Atlanta murders of 1979–81

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The Atlanta Child Killer
Victims 29–31
Span of killings
July 21, 1979–March 12, 1981
Country United States
State(s) Georgia

The Atlanta Child Murders, known locally as the "missing and murdered children case", were a series of murders committed in Atlanta, Georgia, United States from the summer of 1979 until the spring of 1981. Over the two-year period, a minimum of 28 African-American children, adolescents and adults were killed. An Atlanta native, Wayne Williams, 23 years old at the time of the last murder, was arrested for and convicted of two of the adult murders.

The murders[edit]

In the summer of 1979, Edward Hope Smith and Alfred Evans, both 14, disappeared four days apart. Their bodies were both found on July 28. Their confirmed deaths were the beginning of the series of murders believed to be committed by the "Atlanta Child Killer", so-called because it was popularly assumed there was only one perpetrator. Milton Harvey, the next murder victim and who was also 14, disappeared on September 4, 1979 while traveling to the bank to pay a credit card bill for his mother. His body was later recovered.

On October 21, 1979, Yusuf Bell went to the 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, 1979, in the abandoned E.P. Johnson elementary school. He was still wearing the brown cut-off shorts he was last seen in. He had been strangled. The police did not immediately link his disappearance to the previous killings.

The next victim, 12-year-old Angel Lenair, was the first female victim of the killer. She disappeared March 4, 1980 and was found 6 days later, strangled, tied to a tree and possibly sexually assaulted. On March 11, 1980, Jeffery Mathis disappeared while on an errand for his mother.

On June 9, Chris Richardson went missing on his way to a local pool. On June 22 and June 23, seven-year-old Latonya Wilson and 10-year-old Aaron Wyche went missing. The extended wave of disappearances and murders panicked parents and children in the city, and the government struggled to ensure the safety of children. Nonetheless, apparently linked murders continued.

The murders of two children, Anthony Carter and Earl Terell, occurred in July 1980.

Between August and November 1980, five more killings took place. There were no known victims during the month of December. All the victims had been African-American children between the ages of nine and 14 and most had been 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.[1]

In February two murders occurred, believed linked to the others. In March, four Atlanta linked murders took place, including that of Eddie Duncan, the first adult victim.

In April, Larry Rogers was murdered, as well as adult ex-convict 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.

Capturing the suspect[edit]

As the news media divulged that physical evidence was being gathered from the corpses, the FBI privately predicted that the killer would dump the next victim into a body of water to remove any evidence. Some victims had already been put in the river. Police staked out nearly a dozen bridges including the James Jackson Parkway/South Cobb Drive bridge over the Chattahoochee River between Atlanta/Fulton County and suburban Cobb County to monitor suspicious activity that might be connected to the murders. On the last night of their stake-out, May 22, 1981, detectives got the first major break in the case when an officer heard a splash in the water beneath the bridge. Another officer saw a white 1970 Chevrolet station wagon turn around and drive back across the bridge.[2]

An Atlanta police patrol car and a second unmarked car carrying federal agents first followed and then stopped the 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.[2] The Chevrolet wagon belonged to his parents. Dog hair and fiber evidence recovered from the rear of the vehicle were later major factors in the police building a case against Williams, as they matched his dog and carpet in his parents' house and which were found on some of the victims. During questioning, Williams said he was on his way to audition a woman named Cheryl Johnson as a singer. Williams claimed she lived in the nearby Cobb County town of Smyrna. Police did not find any record of Cheryl Johnson nor of Williams's claimed appointment with her.

Two days later, on May 24, the naked body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, was found floating downriver just a few miles from the bridge where Williams had allegedly stopped his car.[2] The medical examiner determined the body had been in the river no more than 36 to 48 hours.[citation needed] The body had extensive water damage from having been in the river an estimated five days to two weeks.[3] Based on this evidence, including hearing the splash, police believed that Williams had killed Cater and disposed of his body while the police were nearby. *note If the body had "been in the river no more than 36 to 48 hours" it couldn't have been "in the river for 5 days to 2 weeks".

Many pieces of circumstantial evidence led the police to consider Williams the prime suspect. One was the fact that he was the only person stopped during the month-long stakeout of 12 bridges and that Williams had stopped on the bridge when the splash was heard (Williams himself denied having stopped the car on the bridge, however, but turned round in the parking lot on the other side). Another was the fact that Williams' appearance, when stopped by the police, was very similar to one of many sketch-artist drawings of the suspected killer, including a unique bushy Afro sticking out from the sides of a baseball cap, and a birthmark or scar on the back of the left cheek.[citation needed] Another was the fact that the federal agents who stopped Williams on the bridge saw, when Williams agreed for them to search his car, a 24-inch nylon cord, which was of a diameter consistent with the choke marks on Cater and other victims, lying in the car; however this was based on visual recollection as the police did not take it. Another was the fact that Williams chose to spend much of his time seeking out and auditioning African-American boys in the age range of most of the victims (yet he was only ever charged with the murder of two adults). Another was the fact that Williams quite strongly failed a polygraph test administered by FBI polygraph examiner Richard Rackleff (Williams was re-administered the test two more times and failed both, including questions on killing Cater); however, polygraph tests are not considered reliable lie detectors,and in fact the first test is reported elsewhere as having been 'inconclusive'. Another was the fact that unique, identical, boomerang-shaped green carpet fibers were found in the carpet in Williams' house and on two of the victims (other fibers from Williams' house, cars and dog would later be matched to fibers on victims); however, no evidence of any of the victims was ever found on Williams or at this house or in his cars.[4] Another was the fact that witness Robert Henry claimed to have seen Williams holding hands and walking with Nathaniel Cater on the night he is believed to have died.[5] On June 21, 1981, they arrested Williams. A Grand Jury indicted him for first-degree murder in the deaths of Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne, age 22.[2] 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 William's arrest was officially released (his status as a suspect had previously been leaked to the media anyway), 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.[6]


Jury selection began on December 28, 1981, and lasted six days. The jury was composed of nine women and three men, with a racial composition of 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.[2]

The prosecution's presentation of fiber statistics, particularly in the testminony of FBI special agent Deadman and in the summing up, has been criticized for being based on speculative assumptions and misleading phrasing of probabilities, to an extent that in some jurisdictions might have resulted in a mistrial.[7]

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 at Sparta.[2]

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.

Recent developments[edit]

Now 56 years old, Wayne Williams continues to maintain his innocence.

About six months after becoming the DeKalb County Police Chief, Graham reopened the investigations into the deaths of the five DeKalb County victims: Aaron Wyche, 10; Curtis Walker, 13; Yusuf Bell, 15; 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 closely surveilled 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 stated 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."[8]

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."[citation needed]

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.[9]

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.[10]

Known child victims[edit]

Name Age Date of disappearance
Edward Smith 14 July 21, 1979
Alfred Evans 13 July 25, 1979
Milton Harvey 14 September 4, 1979
Yusef Bell 9 October 21, 1979
Angel Lenair 12 March 4, 1980
Jeffery Mathis 10 March 11, 1980
Eric Middlebrooks 14 May 18, 1980
Chris Richardson 12 June 9, 1980
Latonya Wilson 7 June 22, 1980
Aaron Wyche 10 June 23, 1980
Anthony Carter 9 July 6, 1980
Earl Terell 11 July 30, 1980
Clifford Jones 13 August 20, 1980
Darren Glass 10 September 14, 1980
Charles Stephens 12 October 9, 1980
Aaron Jackson 9 November 1, 1980
Patrick Rogers 16 November 10, 1980
Lubie Geter 14 January 3, 1981
Terry Pue 15 January 22, 1981
Patrick Baltazar 11 February 6, 1981
Curtis Walker 15 February 19, 1981
Joseph Bell 15 March 2, 1981
Timothy Hill 13 March 13, 1981

Media adaptations[edit]

The first national media coverage of the missing and murdered children was in 1980, when a team from ABC News 20/20, Stanhope Gould and Bill Lichtenstein, and a producer, Steve Tello and correspondent Bob Sirkin, from the ABC Atlanta bureau looked in to the case. They were assigned to the story after ABC News president Roone Arledge read a tiny news 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 cases of the dead and missing kids, 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 1981 British novelist Martin Amis published "The Killings in Atlanta" for The Observer, later compiled into The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America (1986).

In 1985, a film was released titled The Atlanta Child Murders. The film was centered around the murders that took place 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, however the film is based upon a true story.

In 2000, Showtime released a drama film titled Who Killed Atlanta's Children? Like JFK and Frost/Nixon, the film centered mainly around the intensity of a conspiracy.

On June 10, 2010, CNN broadcast a documentary, The Atlanta Child Murders involving the case, with real interviews by Soledad O'Brien of the people involved including Wayne Williams. The two-hour CNN documentary invited CNN viewers to weigh the evidence presented and then go to to cast votes on whether Williams is "guilty," "innocent"—or the case is "not proven." According to poll results, 68.6 percent of respondents said Williams was guilty. Only 4.3 percent said he was innocent. The remaining 27.1 percent chose a third option, "not proven," which was added to the CNN poll to offer a middle ground."[11]


  1. ^ "Famous Atlanta Child Murders & Wayne Williams", The Crime Library
  2. ^ a b c d e f WALTER ISAACSON;Anne Constable, "A Web of Fiber and Fact", Time Magazine, 8 Mar 1982, accessed 27 Nov 2009
  3. ^ Atlanta Child Murders - Wayne Williams FBI Files By BACM Research. Pg mcclxviii
  4. ^ Trace Evidence: Dead People Do Tell Tales By Stephen Eldridge Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1 Jul 2011 pg39-49
  5. ^ "CNN Transcripts: Atlanta Child Murders
  6. ^ MindHunter Pg 215
  7. ^ Johnson, J. James (1984) "The Odds of Criminal Justice in Georgia: Mathematically Expressed Probabilities in Georgia Criminal Trials" Georgia State University Law Review: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 9.
  8. ^ "Mind Hunter", John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Published by Scribner, November 26, 1998
  9. ^ "DA, defense spar over meaning of new DNA test on dog hairs in Atlanta child murder case", Sign on San Diego, The San Diego Union-Tribune, 26 Jun 2007
  10. ^ "Mind Hunter", John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, August 1, 1996, ISBN 0671528904
  11. ^ CNN: CNN viewers: Williams 'guilty' in Atlanta child murders

Further reading[edit]

  • Keppel, Robert. The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer. New York, Pocket Books, 2004 (revised and updated). Contains a chapter on the Atlanta Child Murders and Keppel's participation as a consultant with the investigation.
  • Jones, Tayari. Leaving Atlanta. New York, Warner Books, 2002. A novel that focuses on children during the time of the murders.
  • Bambara, Toni Cade. Those Bones Are Not My Child. New York, Pantheon Books, 1999. A novel about a mother who lost a child as part of the murders.
  • Reid, Kim. No Place Safe, New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2007. A memoir by the daughter of one of the police investigators.
  • James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen 1985. Holt, Rinehart and Winston
  • Chet Dettlinger, Jeff Prugh, The List 1983. Philmay Enterprises, Inc. The most comprehensive account in print written by the private detective once considered a suspect because of his thorough knowledge of the case.
  • John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, Scribner, 1995, See: Chapter 11, Atlanta, paqes 199-224.

External links[edit]