Atlanta Police Reopen Child Murder Cases DeKalb County Police Chief Louis Graham has reopened investigations into five of 29 child murders that horrified Atlanta nearly a quarter-century ago. In late 1981, Wayne Williams was arrested and convicted of two of those slayings. He is now in prison serving a life sentence. Joshua Levs reports on why some in Atlanta believe justice was never served.

Atlanta Police Reopen Child Murder Cases

Atlanta Police Reopen Child Murder Cases

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DeKalb County Police Chief Louis Graham has reopened investigations into five of 29 child murders that horrified Atlanta nearly a quarter-century ago. In late 1981, Wayne Williams was arrested and convicted of two of those slayings. He is now in prison serving a life sentence. Joshua Levs reports on why some in Atlanta believe justice was never served.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Yesterday, the police chief of De Kalb County, Georgia, announced he'll reopen investigations into five cases dating back more than two decades. They were part of a notorious string of 29 killings known as the Atlanta Child Murders. Chief Louis Graham believes the murders were never solved, including those in his county east of Atlanta. He has also said the man convicted of two killings and blamed for most of the others is innocent. Wayne Williams was arrested and convicted of two of those murders in 1981. He's now serving a life sentence. After the trial, investigators said Williams killed the other 22 victims. There were no further trials and the cases remained dormant.

In a moment, we'll hear from the chief, but first, reporter Joshua Levs on the killings and the word from convicted murderer Wayne Williams.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

The string of killings between 1979 and 1981 claimed more than two dozen lives. All of the victims were black, most were under 18. Their bodies were found throughout the metropolitan Atlanta area.

Mr. JOSEPH DROLET (Former Prosecutor): They had obviously been killed somewhere else and they were being placed, like, along roadsides.

LEVS: Joseph Drolet was prosecutor for Fulton County which includes Atlanta. The cause of death was generally asphyxiation or strangulation, he says. He spreads out photographs of four young victims as they were found. All these years later, the images that shocked and captivated the nation are no less horrific, no less haunting.

Mr. DROLET: In many of these cases, too, the clothing had been removed and put back on. Some items of clothing are missing. Like, underwear was missing, things like that.

LEVS: Some bodies were dumped into rivers. Authorities linked 29 killings to what became known as the Atlanta Child Murders. Police and FBI investigators worked day and night but kept coming up empty, then a turning point. In the early morning hours of May 22nd, 1981, at the Jackson Parkway Bridge over the Chattahoochee River...

Mr. DROLET: Until Wayne Williams stopped on that bridge, nobody knew who was committing these crimes.

LEVS: Drolet says four officers were staking out the bridge that night and spotted Williams, a young entrepreneur and sometime journalist who worked with the media organizations around town. Drolet says Williams was driving on the bridge.

Mr. DROLET: And obviously dropped something from his vehicle. A splash was heard down below by the officer down below the bridge, and Williams' car was directly above with the lights on, stopped.

LEVS: He says two days later, the body of 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater washed up from the river and the killing seemed to match others. Authorities investigated Williams and what they found included one major piece of evidence that would play a huge role at the trial. Drolet says the victims had a very unusual fiber on them.

Mr. DROLET: That happened to be fiber that the carpet in the Williams home was made of.

LEVS: He says that and other evidence showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Williams was the killer. Williams was charged with murdering two adults. At the trial, authorities cited 10 other killings that included children and argued Williams was a serial killer. He was convicted of the two murders and authorities stopped investigating 22 others, determining he was behind them. Williams has always maintained his innocence.

Mr. WAYNE WILLIAMS: I couldn't have possibly been this, quote, unquote, "killer" lurking around in the darkness because if that was the case somebody would have spotted Wayne Williams from the jump.

LEVS: Williams spoke in February to Frank Ski of Atlanta's V-103 radio station. He disputed the authorities' accounts. Pointing to his slight stature, he said he could never have strangled or in some other way asphyxiated the two adults he was accused of killing and could not have thrown a body over the railing at the bridge. Williams says he did not stop on the bridge. His lead attorney Michael Lee Jackson.

Mr. MICHAEL LEE JACKSON (Attorney): Nobody saw Wayne stop on that bridge. So the inferential leap that it takes to say, `Well, he did and this is what happened,' and tie it to that body is really for me beyond belief.

LEVS: At the time, Williams told authorities he was in the area to see a woman. The name and number he gave them turned out to be either wrong or false and she was never found, but attorney Jackson says Williams never killed anyone. He argues the fiber in question was actually common and he says the jury never heard important evidence including some suggesting possible involvement of Ku Klux Klan members, but on appeal, courts ruled that had not determined the outcome of the case.

Mr. DROLET: It's just a mind-boggling decision.

LEVS: Former prosecutor Drolet, now Atlanta City court solicitor, says the KKK was investigated and no evidence was found implicating its members, but Williams argues that Atlanta authorities desperately wanted the case to be over and wanted the killer to be someone black to avoid severely damaging the city's reputation as welcoming and building racial harmony.

Mr. WILLIAMS: What they decided was that I probably made the most viable suspect. And common sense said that if they didn't arrest a black person, Atlanta wasn't going to be a city that had many buildings standing after a while.

LEVS: Former prosecutor Drolet says the killings stopped once Williams was arrested, but Williams' attorney, Jackson, insists it's possible the killings continued and authorities did not publicly link them. With De Kalb County planning to restart investigations into five cases, people on both sides say they look forward to the truth coming out.

For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta.

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