The Atlanta Child Murders (1979-1981) still haunt a city and they still haunt the whole state. The ghost of the crimes hangs over Georgia’s capital like the smog and humidity that blankets the city, obscuring vision and preventing a full clean breath. From the slow and terrible beginning to the end, if there really has ever been one, there seemed to be an almost surreal tint to everything and everyone who was associated with Atlanta at the time. For the parents of poor black boys during that time it was a nightmare and their worst fears were not only realized but continuously so.
Conventional wisdom stated that serial killers were white men and no one in state or federal law enforcement had ever thought to associate the murders of Atlanta’s poor black communities with someone of any other ethnicity than black. The twisted logic made a certain sense because there was no way someone who was not black to remain invisible among the poor black communities, especially when the fear hit fever pitch. Still, there was a sense of institutionalized conspiracy simply because no one in law enforcement seemed to care poor black boys were being preyed upon. It took the parents marching in the streets of Atlanta to focus the attention of the police, and the rest of the state on the fact there was a serial killer on the loose in a city billed as “Too Busy to Hate”.
The South in general and Atlanta in particular has always been on edge when it comes to race. To some people, the slowness of the police to acknowledge there was a problem is proof positive there is more to this than has ever been told. Yet it is highly unlikely the police were involved in a cover-up considering the number of African American in the police force, the FBI and GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) during the time the murders were committed.
The case for the killer to be black was, and still is, an exceedingly strong case. Some of the children who were taken were mere blocks away from their homes. Some were on the way to stores or parks. Whoever murdered the children knew the area, and was someone the children did not see as a threat. This was a person with a high amount of invisibility. This was someone who if seem talking a child into getting into a car or truck or van with him, would not raise any suspicions within the community.
As the debate raged over who, or what group, were killing the children of Atlanta’s poor black communities, or if there were some part of the police force involved, or if enough was being done to stop the killings, the murders not only continued but the number of killings increased. From one every forty days, to one a month, to two a month, until the police were finding a body a week, the murders continued despite nation attention. Parents sat helplessly and watched as the body count grew as if the killer was an invisible monster totally immune to any effort to bring him down.
Wayne Williams seemed an unlikely suspect at first glance. Barely five foot tall and weighing only one hundred fifty pounds, Williams didn’t seem to have the physical strength to kill nearly two dozen boys and two young men. This is not the vision of a monster many people had, but at the same time anyone who had any evidence pointing at them at all was a good suspect. There wasn’t a weapon found, there were no fingerprints, no witnesses to any crime could be found, but the evidence there was, seemed good enough.
Williams was questioned at three in the morning after police witnessed him driving slowly over a bridge. They had staked out the bridge and one of the officers heard a loud splash as Williams had stopped on the bridge. Williams denied ever stopping on the bridge. It took nearly a week for the police to arrest Williams and during that time, Williams seemed preoccupied with convincing the media and the public there was no evidence against him. When he was arrested and taken into custody the evidence was of the type never used in court before.
Carpet fibers found on the bodies of the victims matched carpet fibers found in the home of Wayne Williams. Dog hairs found on the victims were of the same breed of dog Williams owned. Through charged with the murders of the two young men, but not the murders of the children who had been killed, the prosecution presented fiber evidence linking Williams to the other murders. Williams took the stand in his defense, and some believe his demeanor on the stand is what convicted him. Williams became combatant and defensive, revealing a very angry side of the slightly built twenty-three year old. Williams was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences.
The epilogue here is not a happy one. Some believe Williams was a target of opportunity, and his guilt was never truly proven. Some believe the murderer is still out there killing children and the police in Atlanta are covering it up, a charge which I find to be ludicrous. Some believe the police gave up investigating all the murders once they had Williams, and I do find some credence to this accusation. It is entirely possible that one or more of the killings were not committed by Williams, but it seems most of them indeed were the work of a single evil mind.
If there were a child a week being murdered in Atlanta still, I suspect more would be heard about it from the parents of the children. Most children who are murdered are killed by their parents, and their bodies found near the home. Most of the Atlanta Child Murders were marked with the bodies being dumped far from their homes. The killer changed methods and began dumping the bodies into rivers late in the crime spree, but since then there have been few bodies found in the Chattahoochee.
The fact the killings did stop after Williams was arrested seems to be the telling point here. Yet the murder of so many children has left an indelible mark on the state of Georgia, and Atlanta forever. Our first serial killer seemed to be the very worst kind preying on this dearest to us. In the end, Wayne Williams placed the blame not upon himself, but upon us all. “If you let kids run around at all times of night you invite bad things to happen to them.” Williams may be a monster, but we, as a society, failed these kids in life, and in the end, we may have failed too many of them in death. By not prosecuting Williams for all the crimes too many parents are left without closure, and too many questions unanswered.