In 1979, Atlanta was re-emerging as the jewel of the South, a town rumbling with political and economic pulses that created opportunity, arts, and culture echoed only faintly elsewhere. Unfortunately, poverty and African-American race relations would pave the way for a killer to murder many young people whose futures were eradicated overnight.
The deaths of a series of innocent young African American people conducting casual errands produced bodies found in the river and roadway. Children started vanishing while about everyday activities. These were all young people or children or very young juvenile adults. Fresh young black faces smiled in police files from photographs gone forever dim. Twenty seven to twenty nine missing persons were attributed to the Atlanta Child Murderer.
The late 1970’s was “heavy” time for a racial killer to strike Atlanta. A rash of ugly race relations, accusations, Atlanta’s political upheaval, and backlash against police and law enforcement occurred all at once. Police were unable to find a white perpetrator, and African Americans were insulted when profilers targeted a black killer. Concern, anger, grief, fear and rage in 1979-1981 shook Atlanta to its core. The killings progressed day by day and stretched racial tensions to the breaking point.
Police behaviour during this period has been strongly questioned. Constant challenges that police did not pursue the killer because the targets were African-American were substantiated by the media and the political totems of the time. The notoriety of the Atlanta Child Killings was rife throughout the nation. Mohammed Ali and Gladys Knight came to Atlanta to donate money to the families of the victims, money that would itself become mishandled and lost.
The culture and society of 1979 made such killings abominable to hear about. The poverty of the African American ghetto in Atlanta, combined with the appalling body count, lit a flame under racial tensions throughout the South and in Georgia especially. The unique formula of racial tensions and early forensic science, matched with a young DNA court procedure and an explosive set of shocking murders made a signature case for the history of serial killers.
Lead FBI investigators identified a likely type and narrowed suspects accordingly. Without a girlfriend, driving a police model car, owning a dog, the killer had a ‘thing” for young men and a scheme to get them into his company. Yet public perceptions about a black killer may have cost lives. Usually in Atlanta, but particularly during the killings era, no white man walked unnoticed in predominantly black areas of Atlanta neighbourhoods.
After Williams conviction for two of the murders, no more killings or abductions were reported. Yet the strength of racial community among the African Americans in Atlanta has convinced many Williams was wrongfully imprisoned for the murders. Examination of the American justice system for the Wayne Williams case yields differing opinions about the potential for justice to be reached.
One seven year old girl was kidnapped from her home, and police mislabeled bodies and shrugged off the cases of “runaways”. One young boy telephoned the task force hotline but was dismissed. The ignored young child’s body, that of Patrick Balazar, was later found strangled to death. Children sent down the block to the store never returned. Ever. Variance in the mode of death and method of dumping and hiding bodies pointed to a clever killer intent on avoiding being caught.
The identification of Wayne Williams as the Atlanta Child Murderer happened despite errors and obfuscations by police, a common thread in many serial killing cases and notorious murderer careers. Misidentification, sloppy forensic techniques, haphazard professionalism regarding crime scene handling and case evidence being destroyed let Wayne Williams stay free much longer than he should have.
Yet Wayne Williams is thought by many to be innocent, not least because he never confessed to the crimes and no fingerprints were ever found to match his at the crime scenes or on any of the evidence. Carpet fibers linking evidence from the corpses to floor carpet fiber in the Williams home was the chief piece of evidence against him.
The caliber of racial divide in the American South, even in the late 1970’s, kept the public from wholly accepting that an African American man could be the killer of so many black children, when instincts and history dictated that a white killer might be responsible. Suppression of the racial theme and involvement of the Ku Klux Klan is a hotly debated topic in this case.
Angry groups of black people walked the streets with baseball bats, but community children kept disappearing. The frequency and longevity of the Atlanta Child Murders bothered national audiences watching the news nightly. The racial motif in the killings (if the suspect was white) made the suspected murders guilty of a federal violation of the Civil Rights of the victims.
Defensive African American community factions of Atlanta refused to believe a serial killer might be black and murdering “their own”, and thus Williams went free ever more. Criminologists argued that only a black man could move within the black neighborhoods so much and so often unnoticed. Had they (the Atlanta African-American community) accepted this theory earlier they might have identified the black man moving in their midst.
Was Williams betting on racial camouflage to avoid getting caught? Did he select African American victims to mask his crimes and shield himself as a suspect, or did the young men or children represent an earlier, more innocent version of himself? Only one girl was involved as a victim in the killings. The age of the victims ramped up as the spree came to a close, shortly before Williams was caught.
Wayne Williams was apprehended while crossing a bridge one of the corpses had been found under. Any challenge to hsi guilt just include an analysis as to why he was there. Did black men in racially charged Atlanta during a crime spree rove the bridges at 3 a.m. checking addresses? Williams obnoxious behaviour and cocky style added fuel to the fire.
The missing victims and their names and ages chronicle a sad epoch of Atlanta history. Victims of the Atlanta child murderer were Aaron Jackson, 9, Patrick Rogers, 15, Lubie Geter, 14, Terry Pue, 15, Patrick Baltazar, 12, Curtis Walker, 13, Joseph Bell, 16, Timothy Hill, Larry Rogers, 20, Eddie Duncan, 21, Michael Mcintosh, 23, Jimmy Payne, 21, and Nathanial Cater, 27.
The case of the Atlanta Child Murders would mirror many famous serial killer prosecutions for incomplete case handling. The method of disposing of the bodies had changed. This was thought by criminologists as an attempt to evade police detection and throw off any ensuing criminal case. Yet the thread of the chain of victims linked the cases to the serial killer.
The FBI had been brought into the murder investigation after the mayor of Atlanta asked for help. The suspected kidnapping of some of the missing victims made the crimes Federal offenses. As the media intensified its coverage of the crimes, both as a response to race relations, accusations of police irresponsibility, and the outcry against the continuing deaths.
The Wayne Williams serial killer controversy rages on. Of all the serial killer cases that dispute their ultimate responsibility or change their account of the facts after arrest, sentencing, or imprisonment, the Wayne Williams case tears at the threads of racial tolerance to this day. The twenty-nine young black people are gone forever. The mourning black families winced at allegations of drug use and crime involved in the slayings.
Yet despite strong evidence, resistance to the acceptance of Williams’ guilt continues.
Was Wayne Williams wrongly convicted? Does the suspected innocence of one or some of the Atlanta murders justify a murderer convicted with so much circumstantial evidence ? How believable can Wayne Williams be today, however much his behaviour and personality seem to be altered? Is Williams exploiting a more politically correct social climate?
Interviews with Wayne Williams dispute the accounts of the murders claimed by police. Williams claimed to be a music scout for young performing talent. Wayne Williams claims never to have been homosexual or murderous, and claims to have been looking for an address for a woman named Cheryl Johnson at the time of his arrest. Williams just happened to be driving across the Chattahoochee River.
Yet no person of this name ever came forward. Williams claimed to have been arrested in a climate where nobody who knew him personally testified. Yet prosecutors could not make the claim that Williams was ever above suspicion, and Williams’ own account of driving around the bridge where human remains were found out of “curiosity” leaves many holes in his story.
The Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments from attorney William Kunstler, attributing deaths Wayne Williams was accused of, that claimed the Klu Klux Klan was starting a race war using controversial homicides. That would have explained the missing/destroyed evidence. But the Georgia Bureau of Investigation could furnish no proof of this. But the snatched children were not believed to be KKK murders.
GBI investigation of the Klu Klux Klan involved an eight week surveillance. Yet no KKK representatives were found crossing the Chattahoochee River during the time police were searching for an active killer. Challenging statements for some of the killings does not clear Wayne Williams of all murders. Notably, many parents and relatives of the Atlanta Child Murders victims think Williams may be innocent.
Many who suspect Williams is innocent of individual murders of the entire portfolio of the Atlanta Child killings nevertheless acquiesce the burden of disproof against all the killings is persuasively convincing of his guilt of some of them. Williams’ legal strategies may reflect his innocence or his ability to manipulate the legal system after decades of imprisonment, common among serial killers after the glow of publicity has faded.
The notoriety of Wayne Williams in 2010 is seriously less than in 1981, when fear of a race war kept suspicion of the Ku Klux Klan under wraps. Today the evidence of one Billy Ray Whitaker, clearing Williams of the killing of Lubie Geter, would be challenged due to the mental instability of the witness but his memory retention. Could any member of the Ku Klux Klan
The fact remains that of all the people living in Georgia in 1979-1980, only one was driving on the same body-dumping bridge the night police were watching: Wayne Williams. Only one man had no alibi for any of the twenty-nine killings attribute to the Atlanta Child Murderer: Wayne Williams. Only one man had DNA carpet fibers combined with DNA identified hairs from his dog matched with forensic evidence from victim’s clothing: Wayne Williams. And Williams had a bona fide script for legitimately interviewing young people alone, as he was a music business talent scout.
Vulnerabilities in case handling and criminology techniques eventuated in only two charges being made against Williams. As of 2010, Wayne Bertram Williams is still trying to appeal the “miscarriage” of justice. Yet the appeal is framed in a slippery slope of the American legal system. Williams may get a new trial based on developed DNA techniques. NB: the Wayne Williams and Atlanta child murders case was rife with evidence mishandling.
A retrial of Wayne Williams for Atlanta murder trial would be an expensive exploration of American justice. Yet criminologists can claim that the DNA evidence and the modern handling of DNA in contemporary murder cases are not congruent. How DNA is treated and handled today versus in 1981 may create a cloud of legal wrangling that might free Williams.
Article by Roy Whyte. Visit his Google+ page for more.