FOLLOW-UP

Atlanta’s long nightmare

Bob Levine March 11 1985
FOLLOW-UP

Atlanta’s long nightmare

Bob Levine March 11 1985

Atlanta’s long nightmare

FOLLOW-UP

Bob Levine

Annie Rogers remembers. She remembers how, on Nov. 10, 1980, her 16-year-old son, Patrick, walked his brother to an Atlanta bus stop and never came home. And she remembers how, 27 days later, Patrick’s clothed body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River, another victim for the growing police list of murdered or missing young blacks. Now, following the controversial CBS TV movie The Atlanta Child Murders, she is glad that the rest of America is remembering too. “Atlanta officials keep talking about the picture opening up old wounds,” said Rogers, 40. “But how can you open up old wounds when they’ve never been closed?” For Atlanta, the sensational slayings that took place from 1979 to 1981 are a human tragedy, a civic rebuke, a recurring nightmare. Officially, the nightmare ended on Feb. 27,1982, when a 12member jury found Wayne Williams, a 23-year-old would-be music promoter, guilty of two of the 28 murders investigated by a special task force; with his

conviction, police also closed the book on 21 of the other killings, attributing them to Williams.

But with no confession and no eyewitnesses, doubts lingered. Annie Rogers and other victims’ mothers have repeatedly petitioned authorities to reopen their children’s cases. And now the docudrama—which many critics nationwide called distorted and irresponsible—has insinuated that Williams was railroaded, “a sacrificial lamb on the altar of the good name of Atlanta.” City leaders tried to discredit the film with a media blitz. But they could not calm the most nagging fear of some Atlantans. “I don’t think Wayne could have done all those killings,” said Lillian King, a black clerk typist with an 18-year-old son. “I really believe there is still a killer out there somewhere.”

When the bodies of the youths began to turn up in various secluded spots in July, 1979, police gradually noted a pattern: the victims were young, black, streetwise, from poor or broken homes mostly in south Atlanta; many had been asphyxiated. But neither the specially formed task force nor the FBI nor psychics and “supercops” from around the country could crack the case. Fear spread in the city: some Atlanta children started bedwetting; vigilantes patrolled the streets.

Many observers speculated that the killer was a white racist madman, but when a police stakeout team heard a suspicious splash in the Chattahoochee River one night in May, 1981, the car they found on the bridge above was driven by the pudgy, black Williams. Police tailed Williams for one month before charging him with the murder of Nathaniel Cater, 28, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, both of whose bodies were found downstream.

The case hung literally by a thread: experts said that traces of fibres and dog hairs clinging to the victims matched samples taken from carpets, bedspreads and other sources in Williams’s home and car. The prosecution also introduced evidence linking Williams—without actually charging him —with the murders of 10 more young blacks which followed a similar pattern to those of Cater and Payne. Witnesses said that they had seen the defendant in the company of some of those victims, and the prosecutor painted him as a “Jekyll and Hyde” split personality bent on purifying the black race. Williams denied all of it, and his lawyers argued that the evidence was purely circumstantial. But after nine weeks of testimony the jury found Williams guilty of both murders, and the judge sentenced him to two consecutive life terms in prison.

Although the TV movie is not the first expression of doubt about the Williams

verdict, it is certainly the most conspicuous—and controversial. The five-hour docudrama used some real names and actual trial testimony while inventing other characters and dialogue. In a series of press appearances, the film’s writer and coproducer, Abby Mann, insisted that his portrayal was balanced. The movie paints some Atlanta police officers as incompetent or uncaring and depicts then-mayor Maynard Jackson as more concerned with protecting convention business than with the murder of children. And it strongly suggests that the city was so desperate for a scapegoat that it convicted an innocent man.

After seeing a preview of the film, Atlanta leaders were incensed. Once best known for its flaming destruction in Gone With the Wind, Atlanta has grown into a proud and thriving metropolis with over two million people. Billing itself as “the city too busy to hate,” it emerged from the civil rights struggle of the 1960s to become the symbol of racial progress, a black-governed city of gleaming skyscrapers, the undisputed capital of the New South. The killing of poor blacks mocked that newfound image, and the TV movie seemed nothing less than an indictment. The Atlanta city council charged that the film “greatly transgresses the bounds of decency and fair play,” and many officials said it patronized blacks. Some threat-

ened to sue CBS. Eventually, Mayor Andrew Young led a delegation to CBS headquarters in New York, where the network agreed to air an advisory saying the movie is “not a documentary but a drama based on certain facts.”

In reality, critics contend, the filmmakers shamelessly manipulated those facts—or simply omitted them, such as the blood stains found in Williams’s car which matched the blood types of two victims. But more significant is the movie’s open ridiculing of the fibre evidence. Experts catalogued 700 matches between fibres taken from 12 victims and those from Williams’s environment.

Barry Gaudette, an RCMP forensic scientist in Ottawa who travelled to Atlanta in 1981 to help Georgia experts examine fibres collected in the Williams case, maintains that the sheer number and unusual combinations of matched fibres make it “nearly certain” that there was an association between Williams and the victims. Said Gaudette: “It is about as good fibre evidence as you would ever hope to get.” Atlanta police also reject the film’s implication that the slaying spree did not end after they started tailing Williams. The city has certainly experienced more murders since then, says Public Safety Commissioner George Napper, but “there has been nothing that fits the pattern associated with Wayne Williams.”

Still, such assurances are not entirely comforting to those most traumatized by the murders and the movie’s re-enactment: Atlanta’s children. During the film’s showing, calls poured into a special mental-health hotline in Atlanta, many from parents, but others directly from children. “We could detect hysteria in some of the children’s voices,” said Mary Phillips, one of the school psychologists who manned the phones. “They were trembling or shrill, about to cry.” For his part, Wayne Williams, now 26, remains imprisoned at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center outside Jackson, Ga., where he does clerical work and reportedly watched the movie with other inmates. He will be eligible for parole in June, 1988, but he is unlikely to receive it so soon. Although the Georgia Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 1983, Williams has continued to maintain his innocence and his current attorney, Lynn Whatley, is preparing an appeal to the U.S. district court in Atlanta, challenging the fibre evidence and the introduction in court of 10 other murders. The TV movie, he says, can only help his cause. “The issues have been reraised,” Whatley said. “The world is looking at it. I believe we will win.” Win or lose, Williams’s appeal—and the continuing questions surrounding the case—are sure to mean more agony for Atlanta.