ATLANTA, GA — It’s a question that continues to haunt the country nearly 30 years later: How could almost 30 children disappear from the middle of a major American city over just two years and get so little press coverage?
Some of the most shocking, and moving, moments from “Atlanta Monster,” the podcast that focuses on the Atlanta Child Murders that took place from 1979 to 1981, came when the guests described the difference in awareness between the African-American and white communities in the city.
In all, 29 children were murdered in metro Atlanta, as well as two adults. Police determined that the killer followed a pattern of abducting children, murdering them — often by asphyxiation — and then dumping their bodies in wooded areas or the Chattahoochee River.
The podcast guests described hearing about the murders as children, and being terrified that the “boogeyman” could get them. They described an atmosphere of fear, and parents who were afraid to let kids leave the house — and even waited with them for the school bus.
“I was a child in Atlanta during that time. I was a nine-year-old … living in the fourth ward, which was one of the areas where children were being taken,” Calinda Lee, Vice President of Historical Interpretation & Community Partnerships at The Atlanta History Center, said. “I remember as a child, the whispers and chatter among children … if you can imagine, this real-life boogeyman is actually out there,” she said, “and there wasn’t a sense that anything very serious was happening to protect us.”
She added that she continues to be surprised by the fact that people who were living in other communities during the time of the killings said that they were not scared by or maybe not even aware of the murders.
“Every single one of [the victims] was not only Black; they were also poor. When you talk to people about their memories of this time, there’s a really distinct gap between white Atlantans and Black Atlantans during this time,” she said. “I think it is impossible to disentangle the race and class issues.”
Wayne Williams, a then-23-year-old African-American music promoter, was arrested in 1981. He was convicted of killing the two adult victims, but was linked to the murders of the children after prosecutors used evidence to establish what they called a “pattern.”
Sadly, victims of all races continue to be ignored because the media thinks of certain types of victims, as historian Bernard Headley wrote that the news media in Atlanta did, as part of a “delinquent subculture.”
This includes the poor, homeless women murdered in Philadelphia during the 1980s — which were later labeled “The Nobody Murders” — as well as more recent cases such as the “Long Island Serial Killer,” in which the victims were sex workers.
Authorities also investigated other leads in the case, including a possible Ku Klux Klan link. Bill Joe Whitaker, a criminal who had convictions for car theft, burglary, forgery, and illegal drug sales, said he told an Atlanta police investigator in 1981 that he heard Klan member Charles T. Sanders make threats against Lubie Geter, whose body was found on February 5, 1981.
Police investigated Sanders and possible KKK involvement, but apparently ruled him out because four more victims were killed while police had him under surveillance.
In 2005, DeKalb County Police Chief Louis Graham reopened the investigations into the deaths of the five DeKalb County victims: Aaron Wyche, 10; Curtis Walker, 13; Yusuf Bell, 9; William Barrett, 17; and Patrick Baltazar, 11.
Meanwhile, Wayne Williams has always maintained his innocence.
Graham, one of the original investigators in these cases, said he never believed that Williams was guilty of any of the killings. Other experts believe that Williams is almost certainly guilty of some of the murders, but not all of them.
Retired FBI criminal profiler John Douglas, who investigated the Atlanta killings and created a profile of a perpetrator that closely matched Williams, wrote in Mindhunter that he believes evidence points to Williams killing at least 11 of the children, but that many questions remain. He wrote:
“Despite what his detractors and accusers maintain, I believe there is no strong evidence linking him to all or even most of the deaths and disappearances of children in that city between 1979 and 1981. Young black and white children continue to die mysteriously in Atlanta. We have an idea who did some of the others. It isn’t a single offender and the truth isn’t pleasant. So far, though, there’s been neither the evidence nor the public will to seek indictments.”
In 1986, Spin magazine did a lengthy investigative report on the Atlanta Child murders, including the KKK rumors.
“As a result of our article, the case against Wayne Williams was re-opened. He was not exonerated. He was put back into his box, maybe rightly so for the murders he was actually tried for, but, sadly, so was the wider truth,” publisher Bob Guccione, Jr., wrote when the article was republished for the magazine’s 30th anniversary.
“Without a doubt there was a larger net of evil spread over that Southern city. And long before someone belatedly declared, and made stick, the notion that Black Lives Matter, so many didn’t.”
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Main photo: Wayne Williams [Wikimedia Commons]