The Atlanta murders of 1979-1981, sometimes called the Atlanta Child Murders (although several of the reported victims were adults), were a series of murders committed in the American city of Atlanta, Georgia, from the middle of 1979 until May 1981. Over the two-year period, at least 28 children, adolescents and adults were killed. Wayne Williams, an Atlanta native who was 23 years old at the time of the last murder, was arrested for 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 and closed the cases, although he has not been tried or convicted in any of those cases.
In the middle of 1979, Edward Hope Smith, also known as "Teddy", and Alfred Evans, also known as "Q", both aged 14, disappeared four days apart. (Terry Pue, who later went missing in early 1981, lived in the same apartment as Smith.) Their bodies were both found on July 28 in a wooded area, Edward with a .22 calibre 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 a 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 1979.
On October 21, nine-year-old Yusuf Bell went to a store to buy snuff for a neighbor, Eula Birdsong. A witness said she saw Yusuf 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 Jeffrey 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 next day next to his bicycle in the rear garage of an Atlanta bar 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 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 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, seven-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. 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 Terell, were murdered.
Between August and November 1980, five more killings took place. There were no known victims during December. All the victims were African-American children between the ages of seven and 14 and most were asphyxiated.
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, two murders occurred, believed to be linked to the others. In March, four more murders took place, including that of Eddie Duncan, the first adult victim.
In April, Larry Rogers was murdered, as were the adult ex-convicts John Porter and Jimmy Ray Payne.
After William Barrett went missing on May 16, 1981, his body was found close to his home. The last victim added to the list was Nathaniel Cater, 27 years old.
Investigator Chet Dettlinger created a map of the victims' locations. Despite the difference in ages, the victims fell with the same geographic parameters. They were connected to Memorial Drive and 11 major streets in the area.
As the media coverage of the killings intensified, the FBI confidentially 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 one 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. The body had extensive water damage and may have been in the water for up to two weeks. 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.
Much circumstantial evidence led the police to consider Williams as the prime suspect. First, he was the only person stopped during the month-long stakeout of 12 bridges, and Williams had stopped on the bridge immediately before the splash was heard. According to FBI Special Agent In Charge John Glover, Williams admitted to stopping his car, but claimed that he was dumping trash; later during the trial, Williams would claim that he never stopped his car but instead had turned around in an adjacent lot. Second, police noted that Williams' appearance resembled a composite sketch of the suspect, including a bushy Afro sticking out from the sides of a baseball cap, and a birthmark or scar on the left cheek. Furthermore, 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. Notably, Williams failed an FBI-administered polygraph examination--although polygraph results are no longer admissible as evidence in criminal courts, because they are unreliable.
Even more evidence seemed to implicate Williams. Fibers from a carpet in the Williams residence were found to match those observed on two of the victims. Additional fibers from the Williamses' 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.
FBI Agent John E. Douglas, who had previously conducted a widely reported interview with People magazine about profiling the killer as a young black man, has admitted that when the news of Williams' arrest was officially released (his status as a suspect had previously been leaked to the media), he stated that if it was Williams then he was 'looking pretty good for a good percentage of the killings'. This was widely reported across media outlets 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. The jury was composed of nine women and three men, 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. Georgia Supreme Court Justice George T. Smith, after reviewing the case, 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.
On May 6, 2005, the DeKalb County, Georgia, Police Chief Louis Graham ordered the reopening of the murder cases of five boys who were killed in DeKalb County between February and May 1981 that had been attributed to Williams. Police Chief Graham believed that Williams may have been innocent of these and other murders. The remaining cases are under the jurisdiction of Fulton County, Georgia, and those authorities consider their related murder cases closed with the arrest and trial of Williams.
Musicians performed concerts to honor the victims and to provide benefits to the victim's families. Performers included Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.. 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. Wayne Williams's father, who was a media photographer in Atlanta at the time, could be seen on stage with Frank Sinatra. Still in 1981, Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded "Forever Yesterday (For The Children)", a song in memorial of the victims written by Glenn Smith.
In 1981, actor Robert De Niro, when accepting the Best Actor Oscar for his role in the film Raging Bull, wore a green ribbon as a sign of solidarity with the children of Atlanta. He is believed to be the first celebrity to have worn a ribbon at a major event as an awareness-raising effort.
Now 60 years old, Wayne Williams continues to maintain his innocence.
In May 2004, about six months after becoming the DeKalb County Police Chief in November 2004, Graham reopened the investigations into the deaths of the five DeKalb County victims: Aaron Wyche, 10; Curtis Walker, 13; Yusuf Bell, 9; William Barrett, 17; and Patrick Baltazar, 11. Graham, one of the original investigators in these cases, said he never believed Wayne Williams, the man convicted of two of the killings and blamed for 22 others, was guilty of any of them.
On August 6, 2005, journalists reported that Charles T. Sanders 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 will 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.)
The 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 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 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 were published, but they failed to exonerate Williams. In fact, the results were that the hairs on the bodies contained the same mitochondrial DNA sequence as Williams' dog, and that the DNA sequence 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.
|Name||Age||Date of disappearance||Cause of death||Case status|
|Edward Smith||14||July 21, 1979||Gunshot wound to upper back||Unresolved|
|Alfred Evans||13||July 25, 1979||Strangulation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Milton Harvey||14||September 4, 1979||Undetermined||Unresolved|
|Yusef Bell||9||October 21, 1979||Strangulation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Angel Lenair||12||March 4, 1980||Asphyxiation||Unresolved|
|Jeffery Mathis||10||March 11, 1980||Undetermined||Unresolved|
|Eric Middlebrooks||14||May 18, 1980||Bludgeoned to death||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Chris Richardson||12||June 9, 1980||Strangulation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Latonya Wilson||7||June 22, 1980||Undetermined||Unresolved|
|Aaron Wyche||10||June 23, 1980||Asphyxiation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Anthony Carter||9||July 6, 1980||Multiple stab wounds||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Earl Terell||11||July 30, 1980||Asphyxiation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Clifford Jones||13||August 20, 1980||Strangulation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Darron Glass||10||September 14, 1980||Undetermined (body never found)||Unresolved|
|Charles Stephens||12||October 9, 1980||Suffocation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Aaron Jackson||9||November 1, 1980||Asphyxiation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Patrick Rogers||16||November 10, 1980||Bludgeoned to death||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Lubie Geter||14||January 3, 1981||Asphyxiation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Terry Pue||15||January 22, 1981||Strangulation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Patrick Baltazar||11||February 6, 1981||Strangulation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Curtis Walker||15||February 19, 1981||Asphyxiation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Joseph Bell||15||March 2, 1981||Asphyxiation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|Timothy Hill||13||March 13, 1981||Asphyxiation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|William Barrett||17||May 11, 1981||Strangulation||Attributed to Williams; closed|
|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|
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 day care explosion, which turned out to be a faulty furnace, and the cases of lost and missing children, which had been previously unreported on 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 every lead they received through the police hotline that had been set up.
In 1982, writer Marty Pasko dedicated an issue of 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 that had possessed the 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 film The Atlanta Child Murders was released. The film was centered around the murders and the arrest of the suspect. Like JFK, 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 Atlanta Child Murders 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.
On June 10, 2010, CNN broadcast a documentary, The Atlanta Child Murders, with interviews by Soledad O'Brien of some of the people involved including Wayne Williams. The two-hour CNN documentary invited viewers to weigh the evidence presented and then go to CNN.com to cast votes on whether Williams was "guilty," "innocent"--or the case is "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 film maker Payne Lindsey began releasing a podcast called Atlanta Monster covering the Atlanta Child Murders with interviews from family members of victims, law enforcement officials, and individuals alive in the Atlanta area at the time of the murders.