It’s been 40 years since the devastating 22-month period wherein Atlanta saw the disappearance and murder of at least 29 young black men and women, most of them young boys under the age of 16. At the time, it was terrifyingly common for authorities to stumble across a missing child’s body on a regular basis; it wasn’t until 1981, with the aid of the FBI, the federal Department of Justice, and enough media attention on the cases, however, that a suspect was apprehended, then tried, and then found guilty.
HBO’s new documentary, Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, chronicles the cases that made up what is now known colloquially as the Atlanta Child Murders, delving into the racial and socioeconomic history of the city; the lives of the victims and those who loved them; and Wayne Williams, the man who was ultimately blamed for the majority of the murders, though he was only ever charged for two. He maintains his innocence to this day.
The complex web of conditions that surround the cases has been revisited in recent years (it was the focus of Mindhunter’s second season last year), but seeing the timeline of events laid out in its entirety really puts into perspective just how devastating this series of murders truly was.
Importantly, the case was reopened just last year by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields. The hope, they said during a press conference in March 2019, is to find closure for the families of the murdered children, something they still don’t have to this day.
The first two bodies are found several feet from each other in a vacant lot in Niskey Lake Road. Alfred Evans, 13, and Edward Hope Smith, 14, had both been missing for several days (Evans for three, and Smith for seven). The Washington Post reported at the time that the bodies were found by a woman who was hunting for aluminum cans near the fairgrounds. Local authorities reportedly assumed the deaths were drug-related and “almost forgot them.”
Two more bodies, of 14-year-old Milton Harvey and nine-year-old Yusuf Ali Bell, were found in the fall just three days apart. Both had been strangled, according to The Post. “The whole neighborhood cried ‘cause they loved that child,” a project resident told the paper of Bell. “He was God-gifted.”
The first female victim, Angel Lanier, 12, is found strangled, raped, and tied to a tree just a few blocks from her home six days after her mother reported her missing. Another child, 10-year-old Jeffrey Mathis, disappears the very next day. A powerful line in The Post article read: “Children were dying, and no one noticed, except their mothers.”
Camille Bell, the mother of Yusuf Ali Bell, and several other parents of the children band together to form the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders. They suspect that there is a connection between the deaths of their young ones. It will be months before the Atlanta police come to the same conclusion, according to The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, more children continue to be kidnapped and murdered. Eric Middlebrooks, 15, and Aaron Wyche, 10, are discovered, as are Christopher Richardson, 11, and Latonya Wilson, 7. According to a report by former FBI Agent Susan E. Lloyd, each of the children is found with some form of obvious physical trauma: a head injury, asphyxiation, stabbings. By the end of July, at least 12 children had been murdered, and there didn’t seem to be any leads as to who had committed the heinous crimes.
Finally, five Atlanta police investigators are assigned to a special task force to investigate the cases. This same month, nine-year-old Anthony Carter is found dead, and 10-year-old Earl Lee Terrell goes missing after leaving the public pool.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, was when police discovered the body of Clifford Jones, 13. Jones’ murder had authorities finally wondering whether or not there might be a connection among all the missing and murder cases (something the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders had posited months ago). A $150,000 cash reward is offered to anyone who can come forward with a lead. No one claims the $150,000.
The case is starting to gather more national attention, and Attorney General William French Smith puts the FBI on the case; later that same month, Atlanta Public Safety Commissioner Lee Brown announces that he’s bringing in five of the nation’s top homicide detectives to help consult on the case, according to the AJC.
December 1980-February 1981:
More children continue to go missing; their bodies keep turning up but the authorities still don’t have a suspect. In February, a kidnapped boy managed to escape from the back of a car and gave the police a description of a man that they later linked to Wayne Williams.
The Atlanta Police Force starts to feel a financial strain from the ongoing investigation, but they thankfully get a little help from some friends in high places: the Reagan administration gives the city $979,000 to help fund youth involvement programs and a 24-hour hotline for tips and counseling, according to the AJC, on top of the $1.2 million in federal aid that the government has poured into the case. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. get involved, too, performing at a benefit at the Atlanta Civic Center to help raise $200,000 to help the city.
FBI Director William Webster announces that the Atlanta police have identified the killers of four of the at least 23 murdered children, but that they do not yet have enough evidence to press charges. In the months of April and May, five slightly older victims’ bodies are found near rivers, causing police to crack down on bridges and river banks. It's a good thing that they did, because on April 22, Bob Campbell, a police stakeout recruit, heard a splash in the Chattahoochee River just as Williams’ station wagon was passing on the South Cobb Drive bridge. The body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, was found downstream two days later. Another victim, Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, was found in that same location a month earlier.
June and July 1981:
Williams’ is questioned, and FBI agents search his home. He’s ultimately indicted on two counts of murder by the Fulton County grand jury in both Cater and Paynes’ murders. Authorities used new forensic science to link Williams to the victims, according to CNN.
Williams is found guilty after 11 hours of jury deliberation and is sentenced to two consecutive life prison terms, which he is still serving today.
As for the other remaining cases, the Atlanta police announced that there was enough evidence to believe that Williams was linked to those murders as well, and declared them closed. Williams still maintains his innocence.
Williams’ attorneys attempt to file a request for a new trial, pointing out that given the turbulent socio-political context during which the murders took place, Williams was a “sacrifice” to ensure racial harmony in Atlanta at that time, according to the ASJ. The state ultimately denies the request.
Five of the original Atlanta Child Murder cases are reopened by the DeKalb County police chief, though no new charges were made against either Williams or any new suspects.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields announce that they are reopening the cases, in hopes that new DNA technology can be used to retest evidence from the 40-year-old case. “[We hope] to let [the families] know that we have done all that we can do … to make sure their memories are not forgotten,” Bottoms said in a press conference, per Rolling Stone. “And in the truest sense of the word to let the world know that black lives do matter.”