Timothy Coggins was brutally murdered at age 23 after he was lured into a truck by Frank Gebhardt and Bill Moore on October 9, 1983. Coggins, a Black man, had been in the club dancing with a white woman.
He was known as an exuberant young man, who was charismatic and had a broad smile his family still remembers. He often dated white women and befriended white people in his rural Georgia town, which made him a target, according to his family members and prosecutors. His killers were sending a message in his death, leaving him disfigured in a field, investigators said.
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 Was Born in a Poor Area in Rural Georgia & His Family Felt Authorities Considered the Case Unimportant
— Eliott C. McLaughlin (@ByEliott) October 19, 2017
Timothy Coggins grew up in a poor area of rural Georgia, and was brutalized for “socializing” with white women, who he was known to date. The Timothy Coggins murder case was closed only two months after it was opened. Coggins’ body was found, brutalized and badly disfigured, in a field in Sunnyside, Georgia about 36 hours after he died on October 9, 1983. After his body was found, investigators combed the area and collected evidence. It would be years before the murder weapon was found.
Coggins’ suffered multiple stab wounds to his body – around 30. The Griffin Daily News reported investigators did not know who the man in the field was, putting out a description of Coggins in hopes of identifying the young black man. He was just 23, 5 feet, 7 inches tall and had a light goatee. He had a tattoo on his left hand, the newspaper reported.
“He had been worked over with a knife pretty well,” a police investigator told the paper.
His niece, Heather Coggins, said she felt the case was unimportant to investigators, according to History.
“We kind of felt that the case didn’t really matter—not forgotten, just unimportant,” she said. “That he was just another black man from a poor part of town, who was murdered and nobody really cared.”
2. Timothy Coggins Was Known for His Charisma, Smile & Dance Moves & Always Walked His Younger Family Members Home
Timothy Coggins was known in his small Georgia town of Griffin for his exuberance and charisma. He had a big smile that his family remembers, and many of its younger members wish they had the opportunity to know Coggins better.
Jennifer Stevenson was a baby when her cousin died. 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 Frank Gebhardt 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.”
3. Timothy Coggins Was a Sweet, Outgoing Person & His Family Was Shocked Anyone Would Hurt Him
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
Timothy Coggins’ death and unsolved murder caused a cloud to hang over his family for more than three decades.
“It was very difficult hearing some of the things today, and seeing the defendant was very difficult as well. It’s the first time we’ve had a chance to see them up close and personal,” niece Heather Coggins told WSB-TV after Gebhardt’s trial.
His sister, Telisa Coggins, was with him at the People’s Choice club the night he was murdered. She remembered he was teaching a white woman how to dance. At one point, she remembered a white man looking for her brother, and seeing Tim Coggins leaving with the white man when she went to the restroom.
“By the time I got out the door, they was gone,” she told ABC News.
She told ABC News her brother was outgoing and caring. He was the type of person “who could get along with anybody,” she said.
Timothy Coggins’ brother, Tyrone Coggins, said the family was shocked by Tim Coggins’ death because they did not think anyone would want to hurt him.
“We were shocked. We’re like, ‘Who would hurt this guy?’” he said. “You know, this was Tim. This was the smooth guy. The guy that never bothered nobody. Always helped somebody.”
4. Timothy Coggins Was Known for Dating White Women & His Killers Wanted to ‘Send a Message’
Timothy Coggins befriended many white people in Griffin, Georgia, and he was known for dating white women. This gave him a target on his back, according to History. He was in a club dancing with a white woman when he was lured into a truck and stabbed by Frank Gebhardt and his brother-in-law, William Moore.
Prosecutor Marie G. Broder told ABC News she believed that Coggins’ murder was intended to send a message. Coggins was known for dating white women and selling marijuana in white neighborhoods, she said. He was ahead of his times, and did not follow the rules laid out for a black man in rural Georgia in 1983.
“Timothy Coggins was a young Black man in 1983 who refused to follow societal norms. He was not following the rules of 1983, if you will,” Broder said. “And if you were a Klan member or a racist, any of those things would infuriate you and anger you to the point where Timothy Coggins became a target … that needed to be eliminated, and a message that needed to be sent.”
Tim Coggins’ niece, Heather Coggins told ABC News the family was grateful to finally have closure.
“We don’t have to guess anymore what happened to Tim. … Now, we know that there are two people who will probably spend the rest of their days in confinement for what they have done,” she said.
5. Timothy Coggins Did Not Have a Headstone Until 2017 Because His Family Feared His Grave Would Be Vandalized
The unsolved murder and death of Timothy Coggins had a deep impact on the family. With his killer on the loose for decades, they feared that if they marked his grave with a headstone, the killer would come back and vandalize it.
“When are we going to wake up? This feels like a movie as if we’re watching it on Lifetime… but it is real,” Heather Coggins, his niece, told WSB-TV.
Today, his headstone says, “”Gone, but never forgotten,” according to Find a Grave.
His family held a 90-minute memorial service for Coggins after Frank Gebhardt and Bill Moore Sr. were arrested, according to the Associated Press. Tyrone Coggins, Timothy Coggins’ brother, offered a message during the 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.
Several family members said Coggins was the person who always made sure his family got home safe, walking his younger family members home.
“He always wanted to make sure everyone got home safely,” said Tyrone Coggins. “This is confirmation to the family that 34 years later, Tim made it home.”