Tim, including individuals with a criminal history, such as a convicted child molester, a meth addict, and a white supremacist. How did the inclusion of these witnesses impact the proceedings?
The jury found that the statements from the witnesses were corroborated by the physical evidence presented. Additionally, the sheer number of people who had heard Gebhardt's story was a factor that the jury took into serious consideration. Remarkably, Frankie Gebhardt displayed no shame for his actions; in the words of GBI agent Jared Coleman, "He wore it as a badge of honor."
How would you describe the current atmosphere in Griffin, where you and your family reside?
While I wish I could convey significant improvement, there are still lingering issues, particularly in terms of housing segregation. The schools have integrated, which is a positive development. I take pride in noting that the government is gradually becoming more representative of Griffin's population, but there's room for further progress, albeit at a somewhat measured pace.
Tim's family refrained from placing a headstone on his grave until the arrests were made due to fears that his killers might desecrate it. It's notable that, despite the passage of time, the family remained steadfast in Griffin.
The family chose to remain in Griffin because of their deep connection to the community. Heather, Tim's niece, now runs a fantastic restaurant, and there's a shared commitment among them to contribute to making Griffin a better place. Their decision to stay wasn't influenced by external pressures; rather, it reflects a genuine desire to contribute positively to the community.