ATLANTA, GA — On June 21, 1981, Atlanta native Wayne Williams, 23, was arrested for the murders of two men whose bodies had been found in the Atlanta river.
But these murders were just the tip of the iceberg: Investigators would later link him to the “Atlanta Child Murders,” a string of killings that took place over a two-year period from the middle of 1979 until May 1981. During this time, Atlanta was a city paralyzed with fear.
At least 28 African-American children — and adults — vanished, before their dead bodies were discovered in isolated areas. Although most of the dead were children and teenagers, six victims were men in their 20s. The youngest victim was seven-year-old Latonya Wilson, who disappeared on June 22, 1980.
Most of the victims were strangled, but some were stabbed to death. Some of the bodies were being dumped in different rivers, so police surveillance teams made a plan to stake out bridges throughout Atlanta.
On May 22, 1981, officers watching a bridge over the Chattahoochee River got a break when they heard a loud splash and saw a vehicle speeding away. The driver was Williams, who told the police that he was a music producer and was on his way to audition a new singer.
Williams was born in 1958, and enjoyed a stable, middle-class home life. He enjoyed radio broadcasting, and his goal was to become a music producer.
Two days after Williams was stopped, the nude body of a 27-year-old man was found near the bridge. Police then looked into Williams’ background and discovered he had previously been arrested for impersonating a police officer.
Williams came in for questioning, and — after he failed a polygraph test — police obtained a search warrant for the residence of Williams’ parents, where he was living, and found hairs and fibers matching those from some of the murder victims.
He was arrested in June, and eventually convicted of murdering the two adults whose bodies were found in the river in the spring of 1981. Police subsequently have attributed a number of the child murders to Williams and closed the cases, although he has not been tried or convicted in any of those cases.
When Williams went to trial, DNA technology was in its infancy. So the case was largely built on circumstantial evidence, such as the fibers and hairs. He was found guilty, and the judge sentenced him to life in prison. Ten other deaths were presented to the jury during the trial, but he was not charged in any of those.
After he went to prison, DNA technology improved, and evidence implicated Williams in the death of at least one other victim, 11-year-old Patrick Baltazar. The boy’s body was found dumped down a wooded slope behind an office park on February 13, 1981.
A forensic scientist discovered two human scalp hairs inside the boy’s shirt, and at trial, scientists testified that the hairs were consistent with those of Williams — but there was no way of being 100 percent sure at the time.
The judge allowed the hair samples to be sent to Quantico for testing, and retired FBI scientist Harold Deadman, who testified about the hair findings in Williams’ 1982 trial and later became head of the FBI’s DNA lab, said that the testing done on the hairs pointed to Williams and “would probably exclude 98 percent or so of the people in the world.”
Williams has denied he killed Patrick Baltazar, and maintained his innocence in the other murders.
In 2015, a study released by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), the FBI, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that in 96 percent of cases where FBI hair analysis led to a conviction before 1999, the evidence was faulty. 11Alive News revealed that one of those cases was Wayne Williams’. Williams’ attorney stated at the time that he hoped to use the information in an appeal, but several experts disagreed and said that hair analysis played only a small role in the case.
Williams and his family members have also blamed the murders on various others over the years, including the Atlanta police — who they believed were trying to avoid a race war — and the Ku Klux Klan.
Spin magazine investigated the case in 1986, and revealed that a secret investigation discovered and then covered up the fact that a Ku Klux Klan family, the Sanders, may have been responsible for the murder of a young black boy and was possibly linked to the murders of 14 others in an attempt to ignite a race war between blacks and whites, according to court papers. But as the evidence against the Sanders family grew, the committee investigating the killings allegedly became nervous that revealing that the Klan was behind the murders could trigger racial unrest in the city. Members of the committee reportedly decided to terminate the secret investigation and seal its findings — but the controversy continues to this day.
Williams is serving his sentence in Hancock State Prison in Georgia.
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Main photo: Wayne Williams [Fulton County Police]