Atlanta Revisits 1981 Child Murders
By ALLEN G. BREED, AP
DECATUR, Ga. (AP) - A newly ensconced Dekalb County police chief who was never convinced of Wayne Williams' guilt has reopened five of the 1981 "Atlanta Child Murder" cases.
When Williams was arrested and declared responsible for a two-year killing spree that terrorized Atlanta's black community, Catherine Leach saw no reason to hold her three remaining boys any less close.
Even after the diminutive, bespectacled freelance TV cameraman was convicted of two killings and blamed for nearly two dozen more, Leach could find no rest.
The implication was that Williams - himself black - strangled her 13-year-old son, Curtis Walker, and dumped his body into Atlanta's South River in 1981. But neither Williams nor anyone else was ever tried for Curtis' death.
Police chief Louis Graham hopes his cold-case squad can either confirm or put to rest his gut feeling that Williams is an innocent man.
Ms. Leach shares Graham's belief in Williams' innocence but, to her, this is not about Williams. This is about her son, the boy who said he was going to Hollywood one day and make his momma rich - the boy who snuck off one afternoon to earn money carrying elderly folks' bags at a local Kmart and never came home.
"I'm not doing this or nothing for Wayne Williams," the 55-year-old woman with the careworn face says, slapping her thighs for emphasis. "I don't know if he's innocent or not on those other crimes. All I want is justice for mine."
A climate of terror gripped greater Atlanta from 1979 to 1981.
Back then, Louis Graham was an assistant police chief in neighboring Fulton County. He worked on the task force that investigated the string of killings, which police say eventually numbered 29 - mostly male victims, ranging in age from 8 to 27.
Williams had attended Frederick Douglass High School, where Graham's wife taught, and Graham had met the young man. He knew him as a brash, spoiled kid, but saw no harm in him.
When the serial killing task force focused in on Williams, Graham had deep misgivings. How, he wondered, could such a puny, nerdy guy overpower so many people - some bigger than he - and not ever be seen?
"To me, he's just not the kind that would do something like this," says Graham, a bear of a man with salt-and-pepper hair and mustache. "He wasn't that smart."
But the pressure to find a suspect was enormous. State Rep. Tyrone Brooks remembers then-Vice President George Bush coming to Atlanta and telling local officials that if they couldn't do it, the feds would happily take over.
"I think he (Williams) was too close to the scene too often with his camera," says Brooks, who sometimes helped get civil rights luminaries to appear on the radio show that a teenage Williams broadcast from a station in his garage. "I just think he was a convenient scapegoat."
In 1982, a jury - acting largely on then-cutting edge fiber evidence and testimony about Williams' alleged contempt for poor blacks - convicted Williams of murdering Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, and Nathaniel Cater, 27, and sentenced him to two consecutive life terms. After the trial, officials declared Williams responsible for 22 other deaths.
The cases were closed. But for many, there was no closure.
Five years ago, Graham visited Williams in prison. At the end of the visit, he told Williams to look him in the eye and say he was innocent.
"`To God almighty, I swear ... I didn't do it,"' Graham recalls Williams saying. "And I believe him."
But over the years, as appellate courts repeatedly upheld Williams' convictions, Graham did not act on his misgivings. Even last winter, after he became chief of the jurisdiction where some of the killings occurred, he waited.
It wasn't until February, when Williams granted an interview to local hip-hop radio talk show host Frank Ski, that things began moving. Ski knew of Graham's long-held beliefs, and he contacted the new chief.
Graham says that was the push he needed.
Three of the cases Graham has reopened are among the 10 so-called "pattern cases" prosecutors used to convince the jury that Williams was the serial killer.
"Wayne wasn't defending himself against two murder charges," says defense attorney Michael Lee Jackson, who is now fighting Williams' case in federal court. "He really had to defend himself against 12. But the state only had to prove two of them."
Jackson says the fiber evidence, which he calls "utterly junk science," was the key to these cases. And if Graham's squad can show that any of these victims was killed by someone other than Williams, "the fiber case is destroyed" and Williams should get a new trial.
Despite all these doubts about Williams' guilt, his case has never become a cause celebre. Journalist Jeff Prugh thinks he knows why.
Prugh, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who co-wrote "The List," a book about the Williams case, says the civil rights establishment found it "politically expedient ... to sit on their hands rather than to attack the black power structure that they helped put into office."
A member of that establishment, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, says it's not that simple.
Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., says he and others felt it unlikely that a black mayor and black police commissioner would allow Williams to be railroaded. While he didn't believe Williams responsible for all the killings (he turned over to the FBI a letter from a reputed Ku Klux Klan member claiming Klan responsibility for some of the murders), Lowery felt confident that he was rightly convicted of the two.
Rather than protest Williams' prosecution and conviction, the civil rights community rallied for a continued investigation and called on black parents to keep a closer watch on their children.
"We called on the community to turn to each other, not on each other," Lowery says.
"I think the community settled into the position that if Wayne did not do it, at least those who were doing it had stopped."
Even now, there's nobody out in the streets picketing for Williams' freedom. But Atlanta is again buzzing with the story.
More than nine out of 10 people who responded to an informal poll conducted by Ski's station say they do not believe Williams committed all the crimes ascribed to him.
Graham is still unsure how much of the physical evidence from the original cases still exists and is available for testing. Jackson says it should have been preserved, but would not be surprised to learn it had been destroyed - as were hours of surveillance tapes of KKK suspects.
In a rare interview, Williams, now 46, told Ski on WVEE-FM this past week that he was grateful to Graham for taking this "bold step." He says he is imprisoned with at least four relatives of his alleged victims, and that even they believe in his innocence.
"The Wayne Williams you see sitting right here today is just as much a victim of what happened as anybody else that was involved in this tragedy," he said from Hancock State Prison. "None of us have really had closure in this thing - not the families, not Wayne and not the people of Atlanta."
Unlike many of the murdered youths' parents, Janie Glenn is not convinced Williams is a victim.
On May 12, 1981, the day after Mother's Day, her son, 17-year-old Billy Barrett, cooked her breakfast and then took the bus to pay a family friend for doing some gutter work on the house.
"Be careful," she told him as he left.
Later that day, his body was found dumped - some witnesses say by a uniformed man in a marked police car - on a road a few miles from home. He had been smothered and stabbed.
Billy's was one of the pattern cases used to convict Williams. Prosecutors used pre-DNA blood-typing tests to link stains found in Williams' car to Billy.
Ms. Glenn, 58, says Williams knew her son, had encouraged the smallish boy with a painful stutter to believe he had a chance at a singing career. A relative told her Williams attended her boy's funeral.
"I'm not going to say that his hands killed him, but I believe that he knows something," Ms. Glenn says. "If Wayne knows who killed my son and the rest of the kids, then he needs to open his big mouth and let somebody else pay for what they did."
This past week, on the 24th anniversary of her son's death, she went to Southview Cemetery to lay a bouquet of sunflowers on Billy's grave and to tell "my baby" that someone was finally seeking justice for him.
"If it's the Lord's will for it to come out," she says through tears, "it will come out."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Allen G. Breed is the AP's Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.