Between 1979 and 1981, Atlanta was terrorized by a serial killer who exclusively targeted African-American children. During that time, approximately 29 black kids and young adults, mainly boys, were found murdered. Many had been strangled. The deaths became known as the Atlanta Child Murders.
After Williams was sentenced to two consecutive life terms, authorities attributed the bulk of the child murders to him, too, though he was never tried for those additional killings and many of the victims’ relatives doubted his culpability. Williams, for his part, has always maintained his innocence, and the evidence against him is largely circumstantial and not especially conclusive.
Though the case is almost 30 years old, it’s currently back in the spotlight with the new podcast “Atlanta Monster,” produced by Tenderfoot TV and HowStuffWorks, as well as the news that Wayne Williams will be a focal point of Season 2 of the hit Netflix series Mindhunter.
In 1981, John Douglas, the real-life FBI profiler fictionalized in Mindhunter, wrote a profile on Williams for Fulton County prosecutors in which he said, “The Atlanta child killings commenced when stress in the life of Wayne Williams became unbearable. While fairly bright and articulate, Williams found himself falling to one failure after another… The Atlanta serial murder case was his first success.”
Douglas had other harsh words for Williams, too, once reportedly saying, “[Williams is] looking pretty good for a good percentage of the murders,” which prompted the FBI to censure Douglas. The profiler later changed his tune, however.
In his 1995 book Mindhunter, he wrote, “Despite what his detractors and accusers maintain, I believe there is no strong evidence linking him to all or even most of the deaths and disappearances of children in that city between 1979 and 1981. Young black and white children continue to die mysteriously in Atlanta.”
Plenty of others have lingering doubts about whether Williams, who has been called one of the world’s few African-American serial killers, is really a serial killer at all.
On August 7, 1979, the bodies of two African-American boys, Edward Hope Smith, 14, and Alfred Evans, 13, were found in a vacant Atlanta lot. They’d both been missing for a number of days; one of their bodies bore a gunshot wound. As more local black children went missing only to later turn up murdered, an already tense community grew increasingly rattled.
“It took law enforcement a lot longer to take it as seriously as they…would have if it were white kids [dying],” says Payne Lindsey, filmmaker and host of “Atlanta Monster.”
But the community’s reaction made it hard to ignore. “When kids were going missing and turning up murdered, it created this paranoia in the city, compounding with the racial tension,” says Lindsey. “There was a serial killer out there, yet law enforcement was not really providing any information or comfort to the community.”
By July 1980, nine children had been murdered. A task force was finally put into place to investigate their violent deaths after a 7-year-old girl, LaTonya Wilson, was kidnapped from her home while her family slept. (Her body was found months later.)
But black kids continued disappearing, sometimes after being seen in a car with one or two adult men. It appeared that the kids were being strategically targeted, as the victims reportedly fell within a small geographical radius. Some even knew each other.
Wayne Williams was arrested when fibers from his carpet, home and dog appeared to match those found on some of the victims. But there was only enough evidence to charge him with the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21.
“There was no DNA back then, so the strongest thing they could come up with was this fiber evidence,” Lindsey says. “This was one of the first times they’ve ever used this sort of evidence in a court case.”
“The city of Atlanta and law enforcement wanted this thing to come to an end—they wanted to end this paranoia and fear in the city,” Lindsey says.
Some people believe law enforcement attributed other unsolved killings in the area to Williams without any proof. “They basically…[tacked] on 10-plus victims, closed all the cases and attributed them to Wayne Williams,” says Lindsey.
Though some locals were relieved that the nightmare finally appeared to be over, this pat solution didn’t sit well with many of the victims’ relatives.
“The families wanted proof that Wayne Williams killed their children,” Lindsey says. “They [were expected] to take the police’s word that Williams was the killer.”
Of course, that didn’t necessarily happen, and alternative theories began to flourish.
Some have speculated the white-supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan was behind the murders. In 1986, SPIN magazine revealed that there had been a secret investigation into the KKK possibility and alleged that officials may have “[concealed] the evidence of this plot and effectively [hindered] the public investigation.”
The reporters even named the man they believed to be the prime suspect: a 30-year-old Klansmen and drug dealer named Charles Sanders, who was tape-recorded telling friends and family about his plans to murder area black kids. At least one of the children he threatened later turned up dead.
“A lot of people thought because [the victims] were all black kids, white supremacists were doing this,” says Lindsey. “The FBI investigated a lot of theories, this being one of them, but according to the [Bureau], they never found anything concrete to link the KKK to these murders.”
The magazine alleged that though investigators were aware of the KKK link, they covered it up to avoid inciting a race war in a city that was already on edge. And the murders didn’t completely stop after Williams was locked up, Lindsey notes.
“They were trickling off a little bit right before Williams was apprehended, I think in part because of the [7 p.m. to 6 a.m.] curfew that [authorities] put into effect,” Lindsey says. “Most of the kids that were murdered were…under 15 years old. There was a curfew for young kids, and if you look at all the victims…in chronological order, in the last couple of months, they were all older kids who could still be out and unaffected by the curfew.”
Why the rush to judgment on Williams? Some believe it was authorities’ attempts to ease the fears of a terrified community. “I don’t think one person killed all of those children,”says Ronald M. Kuby, one of Williams’ attorneys, in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I think there was an institutional sort of tunnel vision that developed, that this was all the work of a serial killer.”
While crime buffs continue to question who was responsible for the notorious murders, Williams remains in prison, as he has for decades.
“Even though there’s a man sitting in prison for the crimes right now, there’s a lot of gray area in this case, and a lot of new information to be uncovered,” Lindsey says.
— Laura Barcella