Entertainment based on true crime isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly popular in 2019. The new series of David Fincher‘s Mindhunter will explore this kind of dark subject matter, but like all dramatic retellings of real-life atrocities, the horrors that inspired its creation shouldn’t be overlooked.
Season 2 will focus on the Atlanta Child Murders, which saw 29 African-American children, adolescents, and young adults fall victim to a serial killer between 1979 and 1981. It’s a disturbing case that offers little in the way of a definitive resolution, which is why it’s still being debated to this day.
The first murder can be traced back to July 1979, when the body of missing 14-year-old Edward Hope Smith was found in a vacant lot. He’d been shot. That same day, the corpse of another missing boy, Alfred James Evans, was discovered nearby, strangled.
Afterward, other children started disappearing in quick succession, only to turn up dead later on. The kids were mainly killed via strangulation and asphyxiation, although other causes of death varied from more shootings to bludgeoning.
Although some people believe that multiple perpetrators were responsible for the murders, the crimes were attributed to Wayne Williams, who was convicted in 1982 after being found guilty of killing 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater and 21-year-old Jimmy Ray Payne. He maintains his innocence to this day while serving two consecutive life sentences.
Williams was never actually charged with the majority of the murders, though. While prosecutors introduced evidence that linked him to some of them, his previous convictions were enough for the authorities to assume that he was the culprit and put the larger case to bed.
That said, there’s also reason to believe that the cases were closed for political reasons while other killers remained at large. The horrible events brought too much negative attention to a city that was gripped in panic, and risking more civil unrest was a risk the authorities weren’t willing to take.
“I am not judging the officers. I am saying with Wayne Williams being convicted, it allowed all these boxes to be sealed, even if there was nothing in them that tied the victim to Wayne Williams,” police chief Erika Shields told The New York Times earlier this year. “I think the investigators were under such political pressure that they were not allowed to do their jobs to the extent they could,”
At the same time, there was enough reported evidence to suggest that Williams was the killer. He was spotted crossing a bridge shortly after a splash was heard. Days later, a body was discovered in the river below, close to where another corpse had been found around the same time of the incident.
In addition to the eyewitness testimony at the bridge, investigators were able to connect dog hairs and carpet fibers found on the bodies of the victims to those in Williams’ house and car. Subsequent tests throughout the years confirmed these findings, without bringing any new information to light to suggest other theories. There are critics, however, who believe the evidence provided was flimsy at best.
According to Spin magazine, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had been conducting their own investigation into the murders at the time. The reports state that they discovered evidence tying members of the Ku Klux Klan to at least 15 of the killings, but they allegedly abandoned the case to avoid inciting a race war. Williams became a scapegoat as a result.
With Williams being Black, there was no reason for people to believe that the murders were race-related. Proponents of the theory covered in the Spin magazine piece, however, believe that the Klan planned to kill at least one Black child per day in a bid to start an “urban war” in the area.
The evidence gathered by the GBI included accounts from informants who overheard a man named Charles Sanders promising to kill 14-year-old Lubie Geter by strangling “with [his] dick.” The boy was discovered a few weeks later, strangled to death.
Sanders also allegedly told an informant that he and Williams had the same carpet and white German shepherd, which helped get him off the hook as the police dropped the probe into the Klan after they captured their culprit.
However, there’s more reason to believe that the Klan was responsible for at least some of the murders. Sanders’ brother, Don, was also a suspect after being recorded on a wiretap telling another white supremacist that he was going to find “another little boy.”
The Washington Post reported that the Sanders brothers passed polygraph tests, which absolved them of any involvement in the murders. But the authorities’ refusal to release any of the wiretapped conversations, coupled with reports of Charles Sanders admitting that the Klan was “creating an uprising among the Blacks,” leaves many questions unanswered.
In his book Mindhunter, former FBI profiler John E. Douglas argues that there was enough forensic evidence to link Williams to some of the murders, but not enough to indicate that he was responsible for the majority of them. Who’s to say that multiple killers weren’t behind the horrific events? Based on what we know about the Klan conspiracy, it’s not a far-fetched notion at all.
Maybe the future will provide some answers. Earlier this year, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms reopened the case to get to the bottom of it once and for all. The hope is that modern DNA technology will produce clearer results that will bring some much-needed closure to the families. Even if the results don’t provide new insights, at least the authorities will be able to move on knowing they tried.