Atlanta Looks Into Old Child Murders The police department of suburban Atlanta's DeKalb County is actively investigating five unsolved murders of black children more than 20 years ago. They're among 22 murders long considered associated with the two murders Wayne Williams is serving a life sentence for committing. The murders of black boys between 1979 and 1981 were referred to at the time as the Atlanta Child Murders.

Atlanta Looks Into Old Child Murders

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Long before residents of Atlanta knew anything about Eric Rudolph, the city saw a string of disturbing murders. Between 1979 and 1981, 29 young black men and boys were killed. At the time, Atlanta had a fast-growing black population and its first African-American mayor. State and federal officials were called in to help solve the crimes. Ultimately, Wayne Williams, an African-American man in his early 20s, was convicted of two murders and linked in court to 10 others. But many in Atlanta never believed that Williams was guilty. After more than 20 years, one police chief has brought back a lot of painful memories in hopes of finding some new evidence in the cold cases. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

In February 1981, Curtis Walker was missing. He'd come home after school and left with his brother to go down to the local grocery store. Curtis was trying to make a few bucks carrying bags out to cars for those who wanted help. But his mom, Catherine Leach(ph), said her 13-year-old son never came home that day and was missing for three weeks.

Ms. CATHERINE LEACH (Victim's Mother): It was just like a nightmare at my place at that time. Most of what I can remember--and mostly my sister--she did mostly talking for me because I had lost my voice. I couldn't talk no more. It was just like a movie were going on there at my place, you know? I walked the floor for three weeks.

LOHR: Speaking quietly, eyes tired, Leach remembers a neighbor called to tell her that she thought her son's body was being pulled out of the river and that it was being shown on television. She ran to the TV to watch.

Ms. LEACH: I didn't want it to be him. I knew something were going on, but I didn't really want it to be him. And about an hour later or two hours later, Maynard Jackson and another guy came to the house to let me know that that was Curtis that they pulled out of the water.

LOHR: Atlanta's black community looked up to their first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, one of many of the city's officials commanding every resource to find the killer, but it was taking way too long. The murders had been going on for more than two years. A pattern had emerged, according to police. The victims went willingly. They were first young, black boys and then young, black men. Their bodies were dumped along busy roadsides out in the open and later in the river. Some were missing clothes; many died of asphyxiation.

Reverend JOSEPH LOWRY: Fear stalked the community--anger, frustration.

LOHR: Reverend Joseph Lowry was then head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Rev. LOWRY: All of the emotions were there, and one of the things that inspired us to talk about turning to each other rather than on each other because people became so nervous, you know, about it, and we didn't know who to trust and who not to trust. So it was a haunting period, a period when every shadow appeared hostile and forboding.

LOHR: For law enforcement, it was no less frustrating. More than 100 Atlanta police officers were working on the investigation. Thousands of witnesses were interviewed, leads were followed, tip lines were set up. Psychics tried to help. There were suspicions that the Klan was involved. Then the state and the federal government were brought in. Joseph Drolet was an assistant district attorney in Fulton County and a prosecutor.

Mr. JOSEPH DROLET (Former District Attorney and Prosecutor): You know, everybody was involved, you know? The federal government was involved, you know, the vice president had been here. There were teams of investigators that had been brought in, you know, from Canada and all over the United States, you know, and experts and detectives of every kind. And they would come here, and they would work for a couple months, and nobody could figure out how this was happening until the incident on May 22nd at the bridge.

LOHR: On May 22nd, 1981, Drolet says law enforcement teams, who had been surveilling every bridge in the metro area, found their suspect, Wayne Williams, on the Jackson Parkway Bridge. Williams was driving on the bridge without his headlights on. An officer heard a splash in the Chatahoochee River below. Williams' explanation for why he was on the bridge did not check out. Two days later, the body of Nathaniel Cater washed up on a river bank, and prosecutors began building their case against Williams. It was largely based on fiber evidence, fibers that Drolet says were found on many of the bodies, special carpet fibers and bedspread fibers that were unique.

Mr. DROLET: It's probably the best fiber case that there has ever been, you know, as far as in the criminal justice system anywhere. In this case, because of the numbers of fibers, the uniqueness of certain fibers, the combinations of fibers and changing fibers, three experts--you know, one from Canada, one from the FBI and our own expert--said it is impossible, you know, virtually impossible that these fibers could come from any other environment except the environment of Wayne Williams.

LOHR: The fiber evidence, the bridge incident and circumstantial evidence led to the trial and conviction of Wayne Williams for the murder of two adult victims. Ten other murders were tied to Williams as pattern cases under Georgia law. At the end of the trial, Atlanta's public safety commissioner Lee Brown told reporters police had cracked the case.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. LEE BROWN (Public Safety Commissioner): With the conviction of Wayne Williams, we have reviewed all of the evidence that's present today. And as a result, we've cleared 23 cases, and these cases are cleared based upon the evidence that we have on them.

Unidentified Reporter: (Unintelligible)... do you believe that Wayne Williams committed 23 murders?

Mr. BROWN: Yes, we do.

LOHR: Williams maintains he is innocent. He is still in prison more than 20 years later. At least one key figure who believes in that innocence, De Kalb County police Chief Louis Graham, announced this spring that he was setting up a new cold case task force to work five of the murders that happened in his jurisdiction.

Chief LOUIS GRAHAM (De Kalb County Police Chief): We will vigorously and objectively interview and review all the facts and circumstances surrounding these unsolved murders.

There is some truth out there. And I'm hoping that we can follow that and finally get some justice for this young man and these parents, you know? And, you know, since I've been following these cases all these years, I need some closure also. You know, I need closure because this thing has haunted me for over 20 years.

LOHR: Chief Graham says the fiber evidence produced at trial is not conclusive and calls the other evidence used to tie Wayne Williams to the young victims shaky at best.

Chief GRAHAM: I'm looking for the real killer. That's what I'm looking for.

LOHR: Defense attorneys have asked the courts three times to determine whether Williams got a fair trial. The latest effort is in federal court. One of Williams' attorneys, Jack Martin, says it's Williams himself who is most anxious for the old evidence, blood and fibers, to be tested using new science, including DNA.

Mr. JACK MARTIN (Williams' Defense Attorney): Especially with new techniques that weren't available back at the time, scientific techniques. But, you know, sometimes witnesses just don't come forward for many years. And, quite frankly, once the prosecution in this case, the law enforcement, fixed on Wayne Williams, they just let every other lead go cold. One of the biggest problems with law enforcement sometimes is once they believe they got the right person, they try to make the evidence fit that person, and they ignore all other leads. It's time those leads be checked out.

LOHR: The parents of the boys who were killed say they're behind the new investigation. Catherine Leach says she never thought Wayne Williams killed her 13-year-old boy.

Ms. LEACH: It's something that I've been praying for for years, to get some kind of justice 'cause 23, 25 years ago--I can look back at nothing but hell and chaos that I had to live with that for that many years. And it finally come to pass that I feel in my heart that I'm going to get justice.

LOHR: De Kalb County police Chief Louis Graham says he doesn't think he'll find the answers he and the parents are searching for in the overwhelming boxes of evidence from the past. Instead, he says it will come from ferreting out new clues, even if that takes resources and some time. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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