Four years ago, terror prowled this gleaming capital of the New South and horrified a nation: black children were turning up murdered, and no one could stop it. Mothers balked at letting kids play outside. Volunteers spent weekends hunting new clues in the woods.
Armed with baseball bats, ghetto residents formed "bat patrols." Children packed knives and guns to school -- in case they met "The Snatcher."
The murders baffled police: Most of the victims were boys, poor, black and street-wise. Most had been strangled, but there were no weapons, no witnesses, no murder scenes.
Then Wayne Williams, a 23-year-old self-styled music promoter, was arrested and convicted of two in the string of 29 murders. He drew two life terms in February 1982. Police linked him to more than two dozen other deaths and shut the books. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed, and an anxious city got back to business. The tragedy was over.
Now the tragedy is back via a CBS-TV movie, "The Atlanta Child Murders," that has rekindled angst and public furor here. Scheduled to air tonight and Tuesday night during a crucial TV ratings period, it does what a black judge and largely black jury failed to do: it acquits Williams and indicts Atlanta for making him a scapegoat.
After screening the two-part movie, written by Abby Mann, local officials declared war on CBS and last week jetted to New York to seek redress. "They distorted the facts in the interest of drama," said Mayor Andrew Young, point man for the task force. "The courts ruled, now CBS overrules! Atlanta is being sacrificed on the altar of TV ratings."
To placate locals, CBS agreed to advise viewers that the $8 million mini-series is a drama "based on certain facts," not a documentary, and to preface it with a warning to parents. After a prosecutor ticked off a list of dramatic liberties taken with the facts, sources said, CBS also promised to delete three words of trial testimony never spoken by a county medical examiner.
But the network defended its movie as "fair and balanced," even as local talk shows were doing a brisk business in outrage, and black leaders fumed at their depiction as insensitive toward the inner-city poor. City council members even conjured a local war powers act, urging the mayor to take any measure to "obtain relief" from CBS. And on Friday, he fought back, dispatching telegrams to the nation's top 100 advertisers, suggesting that sponsors who hawked their products on the broadcasts would not be regarded kindly in the local marketplace.
School officials passed out 100,000 pamphlets counseling parents on how to cope with reopening their children's old wounds. Hot lines, staffed by mental health workers, were to be manned during broadcasts. And locals kept trekking to the local CBS affiliate for previews, free Cokes and pique.
Declared juror Walter Brown Jr., after watching the movie: "It was not the same trial I sat in on. I feel very good about my verdict."
"It was just not an accurate portrayal," added Clarice Butler, 36, a juror who found CBS guilty of distorting courtroom chemistry, making prosecution witnesses seem less credible and tempering Williams' outburst on the stand.
"The person in that movie was not the same person on trial," she said. "You can get an actor to act any way you want."
Responded Abby Mann, a veteran screenwriter and "Kojak" creator who sat in on only part of the trial: "If I'm guilty of anything, it was being too kind to the prosecution." He fired back last week on the "CBS Morning News," along with coproducer Gerald Rafshoon, the Carter White House media adviser.
Had Rafshoon, a former Atlanta adman, heard he was persona non grata on Peachtree Street nowadays? Would he ever be coming home again without a bulletproof vest? "Let's just say I'm certainly not going to jaywalk or double-park like I used to," he quipped.
Indeed, CBS was in a no-lose situation: headlines begat hype; hype begat Megahype. Even movie stars weighed in as experts. "I thought he was guilty until I read the script," said Jason Robards, who plays defense lawyer Alvin Binder. Even ABC fueled a rival's circus with a "Nightline" segment on the rehash.
"Every time we attack the movie, we just invite more people to watch it," said city councilman John Lewis, begging for calm. "Why boost the ratings?"
The nightmare began on a hot, cloudy day, July 28, 1979, but it would take more than a year before Atlanta realized it was having more than a bad dream. An old lady hunting beer cans stumbled on a body. It was lying face down, shirtless and barefoot, a small gold chain about the neck, a $1 bill in a pocket. She ran for help.
The body was that of Alfred Evans, 13, last seen three days earlier leaving a kung fu movie on Peachtree Street. He'd been strangled. A police officer bending over him smelled a rank odor nearby and found another body. That kid was 14; he'd been killed with a .22 slug. Both victims were poor and black. Police wrote the deaths off as drug-related.
Other bodies began to turn up: Milton Harvey, 14, strangled; Yusuf Bell, 9, strangled; Angel Lanier, 12, strangled, raped and tied to a tree. Then Jefferey Mathis, 10, vanished.
Their mothers were angry and frustrated and started a support group, keeping pressure on officials to attack the cases together. Camille Bell, the only mother hired as a paid consultant for the movie, was perhaps the most strident. She accused police of ignoring the children because they were poor.
"It takes a lot to get people concerned about a child out of the ghetto," she said.
Another boy was found beaten to death. One vanished on the way to go swimming. A girl, age 7, was mysteriously abducted from her bed while her family slept. A boy fell off a railroad trestle, or was he pushed? Another boy was stabbed to death and found in a dumpster.
It was a year after the first body turned up when police hinted at a possible link among the killings -- a theory advanced by the mothers for months. More bodies were found. Then a gas boiler exploded at a housing project, killing four black children. It was an accident, totally unrelated to the murders, but locals booed Maynard Jackson, the city's first black mayor, in an outburst that only hinted at the depth of fear and loathing.
Many figured the killer (or killers) had to be a white racist. But how could he move about black neighborhoods undetected? Could he be someone they trusted or knew? Maybe he was picking up the kids in drag. Could it be a cop?
The reward fund hit $150,000. A New Jersey psychic boasting of visions of the killer was a bust. Lee Brown, the public safety chief, said he thought there was more than one killer. Some parents became suspects. A task force of federal, state and local police ballooned to 125, as a nation donned black ribbons in memory of the dead children.
As donations poured in, disputes over mishandled funds erupted. One mother was reported to have used the group's money for a "tummy tuck" operation. But there were no clues. CBS contacted Rafshoon, who aimed to show how the city pulled together to catch a killer. But local officials rebuffed him, and later, he says, his concept changed as his partner, Abby Mann, began to investigate.
Meanwhile, young boys were disappearing from shopping centers. Police dispatched decoys to stake them out. A few of the victims were found shot or stabbed, but most were strangled, their bodies laid out as if the killer wanted them found. Crime lab technicians kept finding fibers, or threads, on the bodies, but they didn't know what it meant -- yet.
Then the press reported the fiber news and the pattern changed: victims began turning up naked in rivers dotting the city. The killer was trying to wash off evidence, police theorized, but threads still stuck. And as a curfew kept youngsters off the street, the victims got older -- and police started bridge stakeouts.
"I just heard a splash," radioed a recruit on duty beneath the Jackson Parkway Bridge at 2:40 a.m. May 22, 1981, as Wayne Williams crept slowly across in his family's white station wagon. Police pulled him over. On his seat were bags of old clothes, along with fur-lined gloves and a nylon rope -- props absent from the CBS movie.
"This is about those boys, isn't it?" he asked. He was nervous. Williams told the police he was on his way to a night club to meet a singer named Cheryl Johnson. However, investigators who pursued the singer to an address Williams gave them said no one by that name lived there, nor did a telephone number Williams had for her check out. Two days later, he became a suspect after the nude body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, a day laborer with a drinking problem, washed up downstream near the spot where Jimmy Ray Payne was recovered a month earlier.
Payne, 23, was a convicted burglar who yearned to be a singer. Wayne Williams, a self-styled music promoter, was always looking for talent, scouting schools for the next Stevie Wonder, promising to make kids stars. But those he knew in the music business say he had a tin ear; none of his acts ever made a record.
He lived with his parents, an only child spoiled by two retired schoolteachers. He was a confident, near-brilliant young man who also stalked fame and fortune as a TV cameraman, always hustling on the fringe of professions he admired.
He liked to roam the city by night, his police radio scanner crackling with midnight murders and wrecks, chasing ambulances and accidents to film. But his work was never good enough to get him hired full time. He had more chutzpah than talent.
Yet, to hear Wayne Williams tell it, he was a big man in both the media and entertainment world. And after he became a suspect, he passed out his re'sume' at a press conference. It, too, was full of hype.
After he was stopped, he managed to wash out his car, scrub down his room and burn photographs and papers in a back-yard barbecue pit before police got a search warrant, says Lee Brown, now Houston's police chief.
"Our biggest mistake was not arresting him on the bridge and searching his car," he says. "We never did recover the sacks of clothes," which police presumed belonged to the victims. Police tore apart his room, and found a blackjack hidden in the ceiling.
Back at the crime lab, the puzzle began to fall into place. More than 700 fibers plucked from Cater, Payne and 10 other victims, later introduced at the trial to show a "pattern," matched fibers from Williams' green bedroom carpet, a blue bathmat, green carpet squares in a workroom, carpeting from his car, glove lining, threads from his bedspread -- and a yellow blanket that disappeared after a June 3, 1981, FBI search of his home. Dog hairs from the victims resembled hair from Sheba, his ailing German shepherd.
At the trial, prosecutors portrayed him as a frustrated Jekyll and Hyde, a crime buff rebuffed for jobs by the police and by TV stations, a near-genius who loathed poor black kids. "Isn't it true that this was your center stage, your greatest challenge, a contest between you and the police?" needled Jack Mallard, the drawling Fulton County assistant district attorney.
"You must be a fool," said Williams, his cool persona finally cracking under rapid-fire questions. It was the first time in two days on the stand that the jury of eight blacks and four whites glimpsed a temper that prosecutors say proved him capable of strangling Cater and Payne and tossing their bodies in the river -- a tantrum absent in the movie.
"Nobody saw me do anything," said Williams, professing innocence. "Nobody saw me kill anybody."
Indeed, prosecutors had to rely on a mountain of circumstantial evidence. Witnesses placed Williams with seven victims, including Cater and Payne. One testified he saw Williams holding hands with Cater before he vanished. He was also linked by tiny fibers, with experts trotting out elaborate charts to support the notion that so many similar fibers being found in two places was more than chance.
And two bloodstains in the back seat of his station wagon matched blood types on two victims. But how could such a rotund young man heft so much weight? One witness testified to muscles beneath the fat, that she had once watched him lift heavy boxes. He read karate magazines. He knew pressure points. All that came out at the trial.
After his arrest, similar murders came to a halt, said Lewis Slaton, the Fulton County district attorney portrayed by actor Rip Torn. "The killer is in jail. We were expecting a copycat, but fortunately one didn't show." And he was found guilty of killing Cater and Payne.
As for the movie's contention he helped "railroad" Williams, Slaton smiled his Cheshire cat grin: "They have taken liberties with the facts to make it entertaining. If it were any other way, I suppose it would not sell."
"I'm delighted about the furor" over the movie, said Abby Mann, carting the hypeorama to Boston last week for a Harvard Law School forum. "People don't understand this case. Andy Young doesn't have any conception of it."
Indeed, what some legal scholars dispute is the weight given fiber evidence to convict Williams. While experts agree that analysis of fibers and hair remains an inexact science, such "trace" evidence has been used in court for decades to bolster other evidence. The more distinctive the fiber, the more there is to say about a match.
One prosecution witness was Larry Peterson, a microanalyst with the Georgia crime laboratory. He found "no significant microscopic difference" between a green fiber from Williams bedroom carpet and a green fiber taken from Cater's hair.
He detailed other curious matches: a violet fiber plucked from Williams' bedspread matched one from Cater's hair; "two or three" fibers vacuumed from his car matched fibers in Cater's hair; "three or four" dog hairs from the victim's head were "microscopically consistent" with hair from Williams' dog.
But Mann remains "terribly distressed at the use of unsupported fiber evidence. Usually fibers are used as supportive evidence. Here it was the mainstay."
Prosecutors counter that the 700 fibers were important, but only when stirred into the whole pot of circumstance.
"All the evidence was important," says Clarice Butler, a juror, "from the testimony about his character, his behavior when people saw him with different kids and how he acted between the time they disappeared until they turned up dead.
"People say we shouldn't have thought about the fibers," she goes on, "but it was no coincidence all that stuff was leading back to Williams . I don't believe someone could pluck a fiber from this brown suit I have on and make it match fibers found on those bodies."
Nonetheless, Hollywood serves up its own version. In the movie, defense lawyer Binder, played by Jason Robards, urges Williams to get mad on the stand.
"That's a damn lie," said the real-life Binder.
Said Mann: "I guess it's not word for word, but that's the spirit of it."
On the screen, a white racist cop browbeats the mother of slain child Chris Richardson.
The scene is fiction, said the mother, Sirlena Cobb.
Said Mann: "That's rather a composite picture. Such things happen to other mothers."
And the movie shorts the fiber evidence, says assistant Fulton County district attorney Joe Drolet.
Consider the cross-examination of Peterson in the film, he says.
"Did you search the Falcon Hotel [where Cater lived] for fibers?" Peterson is asked.
"No," he admits sheepishly. Omitted is an FBI fiber expert who testified to spending six hours scouring the room.
"State witnesses look sheepish, ashamed, caught in traps, none of which fits my recollection of the trial," says Drolet, who detailed how the movie also omits key testimony from police who saw Williams start his car from a stopped position on the bridge. After the splash was heard, lights came on and his car snaked slowly across the bridge.
"The movie skips that entirely," says Drolet. "They make it sound like he wasn't in a position to throw a body off. But witnesses testified that he was stopped and [measured] 31 inches from the tailgate of his Chevy to the top of the rail. He could easily have flipped a body over. He selectively edits."
Responds Mann: "I did selectively edit it -- in favor of the prosecution. I was far too kind."
In the movie, private detective Chet Dettlinger (played by Martin Sheen) is shown as a heroic underdog, crucial to the defense team, whose dogged pursuit for justice led him to quit the Atlanta police. "His conflict with the new administration had him out on the street, but in his heart, he would always be a cop," says a narrator. Dettlinger was a paid consultant to the film.
Once a police bureaucrat here, he left the department in 1974, when his federal grant expired -- five years before the killings began. During the crisis, he was a free-lance investigator of questionable value to the defense, say defense lawyers. Then he began touting such theories as one that states that the murders have yet to stop -- a notion disputed by county morgue records -- and coauthored a book about the case.
Says Mann: "Atlanta police dispute that [Dettlinger] had a good reputation, but a lot of people don't."
Beyond hype, Mann relished an account one week before the movie debut of a Georgia Supreme Court justice who contended Williams got an unfair trial. In a draft opinion before the court outvoted him and upheld the verdict 6-1, Justice Richard Bell argued that Williams' conviction should have been reversed.
The state's top court has one of the highest rates in the nation for affirming criminal convictions, and one of the highest reversal rates by federal courts of any state supreme court, says Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. "It is certainly not one of our more distinguished guarantors of justice."
Bell disputed the trial judge's allowing prosecutors to link Williams to five murders in addition to the two with which he was charged. No questions were raised about Williams' having been linked to another five murders.
Allowing those 10 "pattern" cases to be introduced gave prosecutors running room to trot out evidence in related killings without actually indicting Williams for those murders. "It had a hellacious effect," says defense attorney Binder. Such "pattern" evidence is commonly allowed in rape cases.
Says juror Brown: "Even if they had not been introduced, my verdict would have been the same."
Yet, valid doubts nag. Some wonder if there really was enough evidence to convict. And even some mothers of slain children who believe Williams a killer agonize over whether he actually killed their child. Most want the cases for which he was blamed but not convicted reopened -- so he can stand trial for them. Six cases remain officially unsolved.
"Yes, I believe Wayne killed Cater and Payne," says Annie Hill, mother of Timothy Hill, strangled at 13. "But they were grown men. I want to know who killed them 28 children. We ain't got no justice. It's a bitter pill to swallow."
And Willie Mae Mathis believes Williams killed her son, Jefferey. She says her daughter saw him driving down their street shortly after he disappeared. But that case is among the unsolved. "I don't give a damn about the image of the city," she says. "It was darkened for me when the murders went on so long."
"There are a lot of questions that won't blow away because it's upsetting to Atlanta," says Binder. "What was the motive? What eyewitness ever saw anybody killed?"
Law enforcement officials say fibers and other evidence link Williams to other cases, but lack enough to convict. "We tried the strongest cases," says Slaton.
Should more evidence turn up, says George Napper, Atlanta's public safety commissioner, "those that were closed can always be opened."
But rumors still run wild: conspiracy buffs hint at a kiddy porn ring starring Williams as chief procurer for unnamed fat cats. And some even whisper that the murders haven't stopped. "That's hogwash," says R. E. Stivers, the bearded Fulton County medical examiner. Since Williams' arrest, no similar style killings remain unsolved, he says.
Four 1984 murders of youths under 15 were solved last year, when some 90 black males over twenty years old were also slain. Of those cases, nine out of ten were solved. Police are tracking suspects in the rest, he says.
Many here wonder if there could have been an accomplice, perhaps even another killer. Even Mayor Young subscribes to that theory. "I feel the older [victims] were his accomplices," he says. "That's always been my hunch."
Says Napper: "There may be some questions we may never be able to answer: whether someone else may have done it with him, even helped him; how some victims were killed, where they were killed.
"But unanswered questions are not unique to this case. There were congressional investigations into the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. And people still have questions."