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Wayne Williams

Notable Fact
A woman, searching for deposit bottles along the road in a slum section of Atlanta, saw a leg sticking out of some undergrowth.

In the twentieth century, few stories equal what came to be known as the Atlanta Child Murders. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the city of Atlanta, one African American child after another was found murdered. Panic spread as mothers and fathers and grandparents wondered whether their loved one would be next. Nothing seemed to stop the killer.

The first two bodies showed up dumped on the side of a road, found by a woman searching for deposit bottles along the road in a slum section of Atlanta who saw a leg sticking out of some undergrowth. It was the leg of fourteen-year-old Edward Smith. She then discovered a second body, that of Alfred Evans, about fifty feet from the first. Investigators later determined that Smith had been shot in the head with a .22. Evan’s body was in such a state of advanced decay that the cause of death was uncertain, possibly strangulation.

More bodies started to show up in fairly quick succession. The next body found was that of fourteen-year-old Milton Harvey, who had gone to the bank on September 4, 1979, a week earlier, and had never come back. On October 21, the body of Yusef Bell, who had gone on an errand for his mother and disappeared, was found, his body decomposing in the crawl space of an elementary school. Weirdly, his clothes were clean and it was clear that, though he had been missing for ten days, he had only been dead for half that time. In early March 1980, the body of a twelve-year-old girl was found, and just one day after that, ten-year-old Jeffrey Mathis disappeared. On May 18, yet another boy, Eric Middlebrooks, disappeared after receiving a phone call at ten-thirty at night.

At first, Atlanta police were in denial about the fact that they were dealing with a serial killer. The disappearances continued one after the other, mostly boys but a few girls also, which clouded the situation: Were they dealing with the same killer, or did someone else murder the girls? Generally, serial killers have a very specific victim type and rarely deviate from it. However, since the killings had started, there had been seven bodies of young people recovered, and three more were missing - a serial killer was on the loose.

Then, in July, the “summer of death” began. The bodies of five young boys were discovered. Not only was a serial killer on the loose but an extraordinarily dangerous serial killer - he was a prolific murderer who preyed on naive young children.

Special agents from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, Roy Hazelwood and John Douglas, had come down to Atlanta to help local police. After they absorbed what was going on, they tried to give Atlanta police insight into the killer - they created a profile. They told the locals that the killer was likely African American, about twenty-nine years old, homosexual, and possibly a movie producer. The killer was also unable to perform sexually, which explained why there was no sign of sexual assault. It was likely that the victims knew the killer and trusted him. Indeed, before some of the disappearances, witnesses had reported seeing some of the kids willingly getting into a blue car.

But despite what turned out to be an accurate FBI profile, the killer still roamed free. However, soon the killer began to make some changes that would ultimately be his undoing. The high mortality rate continued, but now he was disposing of the bodies in the Chattahoochee River. Then, as 1980 slipped into 1981 and the killings continued, the killer changed his MO and stopped killing kids - he began killing African American adults.

On March 20, 1981, twenty-one-year-old Eddie Duncan, a mentally and physically disabled young man, disappeared; on April 8, his body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River. The bodies of three more adult African American men were found shortly thereafter, two of them pulled from the Chattahoochee. The police started surveillance on a bridge over the river, a logical place for someone to dump a body.

Making a Splash
On the night of May 22, the surveillance paid off. Officers in a concealed location heard a big splash and intercepted a youngish, stocky African American man driving on the bridge; his name was Wayne Williams. They questioned Williams closely, and he kept telling lies, saying that he was on the way to his girlfriend’s house - except he told them the wrong phone number. They took Williams to headquarters for further questioning but didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him. Two days later, the body of the oldest victim, twenty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Cater, was found in the Chattahoochee River.

After further investigation, though, carpet fibers and dog hairs from Williams’s home and car were found on victims - including Cater, the latest victim to be dropped into in the river - and Williams was arrested. Police also found five bloodstains on the floor of his station wagon. The evidence - plus his lying - was circumstantial, but it was strong.
In this May 24, 1999, file photo, Wayne Williams poses along the fence line at Valdosta Sate Prison, Valdosta, Ga. Lawyers for Williams, blamed for the murders of two dozen children and young men in the late 1970s and early '80s, have asked to perform DNA testing on dog hair, human hair and blood. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) (John Bazemore - AP)

Williams was put on trial for two murders, that of Nathaniel Cater and another adult named Jimmy Ray Payne, in January 1982, and it took the jury only twelve hours to find him guilty. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Some people believed that Williams was innocent, and others believed that the Ku Klux Klan had framed him. But there was one telling argument for his guilt: When Williams was locked up the killings stopped.

A Change in MO
One mystery in the Williams case is that, in an extremely rare departure for a serial killer, he started to murder adults. No one has been able to come up with a cogent theory as to why this might be.
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