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The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
40. The Atlanta Murders

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Wayne Williams
It began in the long hot summer of 1979 -- July 21, to be exact -- when 14-year-old Edward Smith left home (a Cape Street housing project in south Atlanta) to visit a skating rink. A few days later, Edward's friend, Alfred Evans, 14, went to see a movie at a downtown cinema. Neither boy came home. Both were found on July 28 in a patch of woods near Niskey Lake Road; Edward had been shot with a .22 caliber pistol while Alfred had been asphyxiated. Initially, the police thought the deaths were drug-related. In early September, Milton Harvey, 14, disappeared from a middle-class neighborhood in northwest Atlanta. His remains were found two months later in a garbage dump. The body of Yusef Bell, 9, was found in a deserted elementary school on November 8. While the authorities didn't think the four murders were connected, others -- including Yusef's mother Camille -- disagreed. They pressured the city, and Mayor Maynard Jackson promised a full investigation.
The killings stopped -- until March 1980. When Willie Mae Mathis sent her 10-year-old son Jefferey to the store to buy her some cigarettes it was the last time she saw her boy alive. A week later, Eric Middlebrooks, 14, disappeared, only to be found the next day, bludgeoned to death. The list of victims quickly grew during the "Summer of Death" -- Aaron Wyche, 10, whose body was found beneath a highway bridge; Anthony Carter, 9, found stabbed to death a mile from his home; CliffordJones, 13, discovered in a dumpster, strangled; Earl Terrell, 11, apparently abducted on July 30 and transported across the state line. This brought the FBI into the case. Meanwhile, Camille Bell joined forces with the Reverend Earl Carroll and the mothers of two other victims to found the Committee to Stop Children's Murders. Civic leaders complained that the city, headed by blacks, was not doing enough to stop the killings. (MaynardJackson was the first black mayor of a major American city, and Public Safety Commissioner Lee Brown was one of the highest ranking black law enforcement officials in the country.) A special task force was organized, but investigators had little to go on. (The FBI set up its own task force in Atlanta.) Complicating matters was the absence of any pattern to the slayings, apart from the fact that all the victims were black children between the ages of nine and fourteen. That alone was enough to lead some to suggest that the killings were being committed by the Ku Klux Klan. Jesse Jackson claimed that the murders were part of a nationwide racial conspiracy. But it seemed unlikely that one or more perpetrators  could go undetected in the neighborhoods where the abductions took place. As the murders continued, some who were familiar with the details of the crimes thought that they were the work of more than one killer.
By early 1981, twenty black children had been slain in twenty months. The city seemed powerless to protect its citizens, and the black community responded with safety education programs as well as neighborhood patrols. Eleven members of New York's red-bereted Guardian Angels arrived in Atlanta to participate. There were even armed vigilante groups; one, founded by activist Chimurenga Jenga, carried firearms as they patrolled the Techwood Homes project -- until, that is, the police arrested Jenga and four others. Volunteer search parties combed remote areas looking for missing children. The task force numbered forty investigators by April 1981. They worked out of a headquarters housed in a converted West Peachtree Street automobile showroom. The headquarters was plugged into what Commissioner Brown described as "the most sophisticated computer system" ever used in a criminal investigation. Dozens of phone workers took hundreds of tips a day, feeding information into a pair of IBM 3031 computers. Psychics and profilers were called in. Helicopter patrols were undertaken. Computerized telephone messages to 150,000 homes asked residents for any information that might be relevant. The cost of the operation: $230,000 a month, and when Mayor Jackson appealed to the Reagan administration for aid, the president responded with $1.5 million in federal funds. Atlanta's business community pitched in, donating much-needed services such as telephone and transport. Though no white children had been murdered, a $100,000 reward offered for information leading to an arrest in the cases was put up largely by white citizens. A benefit organized by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis,Jr. raised $280,000. Nationwide, people wore green ribbons to demonstrate their support for the victims' families.
A pattern gradually emerged, one that linked, however tenuously, a dozen of the murders. The victims were all from south Atlanta, were all young black males, and most had been strangled to death. Evidence indicated that some had had homosexual relationships. The computer began computer-matching addresses of known homosexual ex-convicts with the home addresses of the victims. Lubie Geter, 14, wasconnected to two pedophiles. Timothy Hill, 13, had admitted to homosexual liaisons prior to his death. Clifford Jones had been seen in a laundromat known to be a gay meeting place. As for some of the other victims, the FBI announced in April 1981 that four of the murders had been "sunstantially solved." Agent Michael Twibell confirmed to reporters that some of the children had been slain by their parents.
The bodies of four of the more recent victims had been dropped into the South and Chattahoochee Rivers. For that reason, two police officers were stationed at the James Jackson Parkway Bridge spanning the Chattahoochee in the early morning hours of 22 May 1981. The officers spotted a white Chevy station wagon slowly crossing the bridge. Then they heard a loud splash. The vehicle reached the south end of the bridge, turned around, and crossed again. The officers stopped the car and questioned the driver, a 23-year-old black man named Wayne Bertram Williams.
Born 27 Mat 1958, Williams lived with his parents in the Dixie Hills section of Atlanta. He had dropped out of Georgia State University to pursue his dream of a career in the entertainment field. He called himself a talent recruiter and freelance photographer, and cut demo tapes for local artists. Williams claimed he was looking for the address of a female singer he wanted to audition the night he was stopped by the police. His story didn't check out, and two days later the nude body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, was found in the Chattahoochee. The FBI brought Williams in for questioning. Search warrants were issued for his car and residence. Fiber evidence found on Cater's body matched samples taken from the Williams home. In addition, dog hair found on the body matched that of Williams' german shepherd, Sheba.
On June 4, Williams surprised everyone by calling a press conference to identify himself as a "prime suspect" even while proclaiming his innocence. Later, he led press and police on a bizarre chase during which he drove past the homes of Nathaniel Cater's father, Mayor Jackson, and Commissioner Brown. On June 21 he was arrested and shortly thereafter was indicted for the murders of Cater and Jimmy Payne, 22 -- in spite of reluctance on the part of Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton to prosecute with only circumstantial evidence. The prosecution was able to augment its case courtesy of a Georgia law that permitted it to offer evidence from some of the other murder cases to show a "pattern." Still, there were no eyewitnesses, no murder weapon, and no apparent motive. Presided over by Judge Clarence Cooper, Fulton County's first black judge, and tried before a predominantly black jury, the trial began on 28 December 1981.
In all, investigators found 28 fiber types from nineteen items in Williams' house and car on the bodies of the murder victims. However, no hair or fiber evidence from the victims was found in Williams' residence or vehicle. Several witnesses testified to seeing Nathaniel Cater alive after Williams was detained on the Jackson Parkway Bridge, while others swore they had seen Williams with both Cater and Payne, even though the defendant swore he did not know either one of the victims. The prosecution portrayed Williams as  a homosexual with a "Jekyll and Hyde" personality who despised his own race. When Williams himself took the stand, Prosecutor jack "Blood" Mallard deftly provoked this seemingly mild-mannered man into a profane rage, which had a significant impact on the jury. During the nine-week trial, the jury sat through the testimony of 197 witnesses. Following eleven hours of deliberation, they found Wayne Williams guilty on two counts of murder. Judge Cooper sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences. Attorneys for Williams appealed the trial court verdict on the basis that Judge Cooper had erred in allowing evidence and testimony regarding five other murders for which their client had not been charged. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the lower court, although dissenting Justice George Smith wrote that admitting the other cases "illustrates the basic unfairness of this trial." Some people were never convinced of Williams' guilt, but County Attorney Slaton pointed out that "when I locked him up I didn't expect any more of these killings, and we haven't had any more."

What The Editorials Said
Fort Worth Star Telegram -- "[J]ust because the world is not looking at Atlanta with the same intensity does not mean that all is well there; many of its citizens say they are uneasy, even frightened, for while Williams' conviction did solve some murder cases, the books have not been closed on all of them. Those citizens wonder about the possibility of another murderer or murderers lurking in Atlanta, ready to strike again."
[Sioux Falls, SD] Argus Leader -- "In the last several years, there have been similar mass homosexual murder cases in Illinois and Texas involving white victims. Detection of the criminal was delayed, among other reasons, because the disappearance of y oung men or boys went unnoticed except by their parents in large metropolitan areas. Atlanta did a much better job of responding to the problem."
The Wichita [Kansas] Eagle-Beacon -- "It is a relief that the Wayne Williams murder trial is finally over, and so, seemingly, isAtlanta's long nightmare of recurrent murder of young black males. . . .Not everyone believes Wayne Williams is guilty, and some never will. He insisted he was innocent. But persons convicted of heinouscrimes seldom are willing to admit having committed them."


The James Jackson Parkway Bridge


REFERENCES

The Economist, 7 March 1981, 11 April 1981

Newsweek, 29 June 1981, 18 January 1982, 8 March 1982

Time, 6 April 1981, 27 April 1981, 6 July 1981, 1 March 1982, 8 March 1982, 22 March 1982

"The Atlanta Child Murders," Rachel Bell, The Crime Library (www.crimelibrary.com/serial/atlanta/2.htm)