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Atlanta child murders: 29 black men and boys killed in case that terrified nation
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Atlanta child murders: 29 black men and boys killed in case that terrified nation

Police Re-Testing Evidence in Atlanta Child Murders Case

Atlanta child murders: 29 black men and boys killed in case that terrified nation

Nearly four decades after an Atlanta man was convicted in connection with one of the most horrific serial murder cases in U.S. history, doubt still lingers about his guilt, even among some investigators and victims’ families.

Wayne Bertram Williams has sat in a Georgia prison since January 1984, convicted of two murders, those of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21. Cater and Payne were both grown men, but many of the homicide victims Williams is suspected of killing were children.

The three youngest victims were just 9 years old when they died. The oldest victim, John Porter, was 28. 

All the dead were black. 

Getty Images
From left are Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, the only two victims Wayne Williams was convicted of killing. Williams, then 23, was suspected of killing at least 29 black men and boys in a 23-month span from 1979 to 1981. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the two murders.
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Atlanta child murders: 29 black men and boys killed in case that terrified nation

Photo Credit: Getty Images
From left are Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, the only two victims Wayne Williams was convicted of killing. Williams, then 23, was suspected of killing at least 29 black men and boys in a 23-month span from 1979 to 1981. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the two murders.

On Thursday, more than 38 years after the end of the murders, Atlanta Mayor Kiesha Lance Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields announced that they are reopening the case and retesting any evidence that remains to put to bed, once and for all, speculation about Williams’ guilt in the crimes. 

“It may be there is nothing left to be tested,” Bottoms said during a news conference. “But I do think history will judge us by our actions, and we will be able to say we tried.”

>> Related story: Police to retest evidence in Atlanta child murder cases

Bottoms, who said she was 9 years old when the crimes took place, recalled the terror the slayings unleashed on the community. She said she began thinking about taking another look at the case after meeting with Catherine Leach, whose 13-year-old son, Curtis Walker, was killed in March 1981.

The mayor said applying modern technology to the testing of evidence will assure victims’ families that city and police officials “have done all that (they) can do do to make sure their memories are not forgotten and, in the truest sense of the word, to let the world know that black lives do matter.”

Though Williams was tried for just two killings, the Atlanta Police Department attributed at least 22 of the other 29 known homicides to Williams and closed those cases. He is also a potential suspect in the case of a black child who went missing but was never found. 

>> Read more trending news

AP Photo/John Bazemore
Convicted killer Wayne Williams is pictured in May 1999 near the fence line at Valdosta State Prison in Valdosta, Ga. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, who were among about 29 black men and boys slain in and around Atlanta during a 23-month killing period from 1979 to 1981. The series of killings, the majority of which were of children, became known as the Atlanta child murders. Williams was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.
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Atlanta child murders: 29 black men and boys killed in case that terrified nation

Photo Credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore
Convicted killer Wayne Williams is pictured in May 1999 near the fence line at Valdosta State Prison in Valdosta, Ga. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, who were among about 29 black men and boys slain in and around Atlanta during a 23-month killing period from 1979 to 1981. The series of killings, the majority of which were of children, became known as the Atlanta child murders. Williams was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.

According to CNN, Williams’ convictions rested, in part, on dog hairs and a variety of fibers that prosecutors argued linked Williams’ home and car to both Cater’s and Payne’s bodies. 

Williams, now 60, has maintained his innocence throughout the decades since his arrest and conviction.  

“The bottom line is nobody ever testified or even claimed that they saw me strike another person, choke another person, stab, beat or kill or hurt anybody, because I didn’t," Williams told CNN in a 2010 interview

He said the panic in Atlanta over the serial killings put pressure on authorities to make an arrest. A black man had to be responsible, Williams continued, because arresting a white man would have sparked a race war.

“Atlanta would’ve gone up in flames,” Williams told CNN

Watch part of Thursday’s announcement in the Williams case, courtesy of WSB-TV in Atlanta.

Forensic experts that same year found that human hair found on the body of Patrick Balthazar, 11, showed that Williams could not be excluded as the boy’s killer. CNN reported that Williams accused authorities of manipulating evidence against him.

Retired FBI scientist Harold Deadman, who once served as the head of the agency’s DNA lab, told the news channel the findings in Balthazar’s case excluded 98 percent of the world’s population as the killer. Williams is in the other 2 percent, he said. 

‘A loud splash’

According to the FBI, the string of child murders that shocked Atlanta, and later the entire country, began July 21, 1979, with the killing of Edward Smith, 14, who was shot in the back. A second boy, 13-year-old Alfred Evans, was strangled to death just four days later.

The killings continued, sometimes with multiple killings in a single month and others separated by as many as three months. Some victims were shot, stabbed or beaten, but the majority were strangled or otherwise asphyxiated. 

The city of Atlanta asked the FBI for help in August 1980, by which time investigators were looking at six unsolved child murders and four missing persons cases in which foul play was suspected, according to FBI records. A task force had been established in the case, and FBI agents joined those efforts. 

“Collectively, they focused on a dozen disappearances with several shared traits,” the FBI website says. “The victims were all young African-American males who vanished in broad daylight in fairly public locations. Their bodies were found in desolate areas. Their murders had no obvious motivation (in contrast, two other homicides from that period appeared to have been gang-related). 

“These commonalities suggested a single killer.”

AP Photo
Convicted killer Wayne Williams is pictured leaving court during one of his pre-trial proceedings in 1992. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, who were among about 29 black men and boys slain in the Atlanta area during a 23-month killing period from 1979 to 1981 in and around Atlanta. The series of killings, the majority of which were of children, became known as the Atlanta child murders. Williams was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.
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Atlanta child murders: 29 black men and boys killed in case that terrified nation

Photo Credit: AP Photo
Convicted killer Wayne Williams is pictured leaving court during one of his pre-trial proceedings in 1992. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, who were among about 29 black men and boys slain in the Atlanta area during a 23-month killing period from 1979 to 1981 in and around Atlanta. The series of killings, the majority of which were of children, became known as the Atlanta child murders. Williams was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.

As the murders continued unabated through 1980 and into early 1981, the killer began to change where he disposed of the bodies. By May 22, 1981, a total of six bodies had been recovered from the Chattahoochie River. 

Another three victims were recovered from the waters or the banks of the South River, according to a 1981 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Task force investigators decided to begin staking out 14 bridges in the Atlanta metropolitan area in case, hoping to catch the killer in the process of dumping another victim, according to the FBI

One early morning in May, they stumbled upon Wayne Williams, then a 23-year-old freelance cameraman and wannabe record producer. 

Around 2:52 a.m. May 22, an FBI agent, an Atlanta police officer and two police cadets stationed at the South Cobb Drive Bridge heard “a loud splash” in the river and spotted a car on the bridge.

“(The) car sped across the bridge, turned around in a parking lot on the other side and sped back across the bridge. The vehicle was pursued and stopped,” the FBI website says.

Williams, who was driving the car, told the officers he was searching for the location of an audition he had set up with a woman for the following day. Without probable cause to hold him, the task force agents had to let him go.

Two days later, Cater’s naked body was recovered from the river near the bridge. Like so many previous victims, he had been asphyxiated, the Journal-Constitution reported.

AP Photo
The Rev. Johnny L. Jones of the Second Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Atlanta speaks April 23, 1981, at the funeral of 15-year-old Joseph Bell. Bell was one of about 29 black men and boys killed in a 23-month span from 1979 to 1981 in and around Atlanta. Wayne Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of two of those victims, Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21. The series of killings, the majority of which were of children, became known as the Atlanta child murders. Williams was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.
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Atlanta child murders: 29 black men and boys killed in case that terrified nation

Photo Credit: AP Photo
The Rev. Johnny L. Jones of the Second Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Atlanta speaks April 23, 1981, at the funeral of 15-year-old Joseph Bell. Bell was one of about 29 black men and boys killed in a 23-month span from 1979 to 1981 in and around Atlanta. Wayne Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of two of those victims, Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21. The series of killings, the majority of which were of children, became known as the Atlanta child murders. Williams was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.

The task force turned its attention to Williams.

“Investigators soon learned that his alibi was poor and that he had been arrested earlier that year for impersonating a police officer,” the FBI website says. “Later, he failed multiple polygraph examinations.”

Williams was again questioned for 12 hours over June 3 and 4, the Journal-Constitution said. He later told the media he’d been accused of Cater’s death and called a “prime suspect” in the case.

He was again let go, but the task force kept him under constant surveillance. Knowing he was being watched, Williams would sometimes taunt the agents, including having them follow him June 10, 1981, to the home of Lee Brown, who was then Atlanta’s public safety commissioner. 

He also took task force agents on a chase the night of June 20, driving to the homes of both Brown and then-Mayor Maynard Jackson, the newspaper reported.

Williams was arrested in Cater’s death the next day. He was convicted the following February in the deaths of Cater and Payne.

According to the FBI, Williams’ conviction was based on “meticulous hair and fiber analysis and witness testimony.” After the trial, the task force concluded that there was evidence to link Williams to at least 20 additional homicides. 

Never far from people’s minds -- or from controversy

The case, though nearly 40 years old, has never been far from the minds of those who lost loved ones. It has also sparked public interest through the years.

CNN reported that celebrities including Sammy Davis Jr. and the Jacksons performed at benefit concerts for the victims’ families. Williams spoke to CNN in 2010 in conjunction with a documentary hosted by Soledad O’Brien, and more recently, the case was the subject of a podcast, “Atlanta Monster.”

Netflix’s second season of its original series “Mindhunter” is anticipated to touch upon the case and Deadline reported last month that producer Will Packer was making a three-part special on the case titled “The Atlanta Child Murders.” 

Packer’s documentary is scheduled to begin airing Saturday on cable network Investigation Discovery.

The case has continuously sparked controversy over the decades. Louis Graham, who was a member of the original task force that investigated the killings, reopened some of the cases in 2005, a year after he became chief of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office.

“I never believed he did it,” Graham, who died in 2010, told the Journal-Constitution in 2005

A total of five DeKalb County cases were reopened by Graham and his detectives: those of Balthazar, who was found strangled Feb. 13, 1981, in a wooded area; Walker, who was found asphyxiated March 6, 1981, in the South River; Joseph “Jo-Jo” Bell, 15, who was found asphyxiated April 19, 1981, in the South River; William Barrett, 17, who was found asphyxiated May 12, 1981, on a roadside; and Aaron Darnell Wyche, 10, who was found dead of a broken neck beneath a bridge June 24, 1980. 

AP Photo
Pictured are Patrick Balthazar, 11, William Barrett, 17, Joseph “Jo-Jo” Bell, and Curtis Walker, 13. The boys are four of 29 black men and boys convicted killer Wayne Williams is suspected of killing during a 23-month period from 1979 to 1981 in and around Atlanta. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21. He was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.
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Atlanta child murders: 29 black men and boys killed in case that terrified nation

Photo Credit: AP Photo
Pictured are Patrick Balthazar, 11, William Barrett, 17, Joseph “Jo-Jo” Bell, and Curtis Walker, 13. The boys are four of 29 black men and boys convicted killer Wayne Williams is suspected of killing during a 23-month period from 1979 to 1981 in and around Atlanta. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21. He was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.

A sixth boy, Christopher Richardson, 11, vanished from DeKalb County, but his body was recovered June 9, 1980, in Fulton County. 

Wyche’s father, Jesse Griffin, told the Journal-Constitution in 2005 that anyone with information about the killings needed to come forward.

“It’s time for someone to step forward so the parents can rest a little bit more than they have been,” Griffin told the newspaper. “I’ve slept four hours at most since this incident happened. I’m hoping tonight I can have about two more hours added to that, knowing that this case is opened again and something’s going to be done about it.”

The reopened DeKalb County cases were left to languish again a year later when Graham resigned after being caught on tape uttering a profanity-laced tirade, the Journal-Constitution reported

Griffin is not the only parent of a victim who has doubted Williams’ guilt over the years. 

Leach said Thursday that she had been let down over the years, not knowing for sure who killed her teen son. 

“It seems like the Atlanta missing and murdered children have been forgotten in this city,” Leach said, according to CNN. “I don’t think it’s right for all these kids to be killed in this city, and nobody was concerned about it.

“I want some closure. I want to know who killed Curtis.”

Read More

The Latest Headlines You Need To Know

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Update 12:10 a.m. EDT April 22: The death toll in the bombings has increased to 290 and more than 500 people have been wounded, according to police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara. Among those killed are five Indians, who were identified in tweets from India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka, The AP reported. China and Portugal also said they lost citizens, and the U.S. said “several” Americans were also killed in the bombings. The AP reported Sri Lankan officials said they would examine reports that intelligence failed to heed or detect warnings of a possible suicide attack.  “Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence,” Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernando said in a tweet, according to The AP. “Therefore there was a delay in action. Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored.”  Update 9:50 p.m. EDT April 21: Japan has confirmed at least one citizen death and four injuries from the bombings. 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He later added: “I entrust to the Lord all those who have tragically perished, and I pray for the injured and all those who suffer as a result of this tragic event.” Every year after leading Easter Mass, the pope delivers an “Urbi et Orbi” (“to the city and the world”) message, which addresses global issues and conflicts. Update 5:32 a.m. EDT April 21: Two more blasts have been reported in Sri Lanka. A seventh explosion hit a hotel in Dehiwala, and an eighth blast was reported in the capital, Agence France-Presse is reporting. Update 4:20 a.m. EDT April 21: At least 156 people were killed in blasts at three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka, Agence France-Presse is reporting. The dead include 35 foreigners, officials said. Update 3:34 a.m. EDT April 21: At least 137 people were killed in blasts at three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka, Agence France-Presse is reporting. The dead include 45 people in Colombo, 67 in Negombo and 25 in Batticaloa, officials said. At least nine of the people killed were foreigners, the news agency reported. More than 500 people were hurt in the explosions, according to The Associated Press. Original report: Explosions hit three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, killing dozens of people and injuring nearly 300 more, news outlets are reporting. According to The Associated Press, blasts occurred Sunday morning at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo and a church in Batticaloa. Explosions also rocked the Kingsbury, Cinnamon Grand and Shangri La hotels in Colombo, the BBC reported. The Agence France-Presse news agency said 52 people died in the blasts. At least 283 people were taken to the hospital, the AP reported. Suicide bombers may have caused at least two of the church blasts, a security official told the AP.  The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Washington Insider

  • As reporters, politicians, legal experts, and members of both political parties spent the weekend going over the impact of the 448 page redacted version of the Mueller Report, it was obvious from the political and legal reactions that the fight over what Russia did in the 2016 elections - and how the Trump Campaign and President Donald Trump dealt with that - was not going to be ending anytime soon. 'There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians,” President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN's 'State of the Union' on Sunday, as Republicans continue to press the case that the Mueller Report absolves the President of any and all wrongdoing. 'We need to go back and look at how this fake “Russia Collusion” narrative started,' said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), as Republicans looked to move on from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and to focus on investigating the investigators. Meanwhile, Democrats were mulling over their own options, which certainly seem to include more hearings in Congress on what was revealed by the Mueller Report, tugging the story in the exact opposite direction. Democrats pointed to comments from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who said the Mueller Report showed a 'pervasiveness of dishonesty' inside the Trump White House. Here's some things which may get some attention in the weeks and months ahead: 1. GOP still wants answers on the Steele Dossier. If you were looking for the Special Counsel's office to detail how the Steele Dossier had factored into the Russia investigation, there was precious little in the Mueller Report. The dossier was directly mentioned 14 times, but there was no mention of it contributing anything directly to the findings of the report. The Special Counsel report says nothing about the dossier as the reason for starting a counter-intelligence investigation, instead making clear that it was information from Trump Campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos which was the genesis. 'On July 31, 2016, based on the foreign government rep01ting, the FBI opened an investigation into potential coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign,' the report states on page 14. But the Mueller Report does not address one key question - was the Steele Dossier just another effort by Moscow to disrupt the 2016 elections? This is where Republicans say they want answers - they can hold hearings in the U.S. Senate, if they wish. 2. Michael Cohen again demands retraction over Prague story. One item in the Steele Dossier which has often caused a media furor is over the assertion that President Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen went to the Czech Republic on some sort of mission for the President during the 2016 campaign. Cohen has always denied it, and repeated that in testimony before Congress earlier this year. 'Have you ever been to Prague?' Cohen was asked. 'I've never been to Prague,' Cohen responded without missing a beat. 'I've never been to the Czech Republic.' The Mueller Report was clear that Cohen was believed over Steele. 'Cohen had never traveled to Prague and was not concerned about those allegations, which he believed were provably false,' the report says on page 351. On Friday, Cohen again said he was still waiting for a retraction by McClatchy Newspapers. 3. Why did Donald Trump Jr. not answer questions from Mueller? While President Trump's son has steadfastly defended his father throughout the Mueller investigation, and testified to the Congress about the Russia probe, the Special Counsel report notes that Trump Jr. did not directly aid the Mueller investigation, specifically on the infamous Trump Tower meeting. 'The Office spoke to every participant except Veselnitskaya (a Russian lawyer) and Trump, Jr., the latter of whom declined to be interviewed by the Office' - then, the next two sentences are redacted, with the explanation on page 125 that grand jury information is responsible for the redacation. In a later discussion of how President Trump handled publicity about the Trump Tower meeting, there is a redaction which involves Trump Jr. on grand jury grounds - does it indicate again that Trump Jr. did not answer questions? It's not clear because of the blacked out material - but the President's son never seemingly answered questions from Mueller's team or a federal grand jury. 4. A Trump tweet that was redacted in the Mueller Report. This seems sort of crazy, but it's true. On page 363 of the report, Mueller discusses President Trump denouncing Michael Cohen, when his former personal attorney had moved to plead guilty and cooperate with the feds. 'He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion serve a full and complete sentence,' the President tweeted. Then there is a section which is blacked out under, 'Harm to Ongoing Matter.' But if you look at the footnote, it refers to a tweet by Mr. Trump, at 10:48 am on December 3, 2018. It's not hard to figure out which tweet that was, as it was one in which the President talks about Roger Stone not flipping and cooperating with the feds. I'm not a lawyer, so it makes no sense to me that printing that tweet could interfere with an ongoing case, but that's one of the redactions made by the Justice Department. 5. When will Robert Mueller talk in public? Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have already sent a letter to Special Counsel Robert Mueller asking him to testify before Congress on his report. Last week, the Attorney General said he would have no opposition to Mueller testifying. Mueller operated in a much different way than previous high-profile independent prosecutors - go back to Watergate and you will see news conferences by Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski; Ken Starr spoke to the press during the Whitewater investigation. But Robert Mueller has been totally silent, ignoring questions on his few visits to Capitol Hill, doing no interviews and saying nothing in public. An effort to get some remarks from him on Sunday after church netted only a 'no comment' - which is pretty much the most we have heard from Mueller during his almost 22 months as Special Counsel.