ATLANTA - 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”