MACON, Ga. -- He was the guy with the corkscrewy, grizzly-bear-colored mane. With the tired blue eyes of a bookworm who had just pulled back-to-back all-nighters. And perhaps he had. Seven years of college had come and gone, and still there was studying to do.
Then, suddenly, there was not. There was ... a nightmare.
Stephen McDaniel was whisked into it.
His is the plight of a person catapulted to the fore of a high-profile crime.
It was a crime, the police would tell anyone who asked, that had not leapt forth from the script of some prime-time drama. DNA swabs and electron microscopes would not be joining forces and, inside of an hour, be serving up the killer in a petri dish.
This was not, the cops would say, a television show.
But that is very much what it would become: a soap opera of the most wrenching order. A true story.
It would play out on Internet message boards, in newspapers and on websites. And on TV newscasts and, no doubt most painfully, in the lives of two families -- the dead woman’s and that of the guy with the unforgettably frizzy hair -- where it was no soap opera at all, but rather, reality.
And it would unfold before the masses. More than a few of whom would thank the good Lord that it wasn’t them or their kin. Or, most crushing of all, their daughter who had been violated in a way that defies explanation.
“If you think about it,” the slain woman’s father would say, “it’s about as bad as it gets. ... It’s just so off the scale ... just so hard to believe.”
For the unexplained to assert itself, to truly grab hold, it requires an audience. As it happened, the guy and his cornucopia of curls -- well, a young man a couple of months shy of 26th birthday -- found one.
In one of those rare moments when the news crews stumble upon sound bite gold, TV is exactly where the eventual prime target of a murder case would vault into local living rooms and, later, via cable news outlets and Web video and old-fashioned newsprint, become a curiosity on his way to becoming a suspect.
He was a law school graduate weeks from testing his mettle, taking the bar exam, the next step in perhaps someday fulfilling his mother’s highest hopes.
Then, in a stroke of newsworthy fate, to put it in the legalese that this young man was no doubt versed, here came before the court of public opinion a young man a month and a half out of law school.
His was the face of a boy’s, enshrouded in a bird’s nest of frizz. He looked tired. He broke down while a camera rolled.
Was his on-video performance an act? The desperation of an exposed villain coming unhinged?
Or was his despair a gush of genuine concern and fright and disbelief all spilling out because his neighbor was missing and, very possibly, dead?
Here, too, had come the police, and then the reporters, and then here came the miserable news. The gone-missing person he knew might now, instead of missing, be dead.