Serial killers : the serial homicide case of the day

The Serial Homicide Case of the Day, from "Hunting Humans, the Encyclopedia of 20th Century Serial Killers" , by Michael Newton

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  Atlanta "Child Murders"

Wayne Williams, of the 'Atlanta Child Murders'

The curious and controversial string of deaths that sparked a two -year reign of terror in Atlanta, Georgia, have been labeled "children's" murders even though a suspect, ultimately blamed for 23 of 30 homicides, was finally convicted only in the deaths of two adult ex-convicts. Today, nearly a decade after that suspect's arrest, the case remains, in many minds, an unsolved mystery.

Investigation of the case began, officially, on July 28, 1979. That afternoon, a woman hunting empty cans and bottles in Atlanta stumbled on a pair of corpses, carelessly concealed in roadside undergrowth. One victim , shot with a .22-caliber weapon, was identified as Edward Smith, 14, reported missing on July 21. The other was 13-year-old Alfred Evans, last seen alive on July 25. The coroner ascribed his death to "probable" asphyxiation. Both dead boys, like all of those to come, were black.

On September 4, Milton Harvey, age 14, vanished during a neighborhood bike ride. His body was recovered three weeks later, but the cause of death remains officially "unknown." Yusef Bell, a 9-year-old, was last seen alive when his mother sent him to the store on October 21. Found dead in an abandoned school November 8, he had been strangled manually by a powerful assailant.

Angel Lenair, age 12, was the first recognized victim of 1980. Reported missing on March 4, she was found six days later, tied to a tree with her hands bound behind her. The first female victim, she had been sexually abused and strangled with an electric cord; someone else's panties were extracted from her throat.

On March 11, Jeffrey Mathis vanished on an errand to the store. Eleven months would pass before recovery of his skeletal remains, advanced decomposition ruling out a declaration on the cause of death. On May 18, 14-year-old Eric Middlebrooks left home after receiving a telephone call from persons unknown. Found the next day, his death was ascribed to head injuries, inflicted with a blunt instrument.

The terror escalated into summer. On June 9, Christopher Richardson, 12, vanished en route to a neighborhood swimming pool. Latonya Wilson was abducted from her home on June 22, the night before her seventh birthday, bringing federal agents into the case. The following day, 10-year-old Aaron Wyche was reported missing by his family. Searchers found his body on June 24, Iying beneath a railroad trestle, his neck broken. Originally dubbed an accident, Aaron's death was subsequently added to the growing list of dead and missing blacks.

Anthony Carter, age 9, disappeared while playing near his home on July 6, 1980; recovered the following day, he was dead from multiple stab wounds. Earl Terrell joined the list on July 30, when he vanished from a public swimming pool. Skeletal remains discovered on January 9, 1981, would yield no clues about the cause of death.

Next up on the list was 12-year-old Clifford Jones, snatched off the street and strangled on August 20. With the recovery of his body in October, homicide detectives interviewed five witnesses who named his killer as a white man, jailed in 1981 on charges of attempted rape and aggravated sodomy. These witnesses provided details of the crime consistent with the placement and condition of the victim's body, but detectives chose to file their affidavits, listing Jones with other victims of an "unknown" murderer.

Darron Glass, an 11-year-old, vanished near his home on September 14, 1980. Never found, he joins the list because authorities don't know what else to do about his case. October's victim was Charles Stephens, reported missing on the ninth and recovered next day, his life extinguished by asphyxiation. Capping off the month, authorities discovered skeletal remains of Latonya Wilson on October 18, but they could not determine how she died.

On November 1, 9-year-old Aaron Jackson's disappearance was reported to police by frantic parents. The boy was found on November 2, another victim of asphyxiation. Patrick Rogers, 15, followed on November 10. His pitiful remains, skull crushed by heavy blows, were not unearthed until February 1981.

Two days after New Year's, the elusive slayer picked off Lubie Geter, strangling the 14-year-old and dumping his body where it would not be found until February 5. Terry Pue, 15, was missing on January 22 and was found the next day, strangled with a cord or piece of rope. This time, detectives said that special chemicals enabled them to lift a suspect's fingerprints from Terry's corpse. Unfortunately, they were not on file with any law enforcement agency.

Patrick Baltazar, age 12, disappeared on February 6. His body was found a week later, marked by ligature strangulation, and the skeletal remains of Jeffrey Mathis, were found nearby. A 13-year-old, Curtis Walker, was strangled on February 19 and found the same day. Joseph Bell, 16, was asphyxiated on March 2; Timothy Hill, on March 11, was recorded as a drowning victim.

On March 30, police added their first adult victim to the list of murdered children. He was Larry Rogers, 20, linked with younger victims by the fact that he had been asphyxiated. No cause of death was determined for a second adult victim, 21-year-old Eddie Duncan, when his body was found on March 31. On April 1, ex-convict Michael McIntosh, age 23, was added to the roster on the grounds that he had also been asphyxiated.

By April 1981, it seemed apparent that the "children's murder" case was getting out of hand. Community critics denounced the official victims list as incomplete and arbitrary, citing cases like the January 1981 murder of Faye Yearby to prove their point. Like "official" victim Angel Lenair, Yearby was bound to a tree by her killer, hands tied behind her back; she had been stabbed to death, like four acknowledged victims on the list. Despite these similarities, police rejected Yearby's case on grounds that (a) she was a female -- as were Wilson and Lenair -- and (b) at 22, she was "too old" -- although the last acknowledged victim had been 23. (Dave Dettlinger, examining police malfeasance in The List, suggests that 63 "pattern" victims were capriciously omitted from the "official" roster, twenty-five of them after a suspect's arrest supposedly "ended" the murders.)

During April, spokesmen for the FBI declared that several of the crimes were "substantially solved," outraging blacks with suggestions that some of the dead had been slain by their own parents. While that storm was raging, Roy Innis, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, went public with the story of a female witness who described the murders as the actions of a cult involved with drugs, pornography and Satanism . Innis led searchers to an apparent ritual site, complete with large inverted crosses, and his witness passed two polygraph examinations, but by that time the police had focused their attention on another suspect, narrowing their scrutiny to the exclusion of all other possibilities.

On April 22, Jimmy Payne, a 21-year-old ex-convict, was reported missing in Atlanta. Six days later, when his body was recovered, death was publicly ascribed to suffocation and his name was added to the list of murdered "children." William Barrett, 17, went missing May 11; he was found the next day, another victim of asphyxiation.

Several bodies had, by now, been pulled from local rivers, and police were staking out the waterways by night. In the pre-dawn hours of May 22, a rookie officer stationed under a bridge on the Chattahoochee River reported hearing "a splash" in the water nearby. Above him, a car rumbled past and officers manning the bridge were alerted. Police and FBI agents halted a vehicle driven by Wayne Bertram Williams, a black man, and spent two hours grilling him, poking through the car, before they let him go. On May 24, the corpse of Nathaniel Cater, a 27-year-old convicted felon, was fished out of the river downstream, the authorities putting two and two together as they focused their probe on Wayne Williams.

From the start, he made a most unlikely suspect. The only child of two Atlanta schoolteachers Williams still lived with his parents at age twenty-three. A college dropout, he cherished ambitions of earning fame and fortune as a music promoter. In younger days, he had constructed a working radio station in the basement of the family home.

On June 21, Williams was arrested and charged with the murder of Nathaniel Cater, despite testimony from four witnesses who reported seeing the victim alive on May 22 and 23, after the infamous "splash." On July 17, Williams was indicted for killing two adults -- Cater and Payne -- while newspapers trumpeted the capture of Atlanta's "child killer."

At his trial, beginning in December 1981, the prosecution painted Williams as a violent homosexual and bigot, so disgusted with his race that he hoped to wipe out future generations by killing black children before they could breed. One witness testified that he saw Williams holding hands with Nathaniel Cater on the night of May 21, a few hours before "the splash." Another, 15 years old, told the court that Williams had paid him two dollars for the privilege of fondling his genitals. Along the way, authorities announced the late addition of a final victim, 28-year-old John Porter, to The List.

Defense attorneys tried to balance out the scales with testimony from a woman who admitted having "normal" sex with Williams, but the prosecution won a crucial point when the presiding judge admitted testimony on ten other deaths from The List, designed to prove a pattern in the murders. One of those admitted was the case of Terry Pue, but neither side had anything to say about the fingerprints allegedly recovered from his corpse in January 1981.

The most impressive evidence of guilt was offered by a team of scientific experts, dealing with assorted hairs and fibers found on certain victims. Testimony indicated that some fibers from a brand of carpet found inside the Williams home had been identified on several bodies. Further, victims Middlebrooks, Wyche, Cater, Terrell, Jones and Stephens all bore fibers from the trunk liner of a 1979 Ford automobile owned by the Williams family. The clothes of victim Stephens also yielded fibers from a second car -- a 1970 Chevrolet -- owned by the family. Jurors were not informed of eyewitness testimony naming a different suspect in the Jones case, nor were they advised of a critical gap in the prosecution's evidence.

Specifically, Wayne Williams had no access to the vehicles in question at the times when three of the six "fiber" victims were killed. Wayne's father took the Ford in for repairs at 9 a.m. on July 30, 1980, nearly five hours before Earl Terrell vanished that afternoon. Terrell was long dead before Williams got the car back on August 7, and it was returned to the shop next morning, still refusing to start. A new estimate on repair costs was so expensive that William's father refused to pay, and the family never again had access to the car. Meanwhile, Clifford Jones was abducted on August 20 and Charles Stephens on October 9, 1980. The defendant's family did not purchase the 1970 Chevrolet until October 21, twelve days after Stephens's death.

On February 27, 1982, Wayne Williams was convicted on two counts of murder and sentenced to a double term of life imprisonment. On March 1, 1982, the Atlanta "child murders" task force officially disbanded, announcing that 23 of 30 "List" cases were considered solved with his conviction. The other seven cases, still open, reverted to the normal homicide detail.

In November 1985, a new team of lawyers uncovered formerly-classified FBI documents from 1980 and '81, describing surveillance of a militant Ku Klux Klansman suspected of murdering several victims on The List. Despite that evidence and glaring flaws throughout the prosecution's case, all appeals filed on behalf of Wayne Williams have been rejected by the courts.

(See also: Atlanta, GA -- Unsolved Murders )

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