Georgia man gets life in prison in racially motivated cold case murder

Assistant District Attorney Marie Broder, center, celebrates the verdict with Coggins' family and friends. Full Credit: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

A Georgia man was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison plus 30 years in a cold case murder that prosecutors said was racially motivated.

A Spalding County jury convicted Frankie Gebhardt of five counts, including felony murder, aggravated assault and concealing a death, in the October 1983 slaying of Timothy Coggins, the Spalding County district attorney’s office said.

Superior Court Judge W. Fletcher Sams sentenced Gebhardt immediately after the jury delivered its verdict.

“Hopefully, sir, you have stabbed you last victim,” Sams said, according to CNN affiliate WSB.

The verdict came almost 35 years after Coggins’ mutilated and stabbed body was found near a high-tension power line in Sunny Side, a town about 35 miles south of Atlanta. The suspects arrested in the slaying were angry that Coggins, 23, was socializing with a white woman, District Attorney Benjamin Coker said in November.

Heather Coggins, the victim’s niece, was 6 when her uncle died. Timothy’s mother died in 2016, before arrests were made.

The trial was “taxing” for the Coggins and Gebhardt families, Heather Coggins said in court Tuesday, according to WSB. “But we are completely grateful to be here today. It has been 34 years for us to be here and we are finally here,” she said.

Later, she called the trial’s outcome bittersweet — “bitter that my grandparents are not here to rejoice and see that justice was finally served, but sweet that we were able finally to see it,” she told CNN.

Coker thanked the investigators who reopened the cold case in December 2016 and followed it through to conviction.

“This was a challenging case filled with hurdles and obstacles,” he said in a statement, “but we never faltered in our resolve to bring justice to Timothy Coggins and his family. We asked the jury to right the wrongs of the past with this case, and they did just that.”

The suspects

What the Coggins family knew about the slaying was hard to bear. What they learned in court was even more unimaginable, Heather Coggins said.

Gebhardt and co-defendant Bill Moore Sr., who hasn’t been tried yet, were accused of stabbing Timothy Coggins about 30 times and tying him with a logging chain to the back of a truck before dragging him up and down a field off a rural road.

Moore will stand trial later this year on the same charges as Gebhardt, the district attorney’s office said.

Moore and Gebhardt were among five people arrested in October in connection with Coggins’ death, including two law enforcement officers:

  • Moore was charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated battery and concealing a death
  • Sandra Bunn was charged with obstruction;
  • Lamar Bunn was charged with obstruction;
  • Gregory Huffman was charged with obstruction and violation of oath of office.

Prosecutors said the woman with whom Coggins socialized was Gebhardt’s girlfriend.

The witnesses

Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix credited journalists with helping law enforcement crack the case. While investigators followed up on leads and re-interviewed original witnesses, media coverage spurred previously unknown witnesses to come forward, he said.

Those witnesses included a child molester, a neo-Nazi and a man jailed for methamphetamine. They testified that Gebhardt bragged about killing Coggins, whom he never referred to by name, but by the N-word. Terry Reed, a former cellmate of Gebhardt’s, testified that the defendant boasted of severing Coggins’ penis and shoving it in his mouth.

While witness credibility was an issue from the start, prosecutors also had to deal with a shoddy 1983 investigation — one of the original investigators testified he couldn’t focus solely on the Coggins’ case because he also had to look into smaller crimes, such as vandalism to mailboxes — as well as missing evidence.

Prosecutor Marie Broder estimated that half of the evidence collected at the scene was missing.

Court documents show Gebhardt has been arrested numerous times and has three convictions for aggravated assault, all since 1997. Moore was convicted of theft in 1978 and of criminal interference with government property in 1987, according to court reports. He has been convicted of DUI and under Georgia’s habitual violator law multiple times, the reports said.

Coggins’ mom knew day would come

Heather Coggins told CNN in October that most of her uncle’s friends were white, which might not have sat well with some people in Middle Georgia during the early 1980s.

Timothy 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, his niece said. The family remembers her uncle as charismatic and playful. He had a bright smile that showcased his “beautiful, pearly white teeth,” she said.

On her deathbed, his mother said she knew this day would come, Heather Coggins said.

Her uncle’s death will always be tragic, she said. But now his story has a new ending, one in which the truth isn’t lost in history.

“Now, Tim, my grandma and my grandpa can rest in peace.”