Many members of Timothy Coggins‘ family did not survive to see his killers finally brought to justice. Coggins was brutally murdered in a small Georgia town in 1983, and his case went cold. In 2016, the case was reopened, and Frankie Gebhardt and Bill Moore were charged in the killing.
Timothy Coggins’ mom, Viola Dorsey, died only 10 months before her son’s killers were finally indicted in the case. Dorsey believed that justice would one day be served, said her granddaughter, Heather Coggins. She says racism played a part in the case going unsolved, and her uncle’s death hung over the family for decades.
An ABC 20/20 crew was embedded in Spalding County, Georgia, and gained access as the case unfolded in the courtroom. Gebhardt was convicted of the murder after a jury trial and Moore pleaded guilty to manslaughter. “In the Cold, Dark Night” airs Friday, July 17, 2020 at 9/8C on ABC.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Timothy Coggins’ Parents Died Waiting for Justice
During the wait for justice that lasted nearly 35 years, many members of Coggins’ family died without seeing his killers in handcuffs. Viola Dorsey, Timothy Coggins’ mother, died 10 months earlier, but throughout her life and even on her deathbed, Dorsey “knew that this day would one day come,” Heather Coggins, Dorsey’s granddaughter, told CNN.
Peggy Richards, Coggins’ oldest sister who was living with her brother when he was killed, said she cried after hearing word Bill Moore Sr. was taking a plea deal, because her parents weren’t alive to see justice served.
“We cried, we cried, we cried, we cried for years, but now, we’re here. We’re here now,” Richards told CNN outside the Spalding County Courthouse in Griffin.
Coggins’ niece, Heather Coggins, took the opportunity in court to address Moore directly before the judge.
“I told him that what he did to our family 35 years ago tore our family apart. Our grandmother went to her grave not knowing what happened to her son. I said, ‘We forgive you. I hope that whoever you pray to, you ask for forgiveness and are forgiven. I also hope that you spend the rest of your natural life behind bars,'” she said. “He just looked at me.”
Coggins’ mom and dad were leaders of the family, Heather Coggins told ABC News. They were an “extremely tight-knit” family led by her grandparents to continue “pushing forward.”
“We all adopted that same notion,” she said, although her uncle’s death was “hanging over” the family.
2. Timothy Coggins’ Family Remember Him for His Big Smile, Dance Moves & Protective Nature
Timothy Coggins was a 23-year-old man known for a charming smile and smooth dance moves. While his family members mourned their loss, the younger members of the family mourned the man they never met or barely remembered after he was murdered on October 9, 1983, according to the Associated Press.
Heather Coggins, Timothy Coggins’ niece, was 6 when her uncle died. She told CNN they remember Timothy as thin, charismatic, playful and possessing a bright smile that showcased his “beautiful, pearly white teeth,” she said.
Timothy Coggins’ brother, Tyrone Coggins, spoke at his memorial service in 2017, following the arrests of Frankie Gebhardt and William Moore. Read more about Coggins’ life here.
“He always wanted to make sure everyone got home safely,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “This is confirmation to the family that 34 years later, Tim made it home.”
3. Timothy Coggins’ Unsolved Murder Was a Cloud ‘Hanging Over’ the Family for More Than 3 Decades
The racially motivated murder and the unsolved case of Timothy Coggins was a cloud that hung over his family for nearly 35 years after his body was found, tortured and mutilated in a field in Griffin, Georgia. His grave was unmarked until arrests were made in his case, because his family feared it would be vandalized. His brother, Tyrone Coggins, told ABC News he was fearful someone would come for him next because he did not know who the killer was.
“You gotta think, you’re talking about 34 years went by and you don’t know who the killer is,” he said.
He said he was glad justice was served after Frank Gebhardt and Bill Moore were finally arrested and convicted.
“It was a long time coming. I just wish my mom and my dad was here to see it … just to get some closure with Tim,” he said.
Jennifer Stevenson was a baby when her cousin died, but she told the Associated Press at Coggins’ 2017 memorial service they all grew up hearing about him.
“As his legacy, we feel as though we were robbed,” she said.
“Our family is amazing, and we are confident he would have been proud of us,” she said during the service.
Heather Coggins, Timothy Coggins’ niece, said after the trial they no longer have to tell the story about Coggins’ murder going unresolved for decades.
“We don’t have to tell anyone else this story, that Tim was from a small town where no one cared,” Heather Coggins told 11 Alive, pausing to compose herself after the verdict was read. “Where no one cared and no one was brought to justice for his murder. It wasn’t just a murder. It was a brutal, heinous killing. And now we don’t have to tell our kids or our grandkids anymore that no one cared for your uncle Tim. Now we have someone who’s guilty.”
4. Timothy Coggins’ Niece & Brother Told Family of George Floyd & Ahmaud Arbery ‘Don’t Give Up’ on Justice
Timothy Coggins’ niece and brother, Heather and Tyrone Coggins, told ABC News they related with the family of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, both who were killed this year. Coggins’ brutal murder went unsolved for years, which his family members attributed to racism. He was murdered October 9, 1983 in Sunnyside, Georgia, after he was dancing at a club with a white woman. He was tortured, stabbed and dragged with a truck.
Another member of the Coggins family, Eugene Coggins, died in police custody in 2001, they told ABC News. When Heather Coggins heard about the death of Floyd in Minneapolis and Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, she told ABC News she “immediately identified with both because we lived both cases.”
“We’ve lived the case with Ahmaud with Tim. We’ve lived the case with George Floyd with my Uncle Eugene, We experienced this. In one family, we have experienced both of these cases directly,” she said.
She said she is praying for both families.
“We hope that you get justice, and I know that there are gonna be a lot of dark days,” Heather Coggins said. “I would ask if you are a family of faith, to lean on your faith and lean on one another because you’re gonna need it to get through this.”
Heather and Tyrone Coggins offered a message of strength and perseverance to the families of Floyd and Arbery.
“You just can’t ever give up,” Tyrone Coggins told ABC News. “You got to always stay for … some justice. Even though it can be some dark days in front of you, you just gotta keep pushing through it.”
Heather Coggins added, “Don’t give up.”
5. Timothy Coggins Did Not Have a Headstone Until 2017 After Arrests Were Made in His Murder Case
Timothy Coggins’ family feared his grave would be vandalized, and left it without a headstone for nearly 35 years.
“Gone, but never forgotten,” his headstone says, according to Find a Grave.
Before the arrests, they feared the killer would come back desecrate the grave if it was marked. They had a rushed funeral service, and left the grave site unadorned, Heather Coggins, Timothy Coggins’ niece, told the Associated Press. Tyrone Coggins, Timothy Coggins’ brother, offered a message during a 90-minute memorial service at Fuller’s Chapel United Methodist Church, which included a family gospel choir and interpretive dance by some of the younger members of the family.
Many of the family members wore purple ribbons, Timothy Coggins’ favorite color, and shirts with his photo that said, “At Last … Resting in Peace.”
“This has been a very dark cloud on our family. But today we can see the sun will shine again,” said Tyrone Coggins.