40 Years After I Covered the Atlanta Child Murders, Trauma and Doubt Remain | Opinion

Terror that rises from the threat of a faceless, relentless killer and grows to nearly paralyze an entire community builds slowly. Such was the case of the Atlanta child murders, a series of disappearances and killings of nearly 30 black children, mostly boys and young men, that began in Atlanta in the summer of 1979, when a woman rummaging through the woods for aluminum cans discovered the body of 14-year-old Edward Hope Smith. He had been shot in the back with a .22-caliber weapon.

Police searching the scene later discovered the body of another black child nearby, Alfred James Evans, 13. The cause of death was later determined to be "probable asphyxia."

By November 1980, 12 more bodies had been found and another four black children were missing. A pall settled over the city, and as the killings continued and increased in frequency, concern spread across the country. Then-President Ronald Reagan dispatched Vice President George H.W. Bush to huddle with Atlanta leaders and visit with families of the victims.

Children in the low-income Atlanta neighborhoods that had yielded most of the victims took to arming themselves with sticks and bats, and had their own ominous nickname for the child snatcher: "The Man."

As a reporter covering the story for Newsweek, and as a parent, I was enveloped in the sense of foreboding that overshadowed everything. Normal routine was governed by the wait for the next bulletin that another child had gone missing. I spent weekends linking arms with strangers wearing red armbands, searching woods and behind old buildings, half-filled with dread at what we might find. The body of 7-year-old LaTonya Wilson, one of only two black girls on the list, had turned up on the very first volunteer search, on a Saturday in 1980. In an environment where everyone was a suspect, no one felt safe. One black father told me he'd advised his 10-year-old son: "Don't even trust your uncles."

The city authorized a curfew for children under 15 in December 1980, but still the murders continued, with new twists: Whereas previous victims had been between the ages of 11 and 17, the most recent victims were young adult males. When it was revealed in the press in March 1981 that police investigators had begun to link some of the recovered bodies with certain carpet fibers and dog hairs found on the victims' clothing, bodies started turning up in rivers around the city.

Atlanta child murders search
Members of the Atlanta Police SWAT team and other policemen, working with dogs, formed a force of 200 officers to search through a trash-littered suburban woods, in 1981. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty

Police suspected the killer might join in the Saturday volunteer community searches or mingle with mourners at the funerals of the young victims.

With no clear links and multiple causes of deaths, the bafflement of police increased public anxiety.

The pace of the murders quickened in 1981, with a child's body turning up roughly every 10 days. With the community close to panic, a break finally occurred on the night of May 22, 1981. Police recruits on a stakeout beneath the James Jackson Parkway bridge heard a loud splash in the Chattahoochee River. When FBI agents pulled over the lone car on the bridge, the driver turned out to be Wayne Williams, a 23-year-old self-styled music producer and talent scout.

Williams was not detained that night, but after the body of 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater popped up in the river two days later, he was arrested and charged with killing Cater and another adult on the task force list, Jimmy Ray Payne, 21. During a nine-week trial, Williams was linked to 10 of the child cases through the same traces of fiber and dog hairs found on Cater and Payne, showing what prosecutors argued was Williams' "pattern [and] bent of mind."

Proclaiming innocence, Williams took the stand in his own defense. But his Jekyll-and-Hyde personality bolstered the prosecution's contention that he was a serial killer. After a day of mild-mannered exchanges with assistant districtprosecutor Jack Mallard, he suddenly grew angry, calling Mallard a "fool" and labeling FBI agents "goons." "You want the real Wayne Williams?" he said. "You got him right here."

The jury of eight black and four white people deliberated only 12 hours before convicting Williams on two counts of murder in 1982. Adding to the lingering disquiet, after Williams' conviction, authorities said the fiber evidence linked him to 10 additional victims and shuttered the police task force. Now 60, Williams is serving life for the murders of two of the adult victims.

On the 40th anniversary of the Atlanta child murders, the story still haunts the city. Even people who weren't born during the crime spree still question whether Williams was responsible for most of the murders, and some wonder if other guilty parties have gone unpunished. For parents and relatives of the murdered children who never got their day in court, there is still no closure.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was 9 at the time of the crimes, announced at a press conference in March that she had ordered a new review in the cases, hoping modern technology might shed new light on them and help some still-grieving relatives find closure.

Atlanta child murders Wayne Williams
Police officers carrying shotguns provide tight security for Wayne Williams, as he is taken to court in 1981. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty

There is also renewed interest in the crimes in media and popular culture. The cases were featured in the second season of the Netflix series Mindhunter, and a three-hour documentary called The Atlanta Child Murders, which I appeared in, aired on Investigation Discovery in March. Regina Bradley, an assistant professor of English and African diaspora studies at Kennesaw State University who co-hosts Bottom of the Map, a podcast about Southern hip-hop, said in a recent episode dedicated to the cases that her introduction to the child murders was listening to a song called "Growing Pains," by the Atlanta rapper Ludacris, and argued that the crimes continue to haunt the genre. "It's like an introduction to a new generation about this trauma that's continuously evolving and reappearing in many different ways," she added.

Atlanta's time of growing terror and lingering trauma serves as a cautionary tale amid the current concern over home-grown terrorism. Terror might build slowly, but the carnage and the trauma are lasting.

Vern Smith, Newsweek's Atlanta bureau chief during the Atlanta child murders, is producing a movie about covering the cases as a reporter.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

40 Years After I Covered the Atlanta Child Murders, Trauma and Doubt Remain | Opinion | Opinion