Review: “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered”
In 2020, HBO produced a miniseries, “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children”, about the killing of more than two-dozen black people, most of them male and most of them children, between the summer of 1979 and the summer of 1981, in Atlanta, Georgia. The series has its own themes and slant, which one can take or leave, but it makes a convincing case the legal process that “resolved” the issue was grievously flawed.
The Atlanta killings have been a subject of fascination in the way serial killings always are, with the lurid details lending themselves to various books, both non-fiction and novels, and to television, again both in documentary and fictional format, the most recent example of the latter being the Netflix series “Mindhunter”, where the second series in August 2019 had the killings as its main thread.
The Atlanta slayings also had a murder-mystery aspect that has only heightened the interest, because from the beginning—from the day then-24-year-old Wayne Williams was convicted in February 1982—there have been doubters, leading to the case being re-opened twice, for five of the murders in 2005 and all of them in 2020. This is not without reason.
For a start, Williams was only convicted for two of the twenty-nine Atlanta killings, and immediately there are two problems with this.
First, some counts of the killings list thirty cases, because they include 28-year-old John Harold Porter, who was found stabbed to death in April 1981. The twenty-nine number comes from the “Special Task Force on Missing and Murdered Children”, which involved the local police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), since the Atlanta story became a national issue, even drawing public comment from then-President Ronald Reagan.
Second and most obviously, Williams was convicted for only two murders—and two of the adult victims, Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, found in April 1981, and Nathaniel Cater, 27, found in May 1981. The prosecution implied at the trial that the murderer of the two men was the murderer of all the others, but that was not the verdict and with the closing of the files soon afterwards there never was a conviction for the child murders.
To summarise, the HBO series widens the list of “suspects” to include:
1. Wayne Williams
2. The Ku Klux Klan
3. Paedophile ring(s)
4. Mothers or partners thereof
5. Accidental death
The political atmosphere being as it now is, a lot of the focus is on (2), but it is not tendentious; there was a probe by the GBI into the Klan for some of the killings before the Task Force took over, decided on its list of twenty-nine linked killings, and ruled out the Klan theory. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, the notorious COINTELPRO, has a bad reputation because it went after Communist terrorists and Black Power radicals that have a measure of sympathy among academics and in the media, and because of wild misrepresentations of the FBI’s effort to get Martin Luther King to distance himself from Soviet agents within the Civil Rights Movement. What is left out of this story is that COINTELPRO’s most complete and lasting achievement was to destroy the Klan, and state bureaus like the GBI were doing the same thing.
The evidence for (4) is thinner: it was the initial suspicion of some investigating local policemen, and again the reasoning was plausible. A number of the children were neglected and, frankly, unwanted by their mothers, some of whom were involved in prostitution and/or successive relationships with men that likewise found the children inconvenient.
What “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” presents about (5) is essentially the defence case Williams put forward in 1982, casting doubt on homicide as the cause of death for Cater and claiming that Payne accidentally drowned while swimming in the Chattahoochee River, where the bodies had begun to be dumped by late 1980. HBO makes a visually compelling case, especially about Payne: the initial ruling on cause-of-death was indeterminate and he was found in shorts akin to swimming trunks, suggesting he entered the water himself, rather than being dumped there. The problem, left out of the show for obvious narrative reasons, is the inherent implausibility of this: as the prosecution pointed out in real time, nobody would go swimming in the Chattahoochee, least of all in April.
Where the defence were on firmer ground, as the show demonstrates, is in arguing that the case against Williams was not only weak, but might well have been rigged—by witness tampering and misrepresentations of the kind of certainty that could be obtained with the forensic technologies of the era.
Williams was from the get-go an implausible serial killer: an aspiring talent scout and music producer (bringing him into contact with a lot of children), he was 23-years-old at the time of conviction, slight in build, quite short, and in demeanour dorky and apparently inoffensive. The killings were mainly strangulations, a most physical means of murder. Six of the victims were legal adults; the idea this man had overpowered them seemed open to question, and then there was the physical strength needed to move dead weight and dump it over a bridge.
The forensic evidence presented against Williams, specifically the fibres that linked about ten of the murders, was basically voodoo: the prosecution relied considerably on jury ignorance when presenting the scale of the odds that what was found could only be connected to Williams. A number of the witnesses seem to have been coached—giving different testimony in court to what they had said when first interviewed—and then there was one of the key witnesses, ambulance driver Bobby Toland, who had worked with Williams and provided the prosecution’s explanation of the motive, portraying Williams as a kind of Social Darwinist targeting “lower class blacks”. Toland said he had been a member of the Klan (which might be true; Toland lied about a great deal) and was documented as having a personal animus against Williams.
For all that, though, even a mildly sceptical viewer is unlikely to come away agreeing with one of the victim’s mothers, who said that Williams, himself black, was the “thirtieth victim” of the killing spree. Rather, most will conclude that if Williams was framed, he was framed and guilty—but likely not of everything.
The Klan angle that is the focus of so much of the show’s alternative explanation for what happened clearly has merit. In effect, law-enforcement misread the pattern in both directions, initially by failing to detect one and then by the Task Force settling on a definition that was too broad, encompassing too many of the crimes, once they worked out that the suspect in a number of the cases had to be a black man. A pattern can be seen of young black boys abducted from the streets and found strangled or suffocated. Within the twenty-nine victims listed by the Task Force, however, there are obvious “pattern cases” that do not fit. Some victims were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death. There are two girls, 12-year-old Angel Lanier in March 1980 and 7-year-old LaTonya Wilson in June 1980, and Wilson was taken from her home. Perhaps most obviously, there are the adult victims: all of them were murdered in the March-May 1981 period, constituting six of the last seven victims; the exception was the second-to-last murder, that of William Barrett, who was 17.
The side-lining of the Klan line of inquiry is fraught because it is so very easy to believe that more than mere incompetence was involved. At its most malign, one can posit direct bias: a lot of the local police in Atlanta really had been members of the Klan. Somewhat less malign, and probably less conscious as a bias, were political considerations about the delicate racial politics of the city: to find it was a white predator could have been literally explosive. That said, the more direct political pressure was of a different kind: Maynard Jackson, the first black Mayor of Atlanta, was trying to make the city an example of the “New South” and did not want word getting around about a serial killer, a term of then-recent vintage, which could drive away investment. Jackson’s interference mattered more earlier on, when the issue was admitting that the killings were anything but random.
There was no mystery, then or now, about the Klan operatives likely to be involved. Don Sanders, the national secretary of Klan-front National States Right Party (NSRP), was from a family involved in the Klan, and had a distinctive facial scar that allowed several witnesses to identify him as having been near at least two of the children around the times they disappeared: 12-year-old Christopher Richardson, found in June 1980 and 14-year-old Lubie Geter, found in February 1981. Sanders was reported to have directly threatened Geter, in racialist terms, after the boy hit Sanders’ car with his go-cart.
It is clear, and not only from the show, that there was a shadow industry of paedophiles, with links to the newly-legalised “legitimate” pornography industry in Atlanta, which was preying on young black boys. The types of exploitation included having boys pose for naked pictures that were then sold and traded, and molestation.
Geter, Earl Terrell (10-years-old, found in July 1980), and Darron Glass (10-years-old, found in September 1980) were known to have been abused by a network of predators led by John David Wilcoxen and Frank Hardy, which was rolled up shortly before Williams’ arrest on 21 June 1981. Wilcoxen and his gang were ruled out as suspects because the huge cache of child pornography he was found with was recorded as only including white boys. It is the oddest part of the whole case that this seems not to be true: policemen who did the collection reported there being pictures of black children, which subsequently went missing before the pictures were logged into evidence.
Another of the victims, 13-year-old Timothy Hill, who was found dead in March 1981, was reportedly seen in the company of Thomas Terrell, a 63-year-old black man known as “Uncle Tom”, a known pederast whose house seems to have been visited by half-a-dozen or more of the other victims. Terrell’s house seems to have been the headquarters of a child sex ring, with accomplices named as Frankie Mealing (who possibly used the name Jerry Thornton) and Larry Marshall (a.k.a. Larry Hill). Whether the Wilcoxen and Terrell networks were linked, and if their crimes ever included murder, might never now be known.
The most disturbing section in the show is its recapitulation of the testimony of a 19-year-old Fred Cosby, who says he saw the manager of a local laundromat, James Brooks, and two other men, rape 13-year-old Clifford Jones and then strangle him to death in August 1980. Jones’ autopsy was consistent with this description of events and Brooks had previous convictions for sexual attacks on minors, but Cosby’s testimony was deemed not credible by police because of his mental incapacities. It was the murder of Jones, the thirteenth victim on the Task Force list, that catalysed the official reaction because it attracted so much outside attention: Jones was not an Atlanta native; his family lived in Cleveland, and he was only in town to visit his grandmother.
“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” puts forward its argument, while avoiding the temptations that vitiated the credibility of the Netflix series “Making a Murderer”, to make an excellent case that the investigation of the 1979-81 Atlanta killings was inadequate, and it seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the work of more than one murderer has been erroneously grouped together. At the end of it all, however, there is one nagging fact that will not go away: the last murder took place in late May 1981 and Williams was arrested in June 1981; the killings stopped after that.
Post has been updated