For 34 years, Sunny Side, Ga., hid a shadowy secret.
The hamlet, which straddles a U.S. 41 crossroads 30 miles south of Atlanta, was the setting of a ghastly murder in 1983.
The body of Timothy Coggins, a 23-year-old black man, was found by hunters on Oct. 9 that year in a power line clearing through the woods about a mile off the highway.
Coggins had been stabbed and sliced 30 times. His body was then chained to a vehicle and dragged along under the power lines.
From the outset, investigators suspected a motive of racial terrorism.
They believed it was no coincidence that Coggins, a handyman who grew up in the area, had been dancing and “socializing” with a white woman on the night of Oct. 7 at the People’s Choice, a nightclub in nearby Griffin, Ga.
“It was done to send a message,” Spalding County Sheriff Darrell Dix would later say. “It was overkill.”
The similarly horrendous racial murder of James Byrd Jr. prompted national outrage in 1998, when the African-American man was viciously dragged to his death by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas.
But the Coggins case drew little notice, in part because few of the gory details were released publicly. The investigation was quickly mothballed, despite promising clues.
Coggins was last seen alive with three white men in a distinctive gold compact car, and a sketchy Sunny Side resident who lived near the murder scene emerged as a suspect.
But the race of the victim relegated the investigation to low priority. As prosecutor Benjamin Coker recently acknowledged, “Timothy Coggins was just another dead black man.”
After decades of dormancy, the case was revived by a tip in March 2017. The informant suggested a familiar name — the suspect from 1983.
The newly elected Sheriff Dix and Jared Coleman, a young state investigator, lured out more potential witnesses with a public plea for help a couple of months later. Through the media, Dix warned the killers that he was “coming for them.”
Police phones rang off the hook. It seemed the identity of Coggins’ killer was common knowledge, and investigators eventually talked to more than 60 potential witnesses.
Dix told the press that many of the interviews began, “’I’ve kept this for 34 years, and now it’s time.’”
On Oct. 13, 2017, investigators slapped handcuffs on Frankie Gebhardt, 59, a bald, goateed fireplug first identified as a suspect 34 years earlier, and his brother-in-law, William Moore Sr., 58.
Gebhardt and Moore were charged with murder. Three others — Gebhardt’s sister, her son, and a local cop — were charged with impeding the investigation by tipping off the suspects.
According to Special Agent Coleman, Gebhardt had crowed indiscriminately about the murder for decades, explaining that Coggins “had been messing around with his old lady.”
The witnesses included a man who was just 10 years old when he heard Gebhardt recount the heinous details days after the killing.
Coleman said Moore told one witness that he “missed the good old days when you could kill a black man for no reason,” according to AJC.com.
Prosecutor Marie Broder said Gebhardt, whose body was tagged with white nationalist tattoos, regarded the racist killing as “a badge of honor.”
In their younger days, the suspects spent time locked up for robbery and assault, and they bragged up their murder to former cellmates.
As a result, the prosecution’s witness list included a convicted meth dealer, a child molester and a white supremacist — a rogue’s gallery labeled “the scum” by a defense attorney.
Six different men came out of a jail or prison cell to testify at Gebhardt’s trial last summer. But their accounts were buttressed by more presentable witnesses, including Agent Coleman, who said the accused killers were fighting to maintain a Jim Crow-era racial order.
“They felt like they were doing the right thing,” Coleman said, “like they were protecting the white race from black people.”
Gebhardt was convicted and sentenced to life plus 30 years by Judge Fletcher Sams, who said, “Hopefully, sir, you have stabbed your last victim.”
After weighing his brother-in-law’s fate, Moore pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sent away for 20 years. Judge Sams decreed that Moore will be banished from the region if he is ever paroled.
How did this open secret hide for so long in the Sunny Side shadows?
Authorities said tough-talking Gebhardt intimidated witnesses, threatening the same fate for snitches.
But as the prosecutors acknowledged, the case was hampered by a “shameful” police investigation in 1983. The reboot of the probe proved, once again, that resolving a cold case often hinges on the simple initiative of a fresh look.
Heather Coggins, a niece who was 6 years old when her Uncle Timothy was killed, said the convictions felt like hollow comeuppance.
“Justice would have come 34 years ago,” she said. “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.”
Still, she said, the family was gratified. “We thought they’d forgotten and that he really didn’t matter,” Coggins explained.