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Second killer pleads guilty in 1983 cold case
01:28 - Source: CNN

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Newspaper, victim's niece reveal details about Timothy Coggins' murder

Spalding County deputies made five arrests in 1983 cold case last week

Griffin, Georgia CNN  — 

Timothy Coggins was stabbed multiple times, likely in the field where hunters found his body in Sunny Side, Georgia, on October 9, 1983, investigators at the time told the local newspaper.

The state crime lab determined that both of Coggins’ lungs were punctured, investigator Larry Campbell said, and there were blood stains and tire tracks at the scene. Planes approaching the grass landing strip at Beaverbrook Aerodrome would have flown over his body for about 36 hours before it was found.

“He had been worked over with a knife pretty well,” Campbell told the paper. “He had defense wounds where he’d thrown up an arm and so forth.”

The October 10, 1983, story in the Griffin Daily News doesn’t identify Coggins. Police were asking for the public’s help on that front. The newspaper described Coggins as 5-foot-7 and in his 20s. There was a small tattoo on his left hand, and he wore blue jeans and a beige sweater. He had a small goatee and “light mustache.” Two of his bottom teeth were missing.

Police identified the 23-year-old in the next day’s paper.

“We’ll follow the trail wherever it leads,” then-Spalding County Sheriff James Freeman vowed.

Freeman couldn’t know at the time that the case would go stone cold for decades, traversing six sheriffs’ administrations, only to be reopened in 2017 when new information surfaced.

Last week, Darrell Dix, who became sheriff in January after almost three decades with the Griffin Police Department, announced the arrests of two murder suspects, along with three more individuals – two of them law enforcement – accused of obstructing investigators in what Dix described as a racially driven slaying. He was light on details out of necessity, to keep under wraps certain specifics that only the killers and investigators know, he said.

Asked Wednesday if the 1983 newspaper account of the stabbing death was accurate, Dix told CNN yes and no.

“It was more than that,” he said. “It was done to send a message. It was overkill.”

‘He’d dance in the street’

Timothy Coggins

Coggins grew up with three brothers and four sisters, but it was not unheard of for his many cousins, who were like siblings, to spend time at the home of Coggins’ mother and stepfather, Viola and Robert Dorsey, according to Coggins’ niece, Heather Coggins.

“They didn’t come from much, but they came from love, and that taught them to love each other,” the 40-year-old mother of one said.

Heather Coggins was 6 when Uncle Tim was killed, and her memory of him is spotty. At the request of CNN, she spoke to several relatives, many reluctant to speak with the media directly, to gather memories of their brother, nephew, uncle or cousin.

Tim was handy, much like his stepfather, and could often be found earning cash by painting, fixing sewer lines, laying brick and undertaking carpentry and plumbing projects alongside Dorsey.

Dorsey, who began raising Timothy Coggins when he was 7 or 8, instilled a strong work ethic in the youngsters under his roof. He would tell them things like, “A man that doesn’t work doesn’t eat” and “You need more than one job.” Dorsey himself was a handyman and school bus driver.

“Granddaddy didn’t believe in people lying around doing nothing,” Heather Coggins said.

Viola Dorsey had 19 siblings and was used to hosting big family dinners, but no one could dig in till her husband finished working.

“Grandmother was a very traditional wife, and we couldn’t eat until granddaddy got home. That’s her husband. He’s the man of the house,” said Heather Coggins, who remembers spending much of her childhood at grandma’s house.

Tim lived with Heather and her mom for a spell when Heather was younger. Heather and the family remember him as thin, charismatic, playful and possessing a bright smile that showcased his “beautiful, pearly white teeth.”

The Teddy Pendergrass album, "Teddy," serves as a backdrop in this family Polaroid of Timothy Coggins.

He was passionate about music, particularly the soul and funk crooning of Frankie Beverly, frontman for the band, Maze. “Before I Let Go” was his jam.

“He’d just dance anywhere. He’d dance in the street,” one of his aunts recalled.

Tim Coggins loved his family and took especially good care of his mother and sisters. If a sister needed to walk to a friend’s house, he’d escort them, then walk back later to escort them home. Each time he left the house he’d find his mother and give her a kiss, telling her, “Love you, mom. I’ll be be back.” When he returned, he’d hunt her down for another kiss.

“There was nothing my grandmother could ask him to do that he wouldn’t do,” Heather Coggins said. “If she asked him to walk to Atlanta and pick up a croissant, he’d do it.”

While memories of their beloved Tim abound, the 34 years that have passed since his death have rendered some family members’ recollections spotty, she said. “We remember some of the words Tim used to say, but you can’t remember, How did he sound? He had a big, joyful laugh, but how did he sound again?”

Old investigators deputized

Coggins' body was found in a field off this gravel road in Sunny Side, news reports from the time say.

Coggins’ murder didn’t generate a great deal of coverage. The story about his body being discovered was 15 paragraphs long and sat at the bottom of the front page of the local paper, beneath a story about Griffin Tech planning to expand. Followup stories over the next two days commanded only a few column inches before his name disappeared from the pages.

Wire stories about a missing white girl out of Marietta, 50 miles north, commanded far more newshole.

The field where Coggins was found doesn’t resemble the photo in the newspaper. The road he was found near remains an unpaved thoroughfare, but the field now hosts a pine grove and one-story ramblers on spacious, pastoral lots.

Because of the dearth of coverage through the years and because so much has changed since Coggins’ murder, prosecutors will rely heavily on the recollections of those who came forward in July, when Sheriff Dix announced he was reopening the case and warned the suspects he was “coming for them.”

He told CNN on Wednesday that his intention was to generate memories of phone calls or conversations, anything that might reveal more details about what happened the night Coggins was killed.

Calls came in from all over the state, Dix said. At least two came in from Mississippi. Witnesses provided emotional and vivid recollections – not of the actual murder, but of “the chain of events that led up to that night,” he said.

When deputies arrived to take Frankie Gebhardt, 59, and Bill Moore Sr., 58, into custody, they seemed less than surprised they were being charged with murder, the sheriff said.

“I don’t want to say both of them knew it was coming, but I think because of the news story coming out in July, it seemed like they were putting things together.”

Dix, who was just entering high school the year Coggins was slain, deputized Oscar Jordan and Clint Phillips III, the original investigators on the case in 1983, so they could take part in the arrest. Phillips fell ill and couldn’t make it, but Jordan joined deputies.

“I wanted them to be there when the handcuffs were put on,” Dix said.

Deputies used two pairs of handcuffs on each suspect. Dix gave Jordan one pair from each suspect and plans on giving the other two pairs to Phillips. Maybe they could place them in a shadowbox to commemorate the arrest, he said.

“Oscar was in tears. He was just absolutely moved,” the sheriff said. “I just told him, ‘You’ve waited 34 years for this. You’ve earned them.’”

Arrests don’t stem fear

From left, Bill Moore Sr. and Frankie Gebhardt have been charged with murder in Coggins' death, while Gregory Huffman, Lamar Bunn and his mother, Sandra Bunn, have been charged with obstruction, police say.

Dix has alleged that the suspects intimidated witnesses for years. Heather Coggins declined to say whether anyone in her family had been threatened, citing the ongoing investigation and prosecution.

As for Dix’s claim that her uncle’s “torturous” killing was racially motivated, she also declined to share details. She did say, however, that most of her uncle’s friends were white, which might not have sat well with some folks in middle Georgia during the early 1980s.

Heather Coggins said she’d never seen or heard of the suspects before their arrests, but locking the men behind bars has done little to stem her and her family’s anxiety. Rather, it’s reopened some old wounds.

Arriving at a Griffin coffee shop before a CNN interview Wednesday, she noticed a truck circle the parking lot three times. It’s probably nothing, she told herself. Still, she watched it until she was satisfied it posed no threat before entering the cafe.

“It makes you think about it a little because my face is out there,” she said.

She refuses to live in fear, she said, but she can’t help but be vigilant. That’s been true since 1983, when police came to her mother’s door with a photo of Timothy and her mother identified him by a childhood scar, she said.

Heather Coggins recalls her uncle’s closed-casket funeral, the raw sadness of it.

“After the funeral we stayed at an aunt’s house, 20 of us … because everyone was so afraid,” she said.

Space was tight, and the kids slept on the floor that night. She remembers having a nightmare about Uncle Tim, though the details escape her.

“You hear stories of what happened, and as a child, you were afraid. You didn’t know if people were going to come back. When you don’t know who it did it, you kind of live in fear. If I’m completely honest, it lasted all of our lives,” she said.