On Sunday, April 5, HBO premiered a new documentary series on the Atlanta Child Murders: a terrifying period between 1979 and 1981 when at least 30 African-American children and young men disappeared without a trace or were found murdered in Atlanta. (The case was also the feature story of the last season of Netflix’s Mindhunter). So what happened during that troubling time, and what do you need to know as you watch the show?
Read the full story & other true crime essays in Corinna Underwoods’ Murder and Mystery in Atlanta
The Atlanta Youth Murders
In 1979, MARTA (Atlanta’s metro rail service) launched the initial stage of its rapid transit system after more than two decades of planning. That same year saw the beginning of a series of murders that changed the lives of many Atlanta families forever. The wave of killings began with the disappearance of fourteen-year-old Edward Hope Smith. On July 21, 1979, Edward left his home in the Cape Street housing project in south Atlanta to go and meet friends at a local skating rink. After spending the evening there with his girlfriend, he left about midnight. He was never seen again.
A few days later, Edward’s friend, fourteen-year-old Alfred Evans, went to see a movie at a cinema in downtown Atlanta. He never made it to the movie. The bodies of both boys were found on July 28 in a small patch of woods close to Niskey Lake Road.
Over the next two years, at least 30 African American children went missing or were found murdered throughout Atlanta. During the first cases, police maintained the cases were unconnected, and that many of the missing children were just runaways.
With no arrests or convictions to speak of, tension mounted between the black community and city officials. Mothers whose sons were found dead in fields took matters into their own hands, forming STOP, the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders, designed to pressure authorities and politicians to stop dragging their feet and take further action to prevent the murder of more children.
Though more and more cases had obvious similarities, police took months to state they were related. Many in the community believed the KKK was responsible. Others assumed gangs or a drug feud. Only one thing was certain: something evil was killing Atlanta’s black children.
Naming the problem
At the outset of the crisis, the investigative task force struggled to make sense of the connection between the victims on the list. Eventually, the number of cases grew so large and so quickly that the pattern practically hit them in the face. A year into the rash of Atlanta Child murders, they’d finally admitted they had a serial killer on their hands–though the term had yet to be coined.
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Though the causes of death varied if they were known at all, there will striking similarities between the cases. All of the victims were black, mostly boys and all of small build and similar physical characteristics. Each victim’s body had been left at locations where they would be easily found. Several, including Lubie Geter and Earl Terrell, had connections with local male pedophiles, and further evidence revealed that a number of them had had homosexual relationships .
Despite these connections, due to the constantly changing parameters of the victims list, it began to seem as though the police were befuddling themselves. Police files contained inconsistencies and errors, and some reports remain missing to this day. According to Chet Dettlinger—ex–police officer, public safety commissioner and consultant for the U.S. Justice Department—many more victims should have made the list. After offering his services to the Atlanta Police and being refused, Dettlinger initiated a voluntary investigation into the Atlanta murders.
Working alongside STOP, Dettlinger assembled a team including private investigators Mile Edwards, Bill Taylor, and ex-crime analyst Dick Arena, an expert at criminal pattern identification. Dettlinger and his team diligently mapped out the killings and went door to door through the neighborhoods to track down leads to the murders. He discovered that all of the victims had a connection to Atlanta’s Memorial Drive and eleven other streets in the near vicinity, directed in an easterly direction. The team discovered not just a clear pattern, but at least sixty more victims hadn’t made the original APD list.
Dettlinger pointed out a distinct social and geographic pattern between the victims, to the degree that he was able to estimate with accuracy where victims would vanish and where their bodies would be found. To the frustration of his team and STOP, the Atlanta Police and the FBI task force were still reluctant to make any connection between the cases, let alone more than sixty other cases that shared the same pattern. At one point they even suspected that Dettlinger had something to do with the murders.
The authorities released him when they finally realized that it was their own mismanagement of information that was letting them down. When the FBI realized that the ex–police officer had collected more information than their task force, they invited him to join their team.
A New Year, an Old Case
1981 found the community chilled by growing fear and despair for their children and a police force that seemed powerless to stop the tragic slayings. Two days later, fourteen-year-old Lubie Geter became the seventeenth victim to be added to the list. Lubie was abducted from close to his home and his body was found, strangled, on February 5.
By the end of March, the victim count was up to 20, with several being found in the Chattahoochee River. Residents of housing project Techwood Homes united in protest on the streets, claiming that the Atlanta Police were not doing all they could to protect Atlanta’s children, even forming a vigilante group, which they called the “bat patrol.”
Camille Bell, the mother of one of the first victims, Yusaf Bell, summed up the feeling of vulnerability when she told Newsweek, “There are actually people who can walk into your neighborhood, in broad daylight, steal your children, murder them and throw them back in your face.”
Eleven members of New York’s unarmed citizen crime patrol team, the Guardian Angels, joined the Atlanta group in its day and night search for missing children and to protect those still alive.
In March 1981, the New York Times reported that Mayor Jackson’s response to the residents’ concern was to urge them to “lower their voices” about the possibility that the murders were racially motivated. Jackson was still confident that the Atlanta task force, which now numbered forty investigators, would crack the case. Members of the task force were working from a converted building on West Peachtree Street. They had a sophisticated computer system at their fingertips and numerous volunteers manning the telephone tip lines.
They even brought in renowned psychic Dorothy Allison, who had previously participated in other high-profile cases. To offset the cost of the $230,000 investigation, the Reagan administration presented Atlanta with $1.5 million in federal funds, and both black and white citizens pitched in with a $100,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest. Despite this and the use of air patrols and expert criminal profilers, neither the task force nor the volunteers was able to prevent another murder.
On March 20, 1981, twenty-one-year-old Eddie Duncan disappeared. Eddie became the first adult to make the list of “Atlanta child murders.” His body was found on April 8; he had also been dumped in the Chattahoochee River. Prior to Eddie’s murder, older victims had been kept off the list because they did not fit the age group parameters, despite other connections. Perhaps Eddie was added due to the fact that he had a number of physical and mental disabilities. Like many of the other victims, his cause of death was thought to be asphyxia.
The stakes were getting higher, and tensions grew by the day. Statekouts and community tiplines went into overdrive. And though it seemed like there was often no end to this chaos in sight, two months later the Atlanta Police Department caught a lead.
An arrest is made, but the story far from over
With such a large number of the victims being found in the Chattahoochee, the APD ran nightly stakeouts of bridges and low-entry points.
In the early hours of May 22, 1981, Atlanta police officer Bob Campbell was on surveillance beneath the James Jackson Parkway Bridge when he heard a loud splash in the water not far from his position. He described the splash as being louder than any caused by a diving animal. He also reported seeing a series of large ripples after the splash. At the time, a car was parked on the bridge with its headlights shining over the area where Campbell had seen the ripples.
Officer Freddie Jacobs was stationed on the southern part of the bridge. At this time, Jacobs saw a white Chevy station wagon approaching from the southern end of the bridge. He watched the car drive over the bridge into Fulton County and then turn around and recross the bridge. Campbell radioed FBI agent Greg Gilliland, who pulled the car over about a half mile from the bridge. The vehicle was being driven by Wayne Bertram Williams, a twenty three-year-old African American from Atlanta.
The officers stopped Williams and questioned him. What was he doing on the bridge at three, four-o’clock in the morning? An amateur record producer , Williams said that he was looking for the address of a female singer he wanted to audition. The officers were dubious, but had nothing to hold Williams on.
Two days later, the naked body of Nathaniel Cater was recovered from the river, downstream from where the police officers had heard the infamous splash. Nathaniel Cater, the final victim to be added to the list, had lived in the same apartment building as another victim, LaTonya Wilson. Police arrested Williams for his murder.
But Williams’ arrest prompted more questions than it answered, and is contested even to this day.
Read the full story, including details about the trial, conspiracy theories, and the full investigation in Corinna Underwoods’ Murder and Mystery in Atlanta
About the book:
Atlanta, the largest city in the Southeast, hides a dark and violent past. Join local author Corinna Underwood as she investigates some of Atlanta’s most notorious crimes, many of which are unsolved, from the city’s first homicide to the murder of Lance Herndon. Who really killed young Mary Phagan in an Atlanta pencil factory? Was there really an Atlanta Ripper, or just a series of copycat killings? After reading these chilling accounts, you’ll be sure to lock your door.