Wayne Williams was convicted of two killings and implicated in 20 of the Atlanta Child Murders. But many believe that the real killer is still at large.
Between July 1979 and May 1981, Atlanta was plagued by death. One by one, young black children were being kidnapped and turning up dead days or weeks later. These cases became known as the notorious Atlanta Child Murders.
Police arrested one man in relation to the murders but many suspect he was not the one responsible for the killings and in 2019, the Atlanta Child Murders investigation was reopened. The tragic case became the main plot of season two on the popular Netflix series Mindhunter and is the subject of several books and the popular podcast Atlanta Monster.
But will the city’s renewed look into the murders bring justice to Atlanta’s children once and for all?
The Atlanta Child Murders
On a balmy summer day in July of 1979, the first body tied to the Atlanta Child Murders was found. Thirteen-year-old Alfred Evans disappeared three days earlier on the way to a Kung Fu movie screening. Evans was face down, his lifeless body shirtless and barefoot, killed by strangulation.
When police noticed a strong odor from the nearby vines in the vacant lot where Evans was found, they discovered another body — 14-year-old Edward Hope Smith. Another black teenager, Smith had been killed by gunshot and found a mere 150 feet away from Evans’ body.
The death of Evans and Smith were brutal but evidently they weren’t enough to alarm authorities, who wrote-off the cases as drug-related. Then, a few months later, more black youths started turning up dead.
The next bodies uncovered were 14-year-old Milton Harvey and nine-year-old Yusuf Bell; both were strangled to death. Bell, the fourth victim, had been living in a housing project four blocks away from where his body was found. His death hit the community hard.
“The whole neighborhood cried ’cause they loved that child,” said a neighbor of the late Bell, who had a well-known knack for history and math. “He was God-gifted.”
Four murdered black kids in the span of a few months raised suspicion among the victims’ families that the cases could be related. Still, the Atlanta police did not establish any official links between the murders.
More victims turned up the following year, all fitting the same description: bright, young, and active. They were almost all boys, except for two girls, and although two of the victims were later identified as adult men, most of the murder victims were children. The ages of the victims ranged between seven and early 20s and all of them were black.
By March 1980, the death toll had reached six. At this point, it became increasingly clear to residents that their communities were in serious danger. Parents started imposing curfews on their children.
The neighborhoods were gripped with fear and frustration since the Atlanta police had still not drawn a connection between the cases and the city’s administration did little to assuage the community’s fears.
Black Mothers Rally Against Police Inaction
Even with heightened vigilance in the community, kids kept disappearing. Willie Mae Mathis remembered watching investigators move the body of victim Angel Lenair with her son, Jefferey Mathis, on the news. She warned her son about interacting with strangers on the street.
“He said, ‘Mama, I don’t do that. I don’t talk to strangers,'” Mathis recalled. The next day, Jefferey went to the corner store to get a loaf of bread but he never made it there. The 10-year-old’s remains were found nearly a year later.
During the late 70s, Atlanta was experiencing what many describe as an economic renaissance. But the reality that black youths were being preyed on and murdered sent shock waves through the city’s communities, altering their mood for a long time.
The circumstances of the deaths in the Atlanta Child Murders varied. Some children died from strangulation while others died of stabbing, bludgeoning, and a gunshot wound. Worse yet, the cause of death for some of the children, like Jefferey Mathis, were undetermined.
By August 1980, the grieving families had still not received any significant updates on the investigation. Frustrated by Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson’s inaction and the reluctance of the Atlanta Police to recognize the murders as connected, the community began organizing on their own.
On April 15, 1980, Camille Bell, mother of Yusuf Bell, along with Venus Taylor, Angel Lanier’s mother, and Willie May Mathis gathered other parents of the murdered children and formed the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders. The committee was supposed to act as a community-powered coalition to push for accountability over the stalled investigations of the slain children.
It worked. The city significantly increased both the size of the investigation’s task force and the total reward money for tips. Bell and the committee members also successfully galvanized the community to become active in safeguarding the neighborhood’s protection.
“We were encouraging people to get to know their neighbors,” Bell told People magazine. “We were encouraging the busybodies to go back to dipping into everybody’s business. We were saying that if you tolerated crime in your neighborhood you were asking for trouble.”
Armed with baseball bats, some residents volunteered for the city’s neighborhood patrol while others joined the city-wide search to uncover overlooked clues that could help the case.
A few months after the committee’s formation, Georgia officials requested that the FBI join the investigation and five of the nation’s top homicide detectives were brought in as consultants. Two U.S. Justice Department officials were also dispatched to the city to provide support in the case.
Did Wayne Williams Do It?
Over nearly two years, between 1979 and 1981, 29 black children, young adults, and adults were kidnapped and murdered. On April 13, 1981, F.B.I. Director William Webster announced that the Atlanta police have identified the killers — seemingly indicating either a group of or multiple perpetrators — of four of the 23 slain children but authorities lacked sufficient evidence to file charges.
Then, a month later, a police officer working the department’s stakeout operation along the Chattahoochee River heard a splashing sound. The officer saw a station wagon pass overhead on the South Cobb Drive bridge and he stopped the driver for questioning. The driver was a man named Wayne Williams.
The officer let Williams go after some questioning but not before grabbing a few fibers from Williams’ car. Two days later the body of Nathaniel Carter, 27, was discovered downstream. The location of the body wasn’t far from where another victim had been found, the body of 21-year-old Jimmy Ray Payne, a month earlier.
Wayne Williams was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences for the murders of both Payne and Carter, who were among the few adult victims tied to the Atlanta murders case. Although it’s widely held that Williams was the Atlanta child killer, he was never convicted for those crimes.
Since Williams’ arrest, there have been no more related killings. But there are some who remain skeptical that Wayne Williams was the murderer, including many of the affected families, and to this day Williams maintains his innocence. Why wasn’t Williams ever convicted of the Atlanta murders?
Wayne Williams’ conviction relied on a few strands of fiber that the prosecution claimed were found on the bodies of the two victims — Cater and Payne — which matched a rug in Williams’ car and a blanket in his home. But fiber evidence is mostly considered less than reliable and discrepancies in witness testimonies against Williams that could not be resolved cast doubt over his guilt.
A number of alternative theories have cropped up, ranging from a child pedophilia ring hunting kids down to a cover-up of government experiments conducted on black children. One of the most widely-believed theories to the case is that the Ku Klux Klan were the real Atlanta child killers.
A police informant allegedly heard a man named Charles Theodore Sanders, a member of the white hate group, verbally threaten to choke a black teenager named Lubie Geter after the boy accidentally scratched his truck. Geter’s body was discovered several weeks after Sanders’ threat. His genitals, lower pelvic area, and both feet were missing. The cause of death: “asphyxia due to strangulation.”
A report by Spin magazine uncovered shocking details of a high-level secret investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and various other law enforcement agencies which found that Sanders and his white supremacist family members planned to kill more than two dozen black children to incite a race war in Atlanta.
Evidence, witness accounts, and informant reports that the top-secret investigation uncovered suggested a link between the Sanders family to Geter’s death and possibly 14 other child murders. To avoid a race riot in the city, investigators decided to suppress the evidence of the possible Ku Klux Klan’s involvement in the Atlanta Child Murders.
Despite authorities’ efforts to conceal evidence linked to the Ku Klux Klan, many of the city’s black residents already — and still — suspected the white supremacist group was responsible for the child murders.
However, officials involved in the primary investigation maintain that they had enough evidence to connect Wayne Williams, who remains in jail to this day, to the killings.
The Case Was Reopened
Whatever the theories may be as to what really happened to Atlanta’s missing and murdered children, it’s clear that much was left unsettled.
In March 2019, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who grew up during the height of the Atlanta Child Murders, reopened the case, ordering evidence be retested using the latest forensic technology which was not available during investigations four decades ago.
“It was like there was a boogeyman out there, and he was snatching black children,” she said recalling the terror that the disappearances spurred among her friends growing up.
In an emotional interview following the announcement, Bottoms said, “It could have been any of us… I hope that [reexamining the case] says to the public that our children matter. African-American children still matter. They mattered in 1979 and [they matter] now.”
Not everyone shared the mayor’s conviction that the cases remained unsolved.
“There was other evidence, more fibers and dog hairs brought into court, along with witness testimony. And there is the inescapable fact that Wayne Williams was on that bridge, and two bodies washed up days later,” Danny Agan, a retired Atlanta homicide detective who investigated three of the murders, said. “Wayne Williams is a serial killer, a predator, and he did the bulk of these murders.”
While some like Agan insist Williams is the Atlanta child murderer, Police Chief Erika Shields contends that the Atlanta Child Murders case deserves another look.
“This is about being able to look these families in the eye,” Shields told the New York Times, “and say we did everything we could possibly do to bring closure to your case.”
Renewed interest in the Atlanta Child Murders has permeated pop culture as the infamous case became the main plot in season two of the Netflix crime series Mindhunter, focusing on the theory that white supremacists were responsible for the murders. The series itself was largely inspired by a book of the same name written by former FBI Agent John Douglas who is considered a pioneer in criminal profiling.
Douglas said he never believed Wayne Williams had committed the murders. At least, not all of them.
“It’s not that [Williams] didn’t do any [of the murders]. But it’s the question, did he do all 28 of them?” Douglas said in an interview with Vulture. “Roy Hazelwood [another FBI profiler] and I had about ten of them that we thought were behaviorally linked. Now they are looking at it again.” The Atlanta murders case is also poised to become the subject of a documentary produced by HBO.
In the meantime, investigators are revisiting the real case, scanning and examining every bit of evidence available. But it’s difficult to say whether the renewed efforts will yield any significant closure for the families and the city at large.
“The question will be, who what when and why. That’s what it’s always going to be,” Lois Evans, mother of the first victim, Alfred Evans, said of the case’s reopening. “I’m blessed to still be here. Just [to] wait to see what the end will be, before I leave this Earth.”
She added: “I think it will be part of history that Atlanta will never forget.”
Now that you’ve caught up on the disturbing true case of the Atlanta Child Murders, discover the true story behind Jerry Brudos, the shoe fetish killer in ‘Mindhunter.’ Then, dive into 11 famous murders that remain bone-chilling to this day, from the Black Dahlia to JonBenét.