From the fall of 1979 to the middle of 1981, the much of the Black population of Atlanta lived in fear. Someone (or many someones) had been snatching and murdering their children — about 24 of them, mostly boys ages 7-17 — and four young men. The so-called "Atlanta Child Murders" are a traumatic bit of history that's taking center stage in season 2 of Netflix's Mindhunter, just as the case has been reopened by real-life investigators as well.
While we have a lot of faith in the skills of fictional FBI profilers Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), and Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), finding the culprit behind the Atlanta Child Murders may stump them good. That is, if you believe the popular opinion that the real FBI and police have still yet to bring the real killer to justice.
No one knows just how many murdered children were actually connected, but the general consensus is that the first two were Edward Hope Smith and Alfred Evans, both 14, who went missing within days of each other in June 1979. Their bodies were found together in the woods that August. That September, another 14-year-old boy named Milton Harvey went missing. In October, it was a 9-year-old boy named Yusuf Bell. A female victim, 12-year-old Angel Lenair, and another 14-year-old boy, Eric Middlebrooks, disappeared in March 1980.
That May, Yusuf's mother, Camille Bell, organized the Committee to Stop Children's Murders.
"We got together in a sort of support group, and the more we talked we found that none of us had been able to get the police to keep in touch with us," Bell told People in 1980. "They wouldn’t call us back; nothing was being done.”
The police weren't necessarily treating the deaths and disappearances as connected until July 1980, when more than one child a month was going missing. That may have been because the cause of death was different for some — most were strangled, one was shot, some bodies were too decomposed to determine. But the mothers suspected that because the victims families were all poor and Black, that the investigation wasn't treated as a priority. Bell said it wasn't until the death of 13-year-old Clifford Jones, who was visiting from Cleveland, that the case earned real attention from national media. The city took notice at last, Bell said, because the murders were threatening Atlanta's convention business.
By November 1980, the FBI had joined the investigation, but the murders continued. The city was under curfew, and some parents stopped letting their children go outside to play altogether.
The victims' family members suspected that a white man, perhaps from the Ku Klux Klan, was responsible for the murders. FBI profilers Roy Hazelwood and John Douglas, on whom Mindhunter is based, believed that the killer had to be Black, because people would notice a white man snatching kids in a Black neighborhood.
As the killer was still on the loose, people tried all sorts of new methods to stop him. Mayor Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's first Black mayor, offered a $100,000 reward for catching the killer, and publicized this with a photo of himself sitting at his desk surrounded by cash. Muhammad Ali pledged to add $400,000 more. President Ronald Reagan directed $2 million in funds toward the investigation. Then Sammy Davis Jr., the Jacksons, and Frank Sinatra performed at a benefit concert for the victims' families.
Police told the press that they had found fibers on some of the victims' bodies, which could definitively link them together and find their killer. Immediately, the next bodies found were stripped of clothing and dumped in the river, a possible sign the killer was paying attention to what police were saying.
Who Is Wayne Williams?
The FBI led police to conduct a stakeout on several bridges in the area, hoping to catch the killer dumping his next body. Finally, after four weeks of long watches, two cops heard a splash in the water at 3 a.m., and police apprehended 23-year-old Wayne Williams in his station wagon. He said that he was a talent scout and was driving to the home of a client to make sure he had her address correctly before visiting her the next day. As odd as that excuse sounds, because police didn't have a body or any other proof at the time, they let Williams go after questioning. Two days later, a fisherman found the body of 28-year-old Nathaniel Cater on the Chattahoochee River.
Williams fit the FBI's profile of the killer: He was very intelligent, but not traditionally employed, having started his own radio station as a kid before moving on to be a freelance photographer like his father. At the time of his arrest, he was working as an independent talent scout, looking for young men and women to get into show biz. He was an only child, still living in his parents' home. The Atlanta Journal Constitution later obtained the profile Douglas wrote, describing Williams as "an angry young man seeking power, who wears a mask to cover his personal inadequacies. The Atlanta serial murder case was his first success, and this furnished a sense of power to him."
Williams was charged with murdering Cater and another man, Jimmy Ray Payne. The main evidence against him was fibers and dog hair taken from his home that matched those found on the victims' bodies. Some witnesses also testified to seeing him with the victims. The jury found him guilty, and he is currently serving two life sentences.
A New Investigation
To this day, Williams says he never killed anyone. Though he was never charged with any of the other murders, the FBI and police believe he was responsible and closed 22 of those related cases. But to this day, many of the victims' family members believe he didn't kill their children. The prevailing theory among them is that it was convenient to pin everything on Williams so that Atlanta's economy could return to normal. Some think that officials were afraid of pursuing the KKK theory and fanning the flames of racial conflict in the city.
This speculation isn't just the stuff of basement conspiracy theorists, TV shows, and podcasts like Atlanta Monster. In April of this year Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that she had asked the Atlanta Police Department to reopen 30 cases from the era and to use the latest DNA technology to reexamine evidence.
In June, Atlanta news station 11 Alive reported that police believed four of the cases, including the two girls who were found dead in 1980, were probably not connected to the others. That's some progress, but it's sure to be a long time before we hear anything close to definitive answers in this 40-year-old mystery.