Coggins, a 23-year-old black man, was found tortured and brutalized in rural Georgia in 1983. State and local authorities eventually closed the case as leads went cold and as Coggins’ family received threats to remain silent. Finally, in 2016, the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reopened the case. Although they had no new DNA evidence, they charged Frankie Gebhardt and William “Bill” Moore Sr. with Coggins’ slaying. Read more about Coggins’ life here.
An ABC 20/20 crew was embedded in Spalding County and gained access as the case unfolded in the courtroom, where Gebhardt was convicted of the murder and as 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’ Murder Case Was Unsolved for 35 Years & Prosecutors Called the Case ‘Shameful’
Timothy Coggins was lured into a truck by Gebhardt and Moore outside a club October 9, 1983, where he had been dancing with a white woman, according to History. He was badly disfigured, and investigators at the time of his death were not able to immediately identify him. Coggins’ murder case remained cold and closed through six sheriffs’ administrations until Sheriff Darrell Dix and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reopened it in December 2016. In July of 2017, Dix warned Coggins’ killers and their accomplices he was “coming for them,” and then delivered on the promise in October, 2018 with the arrest of Frankie Gebhardt and Bill Moore, along with Gebhardt’s sister, Sandra Bunn, Gebhardt’s nephew and her son, Lamar Bunn, and Gregory Huffman.
Prosecutors on the Timothy Coggins’ case called the initial investigation into the 23-year-old man’s death “shameful,” and added they also had to overcome the difficulties of a decades-old case. Some evidence had gone missing over the years, and one of the initial investigators said his focus was split from the case on smaller crimes, like vandalism of mailboxes, according to CNN.
However, some new leads came in the form of unintentionally preserved evidence. Gebhardt tossed several items down a well on his property, which became critical to the case. The evidence included a knife blade, a thick chain, burned clothing, a shoe and an argyle sock. Coggins was barefoot when his body was found.
Justice nearly 35 years later as jury finds Frank Gebhardt guilty in the ‘racially-motivated’ 1983 murder of Timothy Coggins. https://t.co/VHoTJIlEQ7 LIVE coverage at 4 on Channel 2. pic.twitter.com/e0gki8ikYw
— WSB-TV (@wsbtv) June 26, 2018
Gebhardt had built part of his house over the well, where he had tossed much of the evidence, said Chris DeMarco, who supervised the Georgia Bureau of Investigation case.
“Two months before the trial, we made the decision that we had to get into that well but we knew that we could potentially destroy the house if we tried to dig the well out,” assistant special agent in charge DeMarco told the Pike County Journal-Reporter. “We used a new technique to excavate the well – the Hydrovac system. We used the high power pressure washer to cut through all of the dirt with the vacuum system sucking up items. Everything the informant said we would find, we did. We found some of the victim’s clothes and what we believe was the murder weapon and the chain they dragged him with.”
More than half of the evidence in the Timothy Coggins murder case had gone missing by the time of the 2018 trial, but several people came forward to say Gebhardt admitted to killing the 23-year-old man, according to the Associated Press.
2. Five People Were Charged in the Murder Case of Timothy Coggins, Including 2 Law Enforcement Officers
Frankie Gebhardt was convicted of murdering Timothy Coggins’ following a 2018 jury trial. He was sentenced to life in prison. Bill Moore was the second person to be charged in the murder case. In August, 2018, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and concealing the death of another. He was sentenced to serve a 20-year sentence, plus 10 years probation. CNN reported Moore was in poor health, and appeared in court in a wheelchair. Moore is Gebhardt’s brother in law.
— NBC Chicago (@nbcchicago) October 15, 2017
Gebhardt’s sister, Sandra Bunn, his nephew, Lamar Bunn, and Gregory Huffman were charged with obstruction in the case. Huffman was a Spalding County correctional officer, and Lamar Bunn was a police officer in nearby Milner before their arrests. After the charges were filed, Huffman was fired and Bunn was suspended without pay.
“Their cases essentially involve the passing of information to Frankie Gebhardt which hampered the investigation. That is all that I can provide you at this time,” a prosecutor told CNN at the time of their arrests.
Huffman was accused of alerting Gebhardt to part of the investigation, authorities told WRAL. Bunn is accused of feeding Gebhardt information on how to avoid DNA testing and of providing information to Gebhardt that obstructed the investigation.
3. A 1983 Autopsy Report Revealed Timothy Coggins Died From Multiple Stab Wounds
— Eliott C. McLaughlin (@ByEliott) October 19, 2017
Timothy Coggins was brutally murdered and found in a field by hunters about 36 hours after he died, according to a 1983 article. At that time, investigators were logging evidence and working to identify the man. Police were seeking information to identify him and to provide any information on the murder. Investigator Larry Campbell told a Griffin Daily News journalist at the time that nearly all that was known was that the man died a violent death.
“At this time, we have no known suspects and no known motives,” he said.
Coggins was stabbed multiple times in the back, and both of his lungs were punctured. He also had defensive wounds to his arms, where he had tried to shield his body from the knife, Campbell said.
“He had been worked over with a knife pretty well,” he said.
Investigators logged evidence including samples of blood stains, clothing, and tire tracks that were photographed and documented, the article said. Coggins was stabbed about 30 times, and dragged behind a pickup truck. You can read more details about his cause of death here.
4. The Spalding County District Attorney Said Frankie Gebhardt Killed Timothy Coggins for Socializing With a White Woman
Frankie Gebhardt brutally murdered Timothy Coggins for “socializing” with his “old lady,” according to CNN.
“The murder of Timothy Coggins was due to Coggins socializing with a white female and that Coggins had been stabbed multiple times and drug behind a truck by Franklin Gebhardt and William Moore Sr.,” prosecutor Ben Coker told the court, according to WSB-TV, who covered the trial.
Heather Coggins, Timothy Coggins’ neice, told CNN most of her uncle’s friends were white, which might have been upsetting to some people in rural Georgia in the early 1980s. She was 6 years old when her uncle died.
5. Multiple Witnesses Testified at Frankie Gebhardt’s Trial Saying He Bragged About Killing Timothy Coggins
Multiple witnesses, some who served jail time alongside Frankie Gebhardt, and others who knew him throughout his life, testified at his murder trial that he bragged about killing Timothy Coggins with Bill Moore, according to 11 Alive News, which covered the 2018 trial.
One of those witnesses, Willard Sanders, was one of the men who found the body. He had known Gebhardt since he was 6 years old. Within hours of finding the body, Sanders said Gebhardt talked about killing Coggins and how he did it, according to the Associated Press.
“He brought up, did we find the body on the power line? I said ‘yeah,”‘ Sanders told jurors. “And he said he and Bill put him there. He said Bill killed him, and he tied chains to his feet and drug him on the power line.”
“It kinda surprised me a little bit,” he added.
Witnesses testified that Gebhardt bragged about the brutal murder, always referring to Coggins as “that n*****,” CNN reported.
Timothy Coggins’ niece, Heather Coggins, said after Gebhardt’s trial she was “eternally grateful” to those who reopened the case and finally brought her uncle’s killer to justice.
“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.”