Police Believe They Solved The Atlanta Child Murders In 1981, But…Did They?

From 1979 to 1981, newspaper headlines in the Atlanta area were dominated by gruesome tales of the kidnapping and killing of 29 black girls, boys, and young men. Once almost forgotten from the country’s collective memory, the Atlanta Child Murders are now back in the national spotlight.

The Atlanta Child Murders were first featured on season two of Netflix’s hit true crime series, Mindhunter, last summer. But now, the murders are the subject of a new true crime docuseries on HBO, Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children.

The five-part series gives another take on the infamous kidnappings and murders. The five-part series also tells the story of Wayne Williams, a man who was convicted of the murders but still swears that he is innocent.

The HBO docuseries debuts on April 5, 2020 and focuses more on the victims themselves. It showcases archival footage and photos and features interviews with people who were close to the children, along with those who worked on their cases.

But back to the real world, four decades ago: For two years, the discovery of a missing child’s body became a morbidly regular occurrence for the city. In the end, 29 victims were included in the FBI’s “ATKID” (that’s the acronym they used) special investigation. Wayne Williams was charged with the murders of two of those victims, and authorities declared the remaining cases closed. Nonetheless, many questions surround the decades-old case to this day, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced in 2019 that the case was reopened.

Though the answers still elude both law enforcement and laymen alike, the timeline of the Atlanta Child Murders case can provide some context:

July 28, 1979:

A woman who was hunting for aluminum cans near fairgrounds in Atlanta finds the body of Alfred Evans, 13, in a trash dump off the road, The Washington Post reported at the time.

A police officer discovers the body of Edward Hope Smith, 14, a few feet away. Evans had been strangled; Smith shot. Police initially believe the deaths to be drug-related, and the crime is almost forgotten.

November 1979:

The bodies of Milton Harvey, 14, and Yusuf Ali Bell, 9, are discovered.

March 1980:

Six days after Angel Lanier’s mother reported her missing to the police, the 12-year-old’s body is found strangled, raped, and tied to a tree—only a few blocks from her home, per The Washington Post. The next day, Jeffrey Mathis, 10, disappears.

May through June 1980:

The bodies of Eric Middlebrooks, 15, and Aaron Wyche, 10, are discovered, according to a report by former FBI Agent Susan E. Lloyd. Two more children, Christopher Richardson, 11, and Latonya Wilson, 7, are reported missing.

Camille Bell (Yusuf Bell’s mother), along with Venus Taylor (Angel Lanier’s mother), and Willie May Mathis (Jeffrey Mathis’s mother), form The Committee to Stop Children’s Murders, believing there to be a link between the cases—months before Atlanta police made the same conclusion, per The Washington Post.

Camille Bell heads committee to stop child murders in Atlanta.
John SunderlandGetty Images

July 1980:

After the body of Anthony Carter, 9, is found in a warehouse dumpster, parents of the missing children start pressing city officials who were not yet investigating the string of murders as connected crimes.

At the end of the month, Earl Lee Terrell, 10, leaves the community swimming pool but never makes it home.

August through October 1980:

Clifford Jones, 13, and Charles Stephens, 12, are both found strangled, and Darron Glass, 10, is reported missing. The Atlanta police double the size of their task force, and a $150,000 cash reward is offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers, The Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile, police chief George Napper goes as far as inviting psychic Dorothy Allison to come down from New Jersey. Allison claims she has a vision that the killer won’t strike while she is in town—and he doesn’t.

December 1980:

The body of Patrick Rogers, 16, is found on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

January through February 1981:

The bodies of Lubie Geter, 14, Terry Pue, 15, and Patrick Baltazar, 12, are all found. Patrick was last seen with a friend near a phone booth on February 6, according to agent Lloyd’s report. He was found strangled a week later.

More than 200 Atlanta Police SWAT team and other police officers work with dogs to search through a trash-littered suburban woods where the skeletons of two children were discovered on January 9.
BettmannGetty Images

In February, a kidnapped boy manages to escape from the back of a car when his kidnapper stops at a red light, Lloyd also reported. The boy (who was not publicly identified at the time) gives a description of the man that matches the suspect who is eventually charged with two of the murders.

March 1981:

With special task forces working overtime, the Atlanta Police Department is starting to feel the financial strain of the ongoing investigation. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., hold a benefit concert that raises $200,000 to help the city.

Over the course of the year, the Reagan administration also allocates more than $2 million in federal aid to fund youth programs and set up resources, such as a 24-hour tip line, per CNN.

Frank Sinatra with the First Lady of Georgia Valerie Jackson and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson during the Atlanta Missing and Murdered Child Benefit at Civic Center in Atlanta.
Rick DiamondGetty Images

In the meantime, as police continue to chase leads, a curfew for anyone younger than 17 is established in the city. The intervention is controversial—FBI agents involved at the time now believe led to the targeting of Black men who were small in statue, per Lloyd’s report.

The body of Eddie Duncan, 20, is found in the Chattahoochee River at the end of the month, in addition to the discovery of the bodies of Curtis Walker, 13, and Timothy Hill, 13.

April through May 1981:

The bodies of Joseph “JoJo” Bell, 15, Rogers, 20, Michael McIntosh, 23, John Harold Porter, 28, Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, and William Barrett, 17, are discovered.

With the bodies of five victims having been found near rivers in the past two months, a surveillance team to cover bridges and river banks is created, Lloyd reported.

Weeks pass without officers witnessing any suspicious activity. That is, until early one morning on a stakeout, an officer hears a splash in the river as Wayne Williams drives by in his station wagon, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Wayne Williams
BettmannGetty Images

Two days later, the body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, is found downstream from the location, near where the body of Jimmy Ray Payne was found earlier.

June 1981:

FBI agents search Williams’ home and, after weeks of questioning and surveillance, Williams is charged with Cater’s and Payne’s murders. Authorities use forensic science (which at the time was newly adopted technology) to connect dog hair and fibers from Williams’ home and car to the victims, according to CNN.

February 27, 1982:

Williams is found guilty in the murders of Cater and Payne. He’s sent to prison on two consecutive life sentences, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

March 1, 1982:

The Atlanta police announce that 21 of the other connected cases can be linked to Williams and declares them to be closed. Police will later close another—bringing the total number of kidnapping and murder cases tied to Williams to 24, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. As of publication, the only charges filed against Williams are from the Cater and Payne cases.

May 2005:

The DeKalb County Police Chief reopens five of the Atlanta Child Murder cases that were previously linked to Williams, but no new charges are brought, CNN reported.

Watch Mayor Bottoms urge for reexamining the Atlanta Child Murders:

March 2019:

Atlanta Police, Fulton County authorities, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announce they will be re-examining old evidence and examining new evidence. But officials emphasize they cannot promise any new outcomes in the case.

Mayor Bottoms said, per the New York Times, that she wanted to reopen the cases to provide closure to the victims’ families. In the reexamination, evidence will be retested with new DNA technology. “This is about being able to look these families in the eye and say we did everything we could possibly do to bring closure to your case,” Bottoms told the Times.

She has also created a task force to build a memorial in Atlanta for the Atlanta Child Murder victims, according to local news publication 11 Alive.

After the case was reopened, Williams again restated his innocence. He also said that he is “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,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“It is important for Atlanta to acknowledge the innocent lives lost during one of our city’s darkest hours,” Bottoms told 11 Alive. “This task force will determine a lasting and appropriate tribute for the victims and their families and serve as a testament that those lives mattered. That African American lives matter.”

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