Though it’s been 40 years since the Atlanta Child Murders rocked the nation, there is still much about the cases that has been left unsolved: namely, who kidnapped and murdered dozens of young black children over a 22-month period between 1979 and 1981. The name most associated with the cases is Wayne Williams, a then-23-year-old freelance photographer who was convicted of killing two Atlanta adults around that same time period, and who is a prominent subject in HBO’s new documentary series Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children.
Williams is currently serving two life sentences as a result of those convictions, but he was never formally charged in the murders of the at least two dozen child victims who make up the bulk of the puzzling cases. (Most of the cases involved children between the ages of seven and 17, and most were young boys who had been reported missing days or weeks before their bodies turned up in rivers or behind dumpsters.)
Still, after Williams was convicted of the two adult murders in February 1982, the Atlanta special police task force announced that it would be closing all the other cases, claiming that they were all linked back to Williams, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Evidence used against him included dog hair and carpet and bedspread fibers, though Williams was never tried or convicted of killing any of the children.
Williams has maintained his innocence throughout the years, and his case has garnered support from others who similarly believe he was wrongfully blamed for the Atlanta Children Murders. Though numerous different theories abound, one particularly strong opinion actually comes from parents of the murdered children themselves.
According to TheGrio, Venus Taylor, whose 12-year-old daughter Angel was killed in March 1980, is one such parent. Last year, she told WSBTV that she knows for a fact that Williams did not kill her daughter.
“Wayne Williams had nothing to do with killing my child,” she said, adding that she wants to see Williams released from prison. “I think he’s done enough time.” Taylor claimed, instead, that a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent had told her at the time that they knew who killed Angel, but that they had never prosecuted that person.
Catherine Leach, the mother of 13-year-old victim Curtis Walker, also said that she believes Williams is innocent. “We want to know who killed our children,” she told The New York Times. “That’s the answer we didn’t get."
Other parents have similarly argued that Atlanta officials “yielded to political pressure and closed the books after Mr. Williams’s trial as a matter of convenience,” as reported by The New York Times. Many victims’ families instead suspected that a white man, possibly from the Ku Klux Klan, was actually behind the murders. There was a top-secret investigation into the Klan that took place back in the early 80s, but which was never presented during Williams’ murder trial, local news station 11 Alive reported last year.
The investigation, known as the “8100 File,” lasted two months and ended just one month before Williams was considered a suspect. The documents, according to 11 Alive, claimed that former FBI director Phil Peters asked for the investigation to be kept separate from the primary murder case investigations because if it “leaked out, it would possibly cause a race riot.”
Last year, after current Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declared that the city would reopen the cases using new DNA testing, Williams wrote a statement offering up his cooperation.
“I stand fully ready and willing to cooperate with any renewed investigation to find the truth on what happened with the purpose of straightening up any lies and misconceptions of my unjust convictions,” he said in a statement read aloud at a news conference by Dewayne Hendrix of the Wayne Williams Freedom Project. Hendrix later told WSBTV, “I don’t see why anyone would want to hold a man in prison if there is still lingering doubts that he didn’t do any of the things he’s convicted of.”
Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields told The New York Times last year that the purpose of reopening the cases is to give the victims’ families reassurance that the city has done everything possible to solve the murders, even 40 years after the fact.
“I am not judging the officers [who worked on the original cases],” she said. “I am saying with Wayne Williams being convicted, it allowed all these boxes to be sealed, even if there was nothing in them that tied the victim to Wayne Williams. I think the investigators were under such political pressure that they were not allowed to do their jobs to the extent they could.”