A&E’s ‘Murder in the 21st: The Girl Next Door’ depicts how 27-year-old law student Lauren Giddings was killed and dismembered inside her rental apartment in Macon, Georgia, in late June 2011. The murder case garnered international media attention when a significant twist occurred during a live news broadcast — the killer learned the authorities had found the victim’s body parts. Lauren’s story serves as a cautionary tale, and the article details the innumerable horrors attached to the case and its aftermath.
How Did Lauren Giddings Die?
Lauren Teresa Giddings was born to William and Karen (née Payne) Giddings in Takoma Park, Maryland, on April 18, 1984. She spent her formative years in Laurel before relocating to Georgia. In Laurel, she was an active member of St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church and attended St. Mary’s School from kindergarten through eighth grade. Later, she graduated from Atholton High School in Columbia in 2002, where she participated in field hockey and softball. Lauren moved to Macon, Georgia, and enrolled at Agnes Scott College in 2002.
She pursued a major in political science in college, minored in religious studies, and actively engaged in softball. After completing her undergraduate studies, she returned home and joined the workforce, initially working for the National Center for Public Policy in Washington, D.C. Subsequently, she decided to pursue a career in law. Lauren embarked on her legal education journey at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law in 2008. She served as the President of the Federalist Society and earned her Juris Doctorate Degree on May 14, 2011.
Lauren, 27, spent the 2011 summer in Macon, preparing for perhaps the most crucial test she would ever take — the Georgia Bar Exam. However, her friends and family reported her missing when they realized they had not heard from her days since June 27. After finding her apartment empty, they contacted the police, and the officers discovered Lauren’s torso in a trash can behind Barristers Hall. While the authorities could never find the rest of her remains, Lauren’s killer confessed to strangling her to death before dismembering her.
Who Killed Lauren Giddings?
Lauren was vigorously studying for the bar exam in 2011 summer as planned to start a career as a defense attorney. However, she still managed to attend her sister Kaitlyn Wheeler’s June 2011 marriage in Maryland before returning to her Macon apartment at Barristers Hall to study. Her family noted she had decided to unplug from distractions to avoid interruptions. Kaitlyn explained, “She had already told family and friends that since she’d been home for the wedding, which was a long break.”
She added, “Most people taking the bar don’t do anything like that. So she would be nonstop studying.” When Kaitlyn realized she hadn’t received a call or text from Lauren in several days, she grew worried. She contacted her sister’s friends, who also expressed concern as they hadn’t had any recent contact with her. They eventually decided to take matters into their own hands and went to Lauren’s apartment. Although her car was in the parking lot, there was no response when they knocked on her door.
One of her friends, Ashley Morehouse, was aware of the location of her spare key and used it to unlock the door, allowing them to enter. They found her belongings, including her books, keys, and purse, inside the apartment, though the owner was conspicuously missing. A concerned Ashley promptly dialed 911, and the police arrived. Upon initial inspection, they observed no signs of forced entry and did not detect any visible blood that might indicate a struggle. However, the situation turned grim when they used luminol in the bathroom.
The walls, floor, and bathtub illuminated, dramatically altering the nature of the investigation. It was no longer a missing person case; instead, it had become a homicide scene. The police promptly cordoned off the area and initiated a thorough search of the vicinity surrounding the building. Before long, they were confronted with a pungent odor emanating from the trash cans and found Lauren’s torso wrapped in a plastic sheet inside. One of the investigators stated, “While we were standing there, the wind started to turn.”
He added, “Immediately, I smelled an odor I was very familiar with. We all smell things in life that smell bad. And that of a body, or a decomposing body, is one of the worst things you’ll smell. But it has a distinctive smell.” However, the police could not find her head, legs, or arms in either one of the trash cans. The detective stated, “I had never seen anything like that before. Who could have done this? Because truthfully, only a monster could do something like that. It was horrible.”
The discovery of Lauren’s body left the Mercer University and the wider Macon community in shock. However, one individual who drew attention was fellow law student graduate Stephen McDaniel. With his distinctive curly hair, he had been considered an eccentric yet generally mild-mannered university graduate. While he remained in the area, preparing for his forthcoming bar exam, he actively participated in the search for Lauren, assisting search groups as they scoured the school and even entering her apartment alongside her friend, who had a key.
Being both her neighbor and classmate, Stephen considered himself a close friend of Lauren, and he openly expressed his concerns about her absence during an interview with a local reporter from WGXA. The interview took a dramatic turn when he was informed, on camera, that police had discovered parts of Lauren’s body — a shocking revelation that he had not been aware of until that moment. During the neighborhood canvass by investigators, her neighbors willingly permitted officers to search their apartments to clear their names.
But Stephen’s reluctance aroused suspicions, although the investigators acknowledged that, as a law student, he was well aware of his right to refuse a warrantless search. However, after facing pressure from investigators, he eventually relented, and the police stumbled upon a significant discovery. Among his possessions, the police uncovered a master key capable of unlocking any unit within his small apartment complex. When questioned about the key, Stephen admitted to having used it to enter two neighbors’ apartments and steal condoms.
His admission provided the basis for Stephen’s arrest on a burglary charge, allowing the police to interrogate him in custody. Despite being open with reporters, he remained uncooperative during interrogations, consistently denying any involvement in Lauren’s murder. The officers pressed him on inconsistencies in his statements, such as his ownership of a second car and his romantic interest in Lauren. Lacking a confession, the investigators had to rely on forensic evidence gathered from a comprehensive search of his apartment following his initial arrest.
Upon a more extensive search of his apartment, the police uncovered chilling evidence. A forensic examination of his computer revealed a disturbing search history, indicating an obsession with violent pornography involving children and inappropriate searches related to Lauren that suggested a romantic and sexual interest in her. The most unsettling piece of digital evidence found by the police was a video recorded on the night of Lauren’s murder. It depicted Stephen attaching a camera to an extended stick, which he used to peer into her window.
Furthermore, the officers came across plastic packaging for a hacksaw that matched one found discarded in the shared laundry room within the complex. They also discovered a bedsheet saturated with her blood. Lauren had suspected that someone was watching her and even emailed her boyfriend the night before her death to tell him she thought someone had recently tried to break in. Stephen was charged with Lauren’s murder on August 2, 2011. He was later charged with seven counts of child sexual exploitation as well.
Where is Stephen McDaniel Now?
During the early morning hours of June 26, 2011, Stephen confessed to the murder. He revealed he had utilized his master key to enter Lauren’s apartment and watched her sleep for a brief period. But when a bed creak alerted her, she awoke and yelled at him to leave. Stephen assaulted her, strangling her to death despite her resistance. He moved her lifeless body to the bathroom and returned to his own home. The following night, he returned with a hacksaw, dismembered her remains, and disposed of her limbs in various trash cans around the area.
Stephen opted for a plea deal in 2014, pleading guilty to first-degree murder, which spared him from the death penalty. As part of the agreement, he provided a detailed account of the killing. The judge dropped additional charges discovered during the investigation, such as burglary and multiple counts of sexual exploitation of children. Consequently, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Stephen’s father initiated a GoFundMe campaign for his legal expenses in 2018, which was promptly taken down.
Stephen represented himself in court, seeking a retrial and claiming his constitutional rights were violated. He also filed a malpractice complaint against his former attorney, which was duly rejected. He filed another habeas corpus petition on May 30, 2022, alleging that the district attorney stole documents from his defense trial preparations. He requested the overturning of his conviction and release from prison. Stephen, now 38, remains incarcerated at Hancock State Prison in Hancock County, Georgia.