The curious and controversial string of deaths that sparked a two-year reign of terror in Atlanta, Georgia, has been labeled “child murders,” even though a suspect – ultimately blamed for the 23 of 30 “official” homicides – was finally convicted only in the deaths of two adult ex-convicts. Today, about two decades after that suspect’s arrest, the case remains, in many minds, an unsolved mystery.
Investigation of the case began, officially, on July 28, 1979. That afternoon, a woman hunting empty cans and bottles in Atlanta stumbled on a pair of corpses, carelessly concealed in roadside undergrowth. One victim, shot with a .22-caliber weapon, was identified as 14-year-old Edward Smith, reported missing on July 21. The other was 13-year-old Alfred Evans, last seen alive on July 25; the coroner ascribed his death to “probable” asphyxiation. Both dead boys, like all of those to come, were African-American.
On September 4, Milton Harvey, age 14, vanished during a neighborhood bike ride. His body was recovered three weeks later, but the cause of death remains officially “unknown.” Yusef Bell, a nine-year-old, was last seen alive when his mother sent him to the store on October 21. Found dead in an abandoned school November 8, he had been manually strangled by a powerful assailant.
Angel Lenair, age 12, was the first recognized victim of 1980. Reported missing on March 4, she was found six days later, tied to a tree with her hands bound behind her. The first female victim, she had been sexually abused and strangled; someone else’s panties were extracted from her throat.
On March 11, Jeffrey Mathis vanished on an errand to the store. Eleven months would pass before recovery of his skeletal remains, advanced decomposition ruling out a declaration on the cause of death. On May 18, 14-year-old Eric Middlebrooks left home after receiving a telephone call from persons unknown. Found the next day, his death was blamed on head injuries, inflicted with a blunt instrument.
The terror escalated that summer. On June 9, Christopher Richardson, 12, vanished en route to a neighborhood swimming pool. Latonya Wilson was abducted from her home on June 22, the night before her seventh birthday, bringing Federal agents into the case. The following day, 10-year-old Aaron Wyche was reported missing by his family. Searchers found his body on June 24, lying beneath a railroad trestle, his neck broken. Originally dubbed an accident, Aaron’s death was subsequently added to the growing list of dead and missing blacks.
Anthony Carter, age nine, disappeared while playing near his home on July 6, 1980; recovered the following day, he was dead from multiple stab wounds. Earl Terrell joined the list on July 30, when he vanished from a public swimming pool. Skeletal remains discovered on January 9, 1981, would yield no clues about the cause of death.
Next up on the list was 12-year-old Clifford Jones, snatched off the street and strangled on August 20. With the recovery of his body in October, homicide detectives interviewed five witnesses who named his killer as a white man, later jailed in 1981 on charges of attempted rape and sodomy. Those witnesses provided details of the crime consistent with the placement and condition of the victim’s body, but detectives chose to ignore their sworn statements, listing Jones with other victims of the “unknown” murderer.
Darren Glass, an 11-year-old, vanished near his home on September 14, 1980. Never found, he joins the list primarily because authorities don’t know what else to do with his case. October’s victim was Charles Stephens, reported missing on the 9th and recovered the next day, his life extinguished by asphyxiation. Capping off the month, authorities discovered skeletal remains of Latonya Wilson on October 18, but they could not determine how she died.
On November 1, nine-year-old Aaron Jackson’s disappearance was reported to police by frantic parents. The boy was found on November 2, another victim of asphyxiation. Patrick Rogers, 15, followed on November 10. His pitiful remains, skull crushed by heavy blows, were not unearthed until February 1981.
Two days after New Year’s, the elusive slayer picked off Lubie Geter, strangling the 14-year-old and dumping his body where it would not be found until February 5. Terry Pue, 15, went missing on January 22 and was found the next day, strangled with a cord or piece of rope. This time, detectives said that special chemicals enabled them to lift a suspect’s fingerprints from Terry’s corpse. Unfortunately, they were not on file with any law enforcement agency in the United States.
Patrck Baltazar, age 12, disappeared on February 6. His body was found a week later, marked by ligature strangulation, and the skeletal remains of Jeffrey Mathis were discovered nearby. A 13-year-old, Curtis Walker, was strangled on February 19 and found the same day. Joseph Bell, 16, was asphyxiated on March 2. Timothy Hill, on March 11, was recorded as a drowning victim.
On March 30, Atlanta police added their first adult victim to the list of murdered children. He was Larry Rogers, 20, linked with younger victims by the fact that he had been asphyxiated. No cause of death was determined for a second adult victim, 21-year-old Eddie Duncan, but he made the list anyway, when his body was found on March 31. On April 1, ex-convict Michael McIntosh, age 23, was added to the roster on grounds that he, too, had been asphyxiated.
By April 1981, it seemed apparent that the “child murders” case was getting out of hand. Community critics denounced the official victims list as incomplete and arbitrary, citing cases like the January 1981 murder of Faye Yearby to prove their point. Like “official” victim Angel Lenair, Yearby was bound to a tree by her killer, hands behind her back; she had been stabbed to death, like four acknowledged victims on the list. Despite those similarities, police rejected Yearby’s case on grounds that (a) she was a female – as were Wilson and Lenair – and (b) that she was “too old” at age 22, although the last acknowledged victim had been 23. Author Dave Dettlinger, examining police malfeasance in the case, suggests that 63 potential “pattern” victims were capriciously omitted from the “official” roster, 25 of them after a suspect’s arrest supposedly ended the killing.
In April 1981, FBI spokesmen declared that several of the crimes were “substantially solved,” outraging blacks with suggestions that some of the dead had been slain by their own parents. While that storm was raging, Roy Innis, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, went public with the story of a female witness who described the murders as the actions of a cult involved with drugs, pornography, and Satanism. Innis led searchers to an apparent ritual site, complete with large inverted crosses, and his witness passed two polygraph examinations, but by that time police had focused their attention on another suspect, narrowing their scrutiny to the exclusion of all other possibilities.
On April 21, Jimmy Payne, a 21-year-old ex-convict, was reported missing in Atlanta. Six days later, when his body was recovered, death was publicly attributed to suffocation, and his name was added to the list of murdered “children.” William Barrett, 17, went missing May 11; he was found the next day, another victim of asphyxiation.
Several bodies had, by now, been pulled from local rivers, and police were staking out the waterways by night. In the predawn hours of May 22, a rookie officer stationed under a bridge on the Chattahoochee River reported hearing “a splash” in the water nearby. Above him, a car rumbled past, and officers manning the bridge were alerted. Police and FBI agents halted a vehicle driven by Wayne Bertam Williams, a black man, and spent two hours grilling him and searching his car, before they let him go. On May 24, the corpse of Nathaniel Cater, a 27-year-old convicted felon, was fished out of the river downstream. Authorities put two and two together and focused their probe on Wayne Williams.
From the start, he made a most unlikely suspect. The only child of two Atlanta schoolteachers, Williams still lived with his parents at age 23. A college dropout, he cherished ambitions of earning fame and fortune as a music promoter. In younger days, he had constructed a working radio station in the basement of the family home.
On June 21, Williams was arrested and charged with the murder of Nathaniel Cater, despite testimony from four witnesses who reported seeing Cater alive on May 22 and 23, after the infamous “splash.” On July 17, Williams was indicted for killing two adults – Cater and Payne – while newspapers trumpeted the capture of Atlanta’s “child killer.”
At his trial, beginning in December 1981, the prosecution painted Williams as a violent homosexual and bigot, so disgusted with his own race that he hoped to wipe out future generations by killing black children before they could breed. One witness testified that he saw Williams holding hands with Nathaniel Cater on May 21, a few hours before “the splash.” Another, 15 years old, told the courts that Williams had paid him two dollars for the privilege of fondling his genitals. Along the way, authorities announced the addition of a final victim, 28-year-old John Porter, to the list of victims.
Defense attorney tried to balance the scales with testimony from a woman who admitted having “normal sex” with Williams, but the prosecution won a crucial point when the presiding judge admitted testimony on 10 other deaths from the “child murders” list, designed to prove a pattern in the slayings. One of those admitted was the case of Terry Pue, but neither side had anything to say about the fingerprints allegedly recovered from his corpse in January 1981.
The most impressive evidence of guilt was offered by a team of scientific experts, dealing with assorted hairs and fibers found on certain victims. Testimony indicated that some fibers from a brand of carpet found inside the Williams home (and many other homes, as well) had been identified on several bodies. Further, victims Middlebrooks, Wyche, Cater, Terrell, Jones, and Stephens all supposedly bore fibers from the trunk liner of 1979 Ford automobile owned by the Williams family. The clothes of victim Stephens also allegedly yielded fibers from a second car – a 1970 Chevrolet – owned by Wayne’s parents. Curiously, jurors were not informed of multiple eyewitness testimony naming a different suspect in the Jones case, nor were they advised of a critical gap in the prosecution’s fiber evidence.
Specifically, Wayne Williams had no access to the vehicles in question at the times when three of the six “fiber” victims were killed. Wayne’s father took the Ford in for repairs at 9:00A.M. on July 30, 1980, nearly five hours before Earl Terrell vanished that afternoon. Terrell was long dead before Williams got the car back on August 7, and it was retuned to the shop the next morning (August 8), still refusing to start. A new estimate on repair costs was so expensive that Wayne’s father refused to pay, and the family never again had access to the car. Meanwhile, Clifford Jones was kidnapped on August 20 and Charles Stephens on October 9, 1980. He defendant’s family did not purchase the 1970 Chevrolet in question until October 21, 12 days after Stephen’s death.
On February 27, 1982, Wayne Williams was convicted on two counts of murder and sentenced to a double term of life imprisonment. Two days later, the Atlanta “child murders” task force officially disbanded, announcing that 23 of 30 “list” cases were considered solved with his conviction, even though no charges had been filed. The other seven cases, still open, reverted to the normal homicide detail and remain unsolved to this day.
In November 1985, a new team of lawyers uncovered once-classified documents from an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan, conducted during 1980 and 1981 by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. A spy inside the Klan told GBI agents that Klansmen were “killing the children” in Atlanta, hoping to provoke a race war. One Klansman in particular, Charles Sanders, allegedly boasted of murdering “List” victim Lubie Geter, following a personal altercation. Geter reportedly struck Sanders’s car with a go-cart, prompting the Klansman to tell his friend, “I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna choke the black bastard to death.” (Geter was, in fact, strangled, some three months after the incident in question.) In early 1981, the same informant told GBI agents that “after twenty black-child killings, they, the Klan, were going to start killing black women.” Perhaps coincidentally, police records note the unsolved murders of numerous black women in Atlanta in 1980-82, with most of the victims strangled. On July 10, 1998, Butts County Superior Court Judge Hal Craig rejected the latest appeal for a new trial in Williams’s case, based on suppression of critical evidence 15 years earlier.