5 Things You Might Not Know About Wayne Williams & The Atlanta Child Murders
Between 1979 and '81, someone killed at least 28 young victims in Georgia — and left behind unanswered questions.
ATLANTA, GA — The string of at least 28 killings that has come to be known as “The Atlanta Child Murders” occurred between July 1979 and May 1981. Twenty-two of the known victims were under 17 years of age; the youngest was just seven. The remaining six victims ranged from 20 to 28. Each of the slain individuals was African-American.
On June 21, 1981, police arrested a 23-year-old Atlanta resident Wayne Williams for the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21. The FBI also believed that Williams was responsible for the entire run of “child murders,” although he was never charged with any of those crimes.
Williams is still serving life for those two killings. He has always maintained his innocence, but authorities point out that the murders stopped once Williams was locked up. Regardless, issues remain around the case of The Atlanta Child Murders. Here’s a look at five key facts.
1. The Victims Shared Just 2 Common Traits — Race & Location — & There Was No Signature Method of Killing
Aside from being African-American and residing in the same geographic area along Memoiral Drive and 11 cross streets, the victims of the Atlanta Child Murders seemed to be picked at random. Their ages varied from killing to killing and while most were male, three victims were female, including seven-year-old Latonya Wilson.
Strangulation or asphyxiation was the most common means of killing, but the perpetrator also shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned some of the targets. Several of the bodies were so badly decomposed upon being recovered that a cause of death could not even be determined.
The first two victims, 14-year-olds Edward Smith and Alfred Evans, disappeared four days apart and were discovered dead from .22-caliber gunshot wounds on July 28, 1979.
Over the remainder of 1979 and all throughout 1980, children vanished off the streets of Atlanta and turned up dead at a horrifying rate. Children continued to die in 1981, which is also when the killer racked up his six adult victims. [Atlanta Journal Constitution]
2. Celebrities Focused Attention on the Atlanta Child Murders & the FBI Hoped to Catch the Killer at a Charity Concert
As the nation watched in horror at what was happening in Atlanta, high-profile entertainers used their influence to raise funds and awareness to help catch the killer.
On March 11, 1981, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra headlined a benefit concert at the Atlanta Civic Center that raised $148,000 to aid the investigation into the murders.
FBI agents stood throughout the arena that night, believing that the killer himself might attend the show. No suspect did turn up, but Homer Williams, the father of Wayne Williams, was on hand to photograph the proceedings, and can be seen in some pictures standing onstage behind Frank Sinatra.
Robert De Niro, accepting his Best Actor Academy Award for Raging Bull, wore a green ribbon on his tuxedo as a symbol of unity with the victims and their loved ones. It’s believed to be the first time a celebrity donned a ribbon at a public event for a special cause.
That July, the Jacksons donated $100,000 from their performance at the Atlanta Omni Coliseum to the Atlanta Children’s Foundation.
Later that year, Gladys Knight and the Pips released a fund-raising single, “Forever Yesterday (For the Children)” to benefit the victims’ families. [The New York Times]
3. A Loud Splash Led to the Arrest of Suspect Wayne Williams
After the FBI joined the hunt for the Atlanta child murderer, analysts reportedly predicted that the suspect was likely to dump his next victim into a body of water.
As a result, stakeouts were set up around 12 bridges throughout the area. On May 22, 1981, investigators reported hearing a loud splashing sound along a Chattahoochee River crossing and spotted a white 1970 Chevrolet station wagon circle back and drive away from the scene.
Officers pulled over the car and questioned the driver, Wayne Williams. He said he was a music promoter on his way to audition a singer and stopped to toss out a bag of trash. Police also noticed gloves and a nylon cord on Williams’ front seat.
Two days later, the body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, bobbled to the surface of the river, and circumstantial evidence piled up indicating Williams was responsible for that murder — and perhaps many more. [All That’s Interesting]
4. The Case Against Wayne Williams
From the time of his arrest on June 21, 1981, Wayne Williams has maintained his innocence. Law-enforcement agencies did an effective job, however, of arguing that Williams was involved with at least two of the murders.
First, he was the only individual the cops stopped in their month of stakeouts. Nobody else reportedly even came close as a suspect.
Next, Williams allegedly failed three polygraph tests administered by the FBI. Such exams are not admissible in court, but they do tend to sway opinions.
Third, Williams resembled witness descriptions of a suspicious person, and some witnesses said they saw him with at least one of the victims.
Adding to suspicions, Williams had reportedly been distributing flyers around African-American areas of Atlanta advertising for young males between the ages of 11 and 21 to audition for a singing group he was putting together.
What truly seemed to seal the deal against Williams, though, were fibers from his dog and a carpet in his home that were found in his car and on his person that matched materials found on some of the victims.
Wayne Williams stood trial in 1982 for the murders of Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne. He was found guilty and ordered to serve two consecutive life sentences.
As noted by many observers, once police caught Williams, the Atlanta Child Murders, as they had existed, stopped. In addition, authorities say they have closed more of the cases and believe that Williams was responsible, but he has not been charged with any further crimes. [FBI]
5. Atlanta Monster, a Popular Podcast, Brought the Case Back Into the Public Eye — & Raised New Questions
In 2018, the podcast Atlanta Monster examined the case from a fresh respective and became an immediate true crime sensation.
Host Payne Lindsey has interviewed Williams himself numerous times, as well as other individuals who were on hand as the case unfolded. Above all else, Williams still maintains he is not guilty of even a single murder.
Lindsey talked to CrimeFeed about his conversations with Williams, saying, “He stands by his innocence of all the murders, so that’s the grounds for a lot of our conversations. There are eyewitnesses who place other people at the scene of these crimes, so we continue to talk to these eyewitnesses and get their accounts.”
When asked if the Atlanta Monster team believes Williams’ claims, Lindsey told CrimeFeed: “As for his innocence, we can’t really answer that question fully. There’s so much muddiness in this case, so we’re still trying to figure out what we believe really happened.”
Lindsey indicated that he does have the beginning of a theory, however, stating, “What we can say is that we don’t believe any one individual or group committed all 30 of these crimes, but this is not a Wayne Williams innocence project. Our role here is to get all sides of the story in order to find the truth and help give the victims’ families the closure that’s been long overdue.” [CrimeFeed]
Watch the premiere of the three-part special The Atlanta Child Murders on Saturday, March 23 at 8/7c on Investigation Discovery!