Atlanta murders of 1979–1981
The Atlanta murders of 1979–1981, sometimes called the Atlanta child murders, were a series of murders committed in Atlanta, Georgia, between July 1979 and May 1981. Over the two-year period, at least 28 children, adolescents, and adults were killed.
|Atlanta murders of 1979–1981|
|Location||City of Atlanta, Fulton County, DeKalb County, Cobb County, Douglas County|
|Date||July 21, 1979 – May 21, 1981|
|Target||Children and young adults in the Atlanta metropolitan area|
|serial killing, kidnapping|
|Perpetrators||Wayne Williams, possibly others|
Wayne Williams, an Atlanta native who was 23 years old at the time of the last murder, was arrested, tried, and convicted of two of the adult murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Police subsequently have attributed a number of the child murders to Williams, although he has not been charged in any of those cases, and Williams himself maintains his innocence, although the killings ceased after his arrest. In March 2019, the Atlanta police, under the order of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, reopened the cases in hopes that new technology will lead to a conviction.
Timeline of murders
- In the middle of 1979, Edward Hope Smith (also known as "Teddy") and Alfred Evans (also known as "Q"), both 14, disappeared four days apart. (Terry Pue, who later went missing in early 1981, lived in the same apartment as Smith.) Their bodies were found on July 28 in a wooded area, Smith with a .22 caliber gunshot wound in his upper back. They were believed to be the first victims of the putative "Atlanta Child Killer."
- On September 4, the next victim, 14-year-old Milton Harvey, disappeared while on an errand to the bank for his mother. He was riding a yellow 10-speed bike, which was found a week later in a remote area of Atlanta. His body was not recovered until November of that year.
- On October 21, 9-year-old Yusuf Bell went to a store to buy Bruton snuff for a neighbor, Eula Birdsong, at Reese Grocery on McDaniel Street. A witness said she saw Yusuf near the intersection of McDaniel and Fulton getting into a blue car before he disappeared. His body was found on November 8 in the abandoned E. P. Johnson Elementary School by a school janitor who was looking for a place to urinate. Bell's body was found clothed in the brown cut-off shorts he was last seen wearing, though they had a piece of masking tape stuck to them. He had been hit over the head twice, and the cause of death was strangulation. Police did not immediately link his disappearance to the previous killings.
- On March 4, 1980, the first female victim, 12-year-old Angel Lenair, disappeared. She left her house around 4 p.m., wearing a denim outfit, and was last seen at a friend's house watching the television program Sanford and Son. Lenair's body was found six days later, in a wooded vacant lot along Campbellton Road, wearing the same clothes in which she had left home. A pair of white panties that did not belong to Lenair were stuffed in her mouth, and her hands were bound with an electrical cord. The cause of death was strangulation.
- On March 11, one week after Lenair's disappearance, 11-year-old Jeffery Mathis disappeared while on an errand for his mother. He was wearing gray jogging pants, brown shoes, and a white and green shirt. Months later a girl said she saw him get into a blue car with a light-skinned man and a dark-skinned man. The body of Jeffrey Mathis was found in a "briar-covered patch of woodlands," 11 months after he disappeared, by which time it was not possible to identify a cause of death.
- On May 18, 14-year-old Eric Middlebrooks disappeared. He was last seen answering the telephone at home and then leaving in a hurry on his bicycle, taking with him a hammer to repair the bicycle. His body was found the following day next to his bicycle in the rear garage of an Atlanta bar. The bar was located next door to what was then the Georgia Department of Offender Rehabilitation. His pockets were turned inside out, his chest and arms had slight stab wounds, and the cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma to the head. A few weeks before he disappeared, Middlebrooks had testified against three juveniles in a robbery case.
- On June 9, 12-year-old Christopher Richardson went missing on his way to a local pool. He was last seen walking towards the DeKalb County's Midway Recreation Center in Midway Park. He was wearing blue shorts, a light blue shirt, and blue tennis shoes. His body was not found until the following January, clothed in unfamiliar swim trunks, along with the body of a later victim, Earl Terrell. The cause of Richardson's death was not determined.
- On June 22, 7-year-old LaTonya Wilson disappeared from her parents' apartment. According to a witness, she appeared to have been abducted by two men, one of whom was seen climbing into the apartment window and then holding Wilson in his arms as he spoke to the other man in the parking lot. On October 18, Wilson's body was found in a fenced-in area at the end of Verbena Street in Atlanta. By then, the body had skeletonized, and no cause of death could be established.
- The next day, June 23, 10-year-old Aaron Wyche disappeared after having been seen near a local grocery store, getting into a blue Chevrolet with either one or two black men. A female witness says she saw Wyche being led from Tanner's Corner Grocery by a 6-foot-tall 180-pound black male, approximately 30 years old, with a mustache and goatee. The witness's description of the car matched a description of a similar car implicated in the earlier Jeffrey Mathis disappearance. At 6 p.m., Wyche was seen at a shopping center. The following day, Wyche's body was found under a bridge; the official cause of death was asphyxiation from a broken neck suffered in a fall.
- In July 1980, two more children, Anthony Carter and Earl Terrell, were murdered.
- Between August and November 1980, five more killings took place. All the victims were African-American children, between the ages of 7 and 14, and most were killed via asphyxiation.
- The murders continued into 1981. The first known victim in the new year was Lubie Geter, who disappeared on January 3. Geter's body was found on February 5.
- Geter's friend Terry Pue also went missing in January. An anonymous caller told the police where to find Pue's body.
- In February and March 1981, six more bodies were discovered, believed to be linked to the previous homicides. Among the dead was the body of Eddie Duncan, the first adult victim.
- In April, 20-year-old Larry Rogers, 28-year-old John Porter, and 21-year-old Jimmy Ray Payne were murdered. Porter and Payne were ex-convicts and had just recently been released from Arrendale State Prison after serving time for burglary.
- On May 12, 1981, FBI agents found the body of 17-year-old William "Billy Star" Barrett on a curb in a wooded area near his home. A witness, 32-year-old Harold Wood, a custodian from Southwest High School, had run out of gas about a mile from the scene. Wood described a black man standing over and observing the location where the body was found before driving away in a white-over-blue Cadillac.
- During the end of May 1981, the last reported victim was added to the list: 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater. He was last seen by gardener Robert I. Henry at the entrance of the Rialto Theatre in Atlanta, reportedly holding hands with Wayne Williams. His body was discovered just hours later.
- Investigator Chet Dettlinger created a map of the victims' locations. Despite the difference in ages, the victims fell within the same geographic parameters. They were connected to Memorial Drive and 11 major streets in the area.
Capturing the suspect
During the murders, more than 100 agents were working on the investigation. The city of Atlanta imposed curfews, and parents in the city removed their children from school and forbade them from playing outside.
As the media coverage of the killings intensified, the FBI predicted that the killer might dump the next victim into a body of water to conceal any evidence. Police staked out nearly a dozen area bridges, including crossings of the Chattahoochee River. During a stakeout on May 22, 1981, detectives got their first major break when an officer heard a splash beneath a bridge. Another officer saw a white 1970 Chevrolet station wagon turn around and drive back across the bridge.
Two police cars later stopped the suspect station wagon about a half-mile from the bridge. The driver was 23-year-old Wayne Bertram Williams, a supposed music promoter and freelance photographer. The Chevrolet wagon belonged to his parents. Dog hair and fibers recovered from the rear of the vehicle were later used as evidence in the case against Williams, as similar fibers were found on some of the victims. They were found to match his dog and the carpet in his parents' house. During questioning, Williams said he was on his way to audition a woman, Cheryl Johnson, as a singer. Williams claimed she lived in the nearby town of Smyrna. Police did not find any record of her or the appointment.
Two days later, on May 24, the nude body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, was found floating downriver a few miles from the bridge where police had seen the suspicious station wagon. Based on this evidence, including the police officer's hearing of the splash, police believed that Williams had killed Cater and disposed of his body while the police were nearby.
Investigators who stopped Williams on the bridge noticed gloves and a 24-inch nylon cord sitting in the passenger seat. According to investigators, the cord looked similar to ligature marks found on Cater and other victims, but the cord was never taken into evidence for analysis. Adding to a growing list of suspicious circumstances, Williams had handed out flyers in predominantly black neighborhoods calling for young people ages 11–21 to audition for his new singing group that he called Gemini. Williams failed an FBI-administered polygraph examination, though polygraph results are not admissible as evidence in criminal courts.
Fibers from a carpet in the Williams residence were found to match those observed on two of the victims. Additional fibers from the Williams's home, vehicles, and pet dog were later matched to fibers discovered on other victims. Furthermore, witness Robert Henry claimed to have seen Williams holding hands and walking with Nathaniel Cater on the night Cater is believed to have died.
On June 21, 1981, Williams was arrested. A grand jury indicted him for first-degree murder in the deaths of Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne, aged 22. The trial date was set for early 1982.
When the news of Williams’ arrest was officially released (his status as a suspect had previously been leaked to the media), FBI Agent John E. Douglas stated that, if it was Williams, then he was "looking pretty good for a good percentage of the killings." Douglas had previously conducted an interview with People magazine about profiling the killer as a young black man. This was widely reported as the FBI effectively declaring Williams guilty, and Douglas was officially censured by the Director of the FBI.
Jury selection began on December 28, 1981, and lasted six days. Nine women and three men comprised the jury, among them eight African Americans and four Caucasians.
The trial officially began on January 6, 1982, with Judge Clarence Cooper presiding. The most important evidence against Williams was the fiber analysis between the victims Williams was indicted for, Jimmy Ray Payne and Nathaniel Cater, and the 12 pattern-murder cases in which circumstantial evidence culminated in numerous links among the crimes. This included witnesses testifying to seeing Williams with the victims, and some witnesses suggesting that he had solicited sexual favors.
The prosecution's presentation of the case has been criticized, to the extent that in some jurisdictions it might have resulted in a mistrial. In particular, two separate FBI special agents testified that the chances of the victims not having come into contact with Williams was "virtually impossible," based only on the comparative rarity of the fibers found on the victims that seemed to match the suspect's car and home. After reviewing the case, Georgia Supreme Court Justice George T. Smith deemed the evidence, or lack thereof, inadmissible.
On February 27, 1982, after eleven hours of deliberation, the jury found Wayne Bertram Williams guilty of the two murders. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in Georgia's Hancock State Prison in Sparta.
Musicians performed concerts to honor the victims and to provide benefits to the victims' families. Performers included Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. The Jacksons performed on July 22, 1981 at the Atlanta Omni Coliseum during their Triumph Tour, raising $100,000 for the Atlanta Children's Foundation in response to the kidnappings and murders. Also in 1981, Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded "Forever Yesterday (For The Children)," a song in memorial of the victims written by Glenn Smith.
In May 2004, about six months after becoming the DeKalb County Police Chief in November 2003, Louis Graham reopened the investigations into the deaths of the five DeKalb County victims: 10-year-old Aaron Wyche, 13-year-old Curtis Walker, 9-year-old Yusuf Bell, 17-year-old William Barrett, and 11-year-old Patrick Baltazar. Graham, one of the original investigators in these cases, said he doubted that Wayne Williams, the man convicted of two of the killings and blamed for 22 others, was guilty of all of them. On June 21, 2006, the DeKalb County Police dropped its reinvestigation of the Atlanta child murders. After resigning, Graham was replaced by the acting chief, Nick Marinelli, who said, "We dredged up what we had, and nothing has panned out, so until something does or additional evidence comes our way, or there's forensic feedback from existing evidence, we will continue to pursue the [other] cold cases that are [with]in our reach."
On August 6, 2005, journalists reported that Charles T. Sanders of the KKK once praised the crimes in secretly recorded conversations. Although Sanders did not claim responsibility for any of the deaths, lawyers for Williams believed that the evidence would help their bid for a new trial for Williams. (The police had investigated Sanders in relation to the murders, but dropped the probe into his and the KKK's possible involvement after Sanders was kept under close surveillance for seven weeks, during which four more victims were killed, and after Sanders and two of his brothers volunteered for and passed lie detector tests.)
Criminal profiler John E. Douglas said that, while he believes that Williams committed many of the murders, he does not think that he committed them all. Douglas added that he believes that law enforcement authorities have some idea of who the other killers are, cryptically adding, "It isn't a single offender, and the truth isn't pleasant."
On January 29, 2007, attorneys for the State of Georgia agreed to allow DNA testing of the dog hair that was used to help convict Williams. This decision was a response to a legal filing as a part of Williams' efforts to appeal his conviction and life sentences. Williams' lawyer, Jack Martin, asked a Fulton County Superior Court judge to allow DNA tests on canine and human hair and blood, stating the results might help Williams win a new trial.
On June 26, 2007, the DNA test results showed that the hairs on the bodies contained the same mitochondrial DNA sequence as Williams' dog—a sequence that occurs in only about 1 out of 100 dogs. Dr. Elizabeth Wictum, director of the UC Davis laboratory that carried out the testing, told The Associated Press that while the results were “fairly significant,” they "don't conclusively point to Williams' dog as the source of the hair" because the lab was able to test only for mitochondrial DNA, which, unlike nuclear DNA, cannot be shown to be unique to one dog.
Later in 2007, the FBI performed DNA tests on two human hairs found on one of the victims. The mitochondrial DNA sequence in the hairs would eliminate 99.5% of persons by not matching their DNA. The mitochondrial DNA sequence in the hairs would eliminate 98% of African American persons by not matching their DNA. However, they matched Williams' DNA and so did not eliminate the possibility that the hairs were his.
On March 21, 2019, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields announced that officials would re-test evidence from the murders, which will be gathered by the Atlanta Police Department, Fulton County District Attorney's Office, and Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In a news conference, Mayor Bottoms said, "It may be there is nothing left to be tested. But I do think history will judge us by our actions and we will be able to say we tried.”
Known child victims
Known adult victims
|Name||Age||Date of disappearance||Cause of death||Case status|
|Eddie Duncan||21||March 20, 1981||Strangulation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Larry Rogers||20||March 22, 1981||Strangulation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Michael McIntosh||23||March 25, 1981||Asphyxiation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Jimmy Ray Payne||21||April 23, 1981||Asphyxiation||Williams tried and found guilty of crime|
|John Porter||28||April, 1981||Multiple stab wounds||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Nathaniel Cater||27||May 22, 1981||Asphyxiation||Williams tried and found guilty of crime|
Media coverage and adaptations
The first national media coverage of the case was in 1980, when a team from ABC News 20/20, Stanhope Gould and Bill Lichtenstein, producer Steve Tello, and correspondent Bob Sirkin from the ABC Atlanta bureau looked into the case. They were assigned to the story after ABC News president Roone Arledge read a tiny story in the newspaper that said police had ruled out any connection between a daycare explosion, which turned out to be a faulty furnace, and the cases of lost and missing children, which had been previously unreported in the national media. In a week, the team reported on the dead and missing children, and they broke the story that the Atlanta Police Task Force was not writing down or following up on every lead they received through the police hotline that had been set up.
In 1982, writer Martin Pasko dedicated an issue of the comic book Saga of the Swamp Thing to "the good people of Atlanta, that they may put the horror behind them...but not forget." The story revolved around a serial killer who targeted minority children in the fictional town of Pineboro, Arkansas who is revealed to be a demon who had possessed TV host "Uncle Barney" (a thinly-veiled parody of Fred Rogers). While the demon is ultimately vanquished, the story ends on an ominous note criticizing the social inequalities that made the non-white children such attractive targets, as well as children's television shows that encourage blind trust of strangers.
In 1985, the television miniseries The Atlanta Child Murders was released. The film was centered around the murders and the arrest of the suspect. The film revolved mainly around the aftermath of the killings and the trials. The film starred Calvin Levels, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Rip Torn, Jason Robards, Martin Sheen, and Bill Paxton. Atlanta officials criticized the film, claiming that it distorted the facts of the case. After a series of negotiations, CBS executives agreed to insert a disclaimer alerting viewers that the film is based on fact but contains fictional elements.
Also in 1985, James Baldwin published The Evidence of Things Not Seen, a non-fiction examination not only of the case and Williams' trial, but also of race relations in Atlanta and, by extension, America. The book grew out of an assignment to write about the murders for Playboy, commissioned by then-editor Walter Lowe.
On June 10, 2010, CNN broadcast a documentary, The Atlanta Child Murders, with interviews by Soledad O'Brien with some of the people involved, including Wayne Williams. The two-hour documentary invited viewers to weigh the evidence presented and then go to CNN.com to cast votes on whether Williams was guilty, whether he was innocent, or if the case was "not proven." 68.6% of respondents said Williams was guilty, 4.3% said he was innocent, and 27.1% chose "not proven."
In January 2018, documentary filmmaker Payne Lindsey began releasing a podcast called Atlanta Monster, covering the murders with interviews from family members of victims, law enforcement officials, individuals alive in the Atlanta area at the time of the murders, and Wayne Williams.
The second season of Mindhunter (released in August 2019) covers the murders. The series, which is focused on the history of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) builds that dramatic arc of the series over the FBI's two BSU agents who join the Atlanta investigation. In the series fictional treatment, Agent Ford has the role of insisting that the 13 murders (at the time of the series arc) they are investigating are the work of one single serial killer, and that to gain the victims' trust, he may be African-American himself. This line of deduction clashes with that of his colleague Agent Tench, the Atlanta Police Department, and the African-American community of Atlanta–many of whom believe, in light of Georgia's history of hate crimes and racial violence, that the killings are the work of the Ku Klux Klan.
- Burch, Audra D. S. (30 April 2019). "Who Killed Atlanta's Children?". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
- "The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Politics of Race" Bernard D. Headley, Published by Southern Illinois University Press, December 1, 1999
- "Famous Atlanta Child Murders & Wayne Williams" Archived May 27, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, The Crime Library
- WALTER ISAACSON;Anne Constable, "A Web of Fiber and Fact", Time Magazine, 8 March 1982, accessed 27 Nov 2009
- Polk, Jim; Zdanowicz, Christina (September 6, 2010). "CNN viewers: Williams 'guilty' in Atlanta child murders". CNN. Atlanta, Georgia. Retrieved September 8, 2014.
- Trace Evidence: Dead People Do Tell Tales By Stephen Eldridge Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1 July 2011 pg39-49
- "CNN Transcripts: Atlanta Child Murders
- MindHunter Pg 215
- Johnson, J. James (1984) "The Odds of Criminal Justice in Georgia: Mathematically Expressed Probabilities in Georgia Criminal Trials" Georgia State University Law Review: Volume 1: Issue 1, Article 9.
- "Why TV Movie About Atlanta Child Murders Had to Be Made". The New York Times. 1985-03-01. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-01-19.
- "Police chief behind probe in new killings resigns", Kentucky New Era, May 4, 2006
- "The Esoteric Codex: Unidentified Serial Killers" Royce Leighton, Published by lulu.com, March 27, 2015
- "Mind Hunter", John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Published by Scribner, November 26, 1998
- "DA, defense spar over meaning of new DNA test on dog hairs in Atlanta child murder case", Sign on San Diego, The San Diego Union-Tribune, 26 Jun 2007
- "Mind Hunter", John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, August 1, 1996, ISBN 0671528904
- Sharpe, Joshua. "Police plan to re-test Atlanta Child Murders evidence". ajc. Retrieved 2019-03-21.
- Swamp Thing vol. 2, #4 (DC Comics, August 1982).
- Flemming, John (November 24, 1985). "The Evidence of Things Not Seen". movies2.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
- CNN: CNN viewers: Williams 'guilty' in Atlanta child murders Archived January 31, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
- Sherer, Devon (September 6, 2019). "The Real FBI Agent Behind Mindhunter on What Actually Happened in Atlanta". Vulture. Retrieved 2019-09-10.
- Tallerico, Brian (August 30, 2019). "The True Story Behind Mindhunter's Atlanta Child Murders". Vulture. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
- Keppel, Robert. The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer. New York, Pocket Books, 2004 (revised and updated). Contains a chapter on the Atlanta Child Murders and Keppel's participation as a consultant with the investigation.
- Jones, Tayari. Leaving Atlanta. New York, Warner Books, 2002. A novel that focuses on children during the time of the murders.
- Bambara, Toni Cade. Those Bones Are Not My Child. New York, Pantheon Books, 1999. A novel about a mother who lost a child as part of the murders.
- Reid, Kim. No Place Safe, New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2007. A memoir by the daughter of one of the police investigators.
- James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen 1985. Holt, Rinehart and Winston
- Chet Dettlinger, Jeff Prugh, The List 1983. Philmay Enterprises, Inc. The most comprehensive account in print written by the private detective once considered a suspect because of his thorough knowledge of the case.
- John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, Scribner, 1995, See: Chapter 11, Atlanta, paqes 199-224.
- Mallard, Jack. "The Atlanta Child Murders: the Night Stalker" (Jack Mallard, 392pgs) released 2010-12-02. Jack Mallard was one of the Fulton County Assistant District Attorneys who prosecuted Wayne Williams for two murders. Includes footnotes and charts of testimony, physical evidence, trial strategy that led to the guilty verdicts.