Was Wayne Williams a police scapegoat in the Atlanta Child Murders — or is he a hardened serial killer who's been hiding his crimes for four decades?
From July 21, 1979, until May of 1981, there were 29 murders in the Atlanta area. Most of the victims were boys, all of them were black. The majority were young, teenaged and some were even children. The community and press thus dubbed the killing spree the Atlanta Child Murders.
In 1981, a man named Wayne Williams (featured in the second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter) was arrested for the murder of two young men in Atlanta — but many soon came to believe that his trail of death may have been far more gruesome and that he was also the man behind the Atlanta Child Murders.
While his eventual arrest and conviction for those crimes ended a tense time for Atlanta residents, speculation remains as to whether or not Wayne Williams was truly guilty for the Atlanta Child Murders or a convenient police scapegoat.
The Atlanta Child Murders
Wayne Bertram Williams, born in Atlanta in 1958, was just an aspiring freelance photographer in 1981 when the bodies of kids began to wash up in the Chattahoochee River and elsewhere in the Atlanta metropolitan area.
The first victims were two boys, one 14 and the other 13, both of whom disappeared within four days of each other. Both were found dead in a lot beside each other on August 7, 1979. One was shot and the other was strangled.
Authorities did not initially take the double murder too seriously. But the bodies continued to pile up. There were three more victims by the end of 1979 which totaled five. By the following summer in 1980, nine children had been killed.
The series of killings was dubbed the Atlanta Child Murders, and every lead turned up nothing for the local authorities. It wasn’t until the kidnapping and murder of a seven-year-old girl that the FBI finally stepped in.
Famed FBI profiler John Douglas weighed in on a potential killer’s profile. He had interviewed such infamous serial killers and murderers as Charles Manson, James Earl Ray, David Berkowitz a.k.a “Son of Sam“, and Richard Speck. By the early 2000s, Douglas had interviewed over 50 serial killers.
In his case files on the Atlanta Child Murders, Douglas (the inspiration for the main character on Mindhunter) reported that he believed the murderer to be black and not white. He theorized that in order for the killer to have access to black children, they would have needed to have access to the black community. A white person simply wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that without arousing suspicion.
Investigators were then on the lookout for a black culprit.
Wayne Williams Takes The Fall
By late May of 1981, 28 children and young people had been recovered from within the same geographic parameters. Some of these bodies had been pulled out of the Chattahoochee River and so investigators had staked out 14 of the bridges alongside it.
Early in the morning on May 22, 1981, investigators heard a splash in the river as they monitored one particular bridge. Shortly after, they saw a car speed by. Police pulled it over. Driving the car was Wayne Williams. The police had no evidence to hold him and so they let him go, but not without taking fibers from his car.
Two days later, the dead body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, washed up downstream.
It wasn’t until June 21, nearly a month following this event, that police were able to arrest Wayne Williams. He was arrested after it was found that his alibis didn’t check out and when he failed a polygraph test.
Hair and fibers from Williams, his family dogs, and his car were found on two victims, albeit both adults. The first was on Carter and the second on Jimmy Ray Payne, 21.
Further, Douglas detected a convincing motive for Williams.
He pointed to the many failures Williams had experienced in his life. Williams moved from job to job and his freelance photography career never took off. Although intelligent, well-spoken and articulate, Douglas theorized, Williams may have felt that his life was out of control. The murders, then, gave him a sense of control over his life.
Wayne Williams was convicted and subsequently handed two life sentences for the murders of both adult men, Payne and Carter. But Williams was also branded as the man behind the Atlanta Child Murders — the African American serial killer, or the “Atlanta Monster.”
That’s partly because 27 other abduction and murder cases were unsolved — Douglas connected Williams to at least 20 of those. The murders also stopped once Williams was taken into custody, but a lack of evidence prevented further prosecution.
This lack of evidence also suggests that Wayne Williams could actually be innocent.
Was Wayne Williams Innocent Of The Atlanta Child Murders?
For one, Wayne Williams has consistently maintained his innocence. In an interview in prison, Williams said he accepts his fate and that God has a plan for him.
In addition, two filmmakers compiled more than 1,000 hours of interviews and research in question of Williams’ guilt. Filmmakers Payne Lindsey and Donald Albright doubt much of the evidence against Williams following their research which they discussed in a 10-episode podcast, Atlanta Monster where they also explored more closely the nearly 40-year-old case.
The filmmakers revealed that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) had suppressed tape-recorded evidence which implicated a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the murders. But in an effort to prevent racial strife, the GBI kept this information under wraps. Williams’ lawyers would refer to his arrest as a scapegoat — the investigators had found their assumed black murderer and were able to cleanly close their case.
Indeed, even those most affected by the Atlanta child murders remain skeptical about Williams’ involvement.
“The families of the victims are the ones saying they don’t think he did it. They don’t feel like their child was ever actually given justice,” Albright said.
But in 2010, DNA forensics (which didn’t exist in 1981) gave a 98 percent probability that two hairs found on the body of an 11-year-old victim belonged to Williams.
Investigators are confident that this information strengthens their case against Williams and further implicates him as responsible for the Atlanta Child Murders.
“Even though there’s a man sitting in prison for the crimes right now, there’s a lot of gray area in this case, and a lot of new information to be uncovered,” Lindsey of the podcast said.
After learning about possible serial killer Wayne Williams and the mysterious Atlanta child murders, check out the true story of the Lizzie Borden murders. Then, check out the strange story of Myra Hindley and the Moors Murders.