One night in October 1983, two white men waited outside a local dance club near Sunny Side, Georgia for a black man, Timothy Coggins. Coggins was young, exuberant, loved to dance—and was known to date white women. When Coggins emerged, according to court testimony, they lured him into their parked car, and stabbed him more than 30 times, before tying him to the back of a pick-up truck with a logging chain and dragging him behind them on the asphalt until he stopped moving. Coggins’ body was dumped and the culprits disappeared into the night.
“He pretty much was killed for socializing with a white woman,” says Heather Coggins, his niece and the family’s spokesperson.
It would be 34 years before one of those men, Franklin Gebhardt, was convicted for Coggins’ murder and sentenced to life in prison plus an additional 20 years, finally bringing the family some justice. After more than three decades without even a suspect, says Heather Coggins, they are still adjusting to the events of the past weeks and taking time to be together as a family. “It’s so surreal,” she says. “We’re overwhelmed with joy.”
The investigation into the crime was stymied from the start due to its brutality. When Coggins died, the Griffin Daily News printed just four short columns about “an unidentified black male,” found in a grassy ditch in Sunny Side, Georgia. The young man was just 23, 5 feet, 7 inches and goateed, with a tattoo on his left hand. Despite these identifying features, Coggins was virtually unrecognizable from his injuries, and covered in a bloody crosshatch of stab wounds. “He had been worked over with a knife pretty well,” a police investigator told the paper.
The following day, after authorities combed through piles of missing person reports, the paper identified the victim. Coggins had experienced a death so brutal his family were obliged to hold a closed-casket funeral. Yet state crime officials and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation made little headway in finding the culprit. Tire tracks at the scene led them nowhere, and several items of clothing believed to be related to the crime proved dead ends.
For decades, Coggins’ family believed his death, and their loss, had been written off as irrelevant in the eyes of authorities. “We kind of felt that the case didn’t really matter—not forgotten, just unimportant,” says Heather Coggins. “That he was just another black man from a poor part of town, who was murdered and nobody really cared.”
But about 18 months ago, new information allowed police to open up a case many believed had fallen by the wayside. Gebhardt, a local pulp mill laborer, had been serving time in a Georgia penitentiary on charges of aggravated assault. There, he and his brother-in-law William Moore Sr. had made chilling boasts to fellow inmates, recounting how they had once killed a black man in cold blood, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.
“They were proud of what they had done,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Jared Coleman told a jury earlier this month. “They felt like they were protecting the white race from black people.”
As the years passed, the Coggins family despaired of ever getting justice for their son, brother, and uncle. A few years ago, in the week before Coggins’ mother, Heather Coggins recalls, “She would speak about Tim, and she would just wonder, ‘Who killed Tim?’”
In fact, there were a few people around the town who might have known the answer. Behind the scenes, Gebhardt had bragged to those he knew about what he had once done, once telling a girlfriend: “If you keep on, you’re going to wind up like that [n-word] in the ditch,” the Journal Constitution reported.
Threats such as these created a climate of silence, where witnesses were too terrified to come forward. “Gebhardt has said both in jail calls and in interviews that if you give me a name of witnesses they won’t testify,” prosecutor Marie Broder told the jury. Though police had always suspected the two men, the Journal Constitution reported, inconsistent witness accounts and a lack of physical evidence made it near-impossible to prosecute them. The murder weapons—the knife and logging chain—were never recovered.
Last March, authorities finally had a breakthrough. A witness “filled in the gaps,” Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix told the paper, and revived the case, opening up the floodgates to a torrent of tips and testimonies. In July, the Coggins family were informed on their progress. Then, after interviewing more than 60 people, police arrested five suspects, including Gebhardt and Moore, last October.
More trials are yet to come. But for the Coggins family, that first “guilty” verdict has been the most important in allowing them to begin to move on, though it’s tinged with sadness. “The moment is definitely bittersweet,” says Heather Coggins. “The moment is sweet: that we finally got a verdict, someone was finally even arrested—better yet, someone is going to spend the rest of their life in prison. But it’s bitter because my grandparents are not there to see it.”
It’s justice of sorts, she says. “‘Justice’ would have come 34 years ago. The people who are accused of doing this were able to live their lives, have kids, have grandkids, see the joys of that. And that’s something Timothy never got the chance to do.”
In a public Facebook post, Heather Coggins thanked those who had written to them, called, said prayers, or sat alongside the family in court. “For the past months we have been on an emotional roller-coaster,” she wrote. But despite their pain, they had managed to function as a family, “because we know LOVE will always erase HATE.”