Mercer University Law School student Lauren Giddings, 27, was only one test away from completing her dream, passing the state bar exam, in June 2011.
But no one in the law library had seen Lauren for days. Before long, campus friends grow frantic. Everyone knew this was not normal for Lauren.
Lauren's studies at Mercer were nearly complete. She was only preparing to take the bar exam while living in an apartment right across from her college. But despite her keen mind, there was something Lauren was clueless about: Someone was watching her every move.
"She never mentioned being in fear for her safety," said sister Kaitlyn Wheeler. "She mentioned on one trip a year before when she came home she felt things had been moved around, someone had been in her apartment."
Busy with her law life, Lauren didn't think much about the curious incident. But was this popular and talented student unknowingly becoming someone's prey?
Fellow graduate Stephen McDaniel tells our Crime Watch Daily Macon affiliate WGXA he knew her well. He also attended Mercer and lived across from the law school. Stephen had reportedly asked her on a date. Lauren declined, because she had been dating someone else.
But now a weekend had come and gone and strangely Lauren was suddenly nowhere to be found.
Had Lauren just disappeared? Her family was not overly concerned. She already told them she would be studying 24-7 for the bar exam. But Lauren's friends at the school were already looking for answers. One of them contacted police, who came to the apartment. Seeing no signs of a break-in, they left.
Lauren had been missing for four days. On campus, Stephen McDaniel was one of those who joined in the search for his missing friend.
In desperation Kaitlyn asked a friend to use a hidden key, getting access into Lauren's apartment.
"She went in and called me back and said that all of her stuff was there: purse, keys, the car was still out front, wallet, school I.D.," said Kaitlyn.
For Kaitlyn the news was a game-changer. The alarms bells were now deafening.
Police were called. With their arrival this case was about to take a dramatic turn.
"There was no witness it was just a matter of interviewing anybody who lived at that complex or anybody who associated with Lauren," said Macon Police Sgt. Scott Chapman.
This missing-person case became something far more sinister when investigators moved outside the building.
"So started looking a little close around the outside and discovered the trash bag that was in one of the Dumpsters, once they were able to open the bag and look in and discovered her body," said Bibb County Sheriff's Lt. Randy Gonzalez. "We just found her torso. There was no limbs attached and of course her head was missing as well, so she just had a torso."
The crime scene yields two lucky breaks for investigators: One, the Dumpster should have been collected that morning, but the truck was running late, leaving Lauren's remains and other DNA evidence to be discovered by police.
And soon, there was Stephen McDaniel's bizarre performance in an interview with Crime Watch Daily Macon, Georgia affiliate station WGXA-TV.
Above: Stephen McDaniel's bizarre performance in an interview with WGXA-TV.
His reaction on hearing of the discovery of Lauren's body immediately captured the attention of investigators, who found it strikingly suspicious.
McDaniel's told reporters he wished he had lent Lauren one of his guns to protect herself.
Within hours, investigators start looking a whole lot closer at McDaniel, a 25-year-old law graduate described by friends as "quirky" but "intelligent." Investigators learn that friends considered him a bit creepy, saying he had an obsession with zombies. He had often asked others how to commit the perfect murder.
The hard evidence quickly came rolling in.
"He had in his possession both a master key and key to her apartment and he had a flash drive that belonged to her that contained hundreds of her personal photos," said Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke. "His computer history showed an interest in her Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Sometimes he would be searching for images of her around the same time that he was looking up violent pornography. Of course we found her underwear in his apartment."
But even more damning, something Lauren had no idea was going on: Police say McDaniel had free access to her apartment for some time and had been stalking her every move.
"The linchpin in all this was when we found deleted video he had used to survey her home," said D.A. Cooke. "The night it appears that she was murdered and that was found in a camera in his possession, and that was the straw that broke the camel's back. He had took a wooden pole and had duct-taped or somehow fixed that camera to the end of the pole and then held the pole up really high to peek inside her window."
On the day Lauren's remains were found, McDaniel was arrested on unrelated burglary charges. Cops pounce, interrogating him for answers.
Within a few weeks McDaniel was charged with Lauren Giddings' murder.
Years passed but the evidence mounted against him. McDaniel eventually accepted a deal, pleading guilty to murder, and openly confessing the lurid details in court, saying he entered Lauren's apartment at 4:30 in the morning wearing a mask.
He explained: "She saw me and said very calmly, 'Get the [expletive] out.' I leaped across the bed onto her and grabbed her around the throat."
"He pled to breaking into Lauren's apartment, to strangling her, to moving her to the bathroom, to taking her body apart, to hiding it, to ripping up evidence and putting it down the toilet, cleaning up everything and then acting like she was still alive," said Kaitlyn Wheeler.
McDaniel said that during the struggle Lauren pulled the mask from his face, and pleaded "Stephen, please stop!"
When Lauren was dead, Stephen McDaniel dragged her into the bathtub and left her. He returned that night and dismembered her using a hacksaw blade. The cover of the blade, with Lauren's DNA on it, was later found in his apartment.
"He told us that the rest of the remains were placed in a different dumpster but by the time he told us that there was no way to recover her remains," said David Cooke.
Tragically, they have never been recovered.
For now, the only solace for Lauren Giddings' family: Stephen McDaniel was sent to prison for life.