Atlanta Child Murders

The Atlanta Child Murders were a series of murders perpetrated in Atlanta, Georgia, from the summer of 1979 through the spring of 1981. Over this period, at least 28 African American children, adolescents and adults were killed. Most of the victims were adolescents of around 14 years of age. Wayne Williams, an African American, was convicted of two of the murders. No one has been convicted of all the murders.

The last murders occurred in a city that had become highly vigilant. Most of the bodies seemed to indicate that the children had shown little signs of resistance, perhaps because they were familiar with and trusted their murderer. Most of the children were apparently strangled. And though there is clear indication that some of the victims were apparently killed by the same murderer, some of the victims did not fit the profile of the typical victim.

For instance, Jimmy Ray Payne was a 21-year-old adult, not a child. Though he was short and small of build, he was very smart and not likely to have been duped by the same serial killer who had lured the unsuspecting youths. Another example is William Barrett, who fit the age profile of the victim, but, was found with stab wounds in his abdomen, something not found on any other victim. Despite this, Jimmy Ray Payne and William Barrett are often included on the list of the serial killer's victims.

Over the two-year period that the Atlanta Child Murders took place, the local population panicked. Parents begged the government to find the perpetrator and ensure the safety of their children. The city's economy was negatively impacted as tourism dropped drastically in the wake of the murders and many conventions were moved to venues outside of Atlanta.

In addition to the panic and the damage to the economy, the murders fomented latent social unrest and racial tensions. Atlanta had experienced a building boom in the 1960s. Neighborhoods were moved and families uprooted to make room for some of the ambitious Atlanta projects such as the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The neglect and overcrowded conditions that this neighborhood demolition caused generated racial tensions. Much of the black community claimed that the long duration of the serial killer's rampage was due to the uncaring attitude of the government.

Mayor Maynard Jackson, an African American, focused single-mindedly on the search for the serial killer. The two-year investigation cost the city millions of dollars. As the string of murders grew longer, the federal government became involved. A Special Atlanta Police Task Force was created to further investigate the cases. It included personnel from multiple law enforcement agencies.

The FBI authorities, along with crime lab experts, began to concentrate on laboratory analyses of the physical evidence recovered from the Atlanta victims. Along with the bloodstains and fingerprints, they found sets of yarns and fibers on many of the victims' bodies, hair and clothes. Of particular note were some yellowish-green nylon fibers found on six separate victims that seemed to originate from a single source.

As the city grew more and more nervous about the safety of its children, the FBI predicted that the killer would dump the next victim into a local body of water. Police staked out a surveillance operation at a bridge over the Chattahoochee River. On May 22, 1981, one of the detectives heard a loud splash as something fell into the water. Looking up at the bridge, he saw a white Chevrolet station wagon driving slowly off of the bridge.

The car was followed and then stopped. Its driver proved to be Wayne Bertram Williams, a music promoter and freelance photographer. A voluntary search of the car uncovered, amongst other things, a two-foot nylon cord and a white bedspread with a black-and-green design.

At first the police officers allowed Williams to go free. He proved to be an unusual fellow, and even invited reporters for a personal press conference in his own house.

Over time, the investigators came to believe that Williams was the serial killer. They put full efforts into laboratory analysis to prove their case. Tests proved that some of the fibers found on two bodies matched a bedspread in Wayne Williams' bedroom. Williams was then prosecuted for the murder of these two victims. During the trial, the prosecution claimed that there was additional evidence linking Williams with at least 10 other murders.

Williams was convicted of the two murders. However, there are still many members of the black community who believe that he was convicted on purely circumstantial evidence. Williams claims to be innocent. However, as soon as he was arrested the spate of murders ended.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Politics of Race
Bernard Headley.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1998
Creative Ethnicity: Symbols and Strategies of Contemporary Ethnic Life
Stephen Stern; John Allan Cicala.
Utah State University Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The Atlanta Child Murders: A Case Study of Folklore in the Black Community"
Congregation of the Condemned: Voices against the Death Penalty
Edward Kennedy; Mario Cuomo; Tom Wicker; Mike Farrell; Coretta Scott King; Peter Gabriel; Shirley Dicks.
Prometheus Books, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 22 "Camille Bell: Son Was the Fourth Child Killed in the Atlanta Child Murders"
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