Between fire alarms, Carlos Askew and his team of firefighters knocked on doors near their southwest precinct stationthis afternoon, begging residents for any clues that might help solve the baffling slayings of 10 black children in thepast 15 months.
"Have you noticed anyone around here trying to force children into cars?" fireman Askew repeated at house after house. He left behind police questionnaires andphotographs of four children who remain missing.
I've been following it on TV and I'm really sorry it happened, but I haven't seen anything," said Lillian Jackson, a retired secretary, who sighed with relief that two grandchildren live outside the city. "But this [canvassing] should stop who orwhatever caused this horrible thing to happen. It's real frightening."
Askew's team was among the 50 fire-fighters and police officers in four southside precincts who began pounding the streets today in an unprecedented search effort for the "one little lead" that could solve the killings and put a nervous city at ease. Officials say 500 public safety personnel will eventually join in the search.
The black community has been deeply disturbed by the unsolved crimes, and an explosion at a day care center last Monday that killed four children and their teacher brought tensions close to the boiling point. The authorities said the explosion was an accident -- a faulty boiler touched off by poor maintenance -- but some Atlanta residents blamed the deaths on racial hatred. Many insisted it had to be a bomb.
"That was the immediate reaction all over the city -- that black people were under attack," said City Councilman Arthur Langford.
"The mood among blacks is, "There's something to be afraid of," said Billy McKinney, a state legislator whose district straddles poor and wealthy black neighborhoods. "We've seen the hearts cut out of black cab drivers in Buffalo, N.Y., and the KKK preparing for war -- incidents like this all over the country.
"We have no idea what's behind all these missing and dead children in Atlanta. But when you put the wholepicture together you have to conclude that black folks havesomething to worry about."
Black and white volunteers joined together Saturday to search for the missing children. They found a skull and small human bones in the neighborhood where a seven-year-old black girl was abducted from her homelast June. Police identified Latonya Wilson from dental records Sunday. A crowbar, sandals and a lock of hair with a green barette were found near the remains, say police.
The City Council today imposed a 90-day, 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for all children under 15 and added $20,000 to a reward fund that already exceeds $100,000 in contributions and pledges.
Officers and firefighters were asking citizens "to think back in the past when something may have happened that may not have been considered significant," said public safety commissioner Lee brown.
"Just one little lead and it could all come together," said Bill McKennney, an assistant toAtlanta's police chief. He pointed to New York's "Son of Sam" investigation, in which a traffic ticket led to the killer's arrest.
A special 21-man police task force using a computer to sort leads, suspects, tips and information said they have nothing solid so far. The only pattern police havedetermined in the slayings is that, almost like clockwork, a black child has disappeared every 3 1/2 weeks.
What is known is this: All the dead or missing children have been black, and, with the exception of two girls, a boy between eight and 15. Police say all the boys were about the same height, undersized for their age, with short cropped hair, baby faces and similar features. All were from low-income families who live in housing projects that dot the city. In several cases, an old-model, blue Chevrolet was spotted as the pickup car.
"I listened to the news and I can't help but cry about it," said Elsie Woodie, a retired Goodwill Industries employe who answered the fireman's knock. "If I see anyone doing anything, I'll do my best to stop 'em, scream and call the law."
"Well, now you've got a phone number," said Askew, handing her a questionnaire. "Just call this number if you see anything."
Police say Atlanta's criminal underground is funneling leads about the cases through a group of volunteers who organized a massive search effort last weekendthat led to the discovery of the 10th victim. Another massive search, which organizers hope will involve 800 volunteers, will fan out again this Saturday.
A well-known psychic, Dorothy Allison, of Nutley, N.J., has offered to assist police in the investigation. She said Monday that she has a picture of a suspect in her mind and will give that information to police when she arrives in Atlanta Tuesday.
Mayor Maynard Jackson has urged parents not to let their children go Hallowe'en trick or treating in an effort to reduce the possibility of another slaying. And radio and TV stations have been broadcasting public service messages urging children to be cautious.
"My mama told me to be real careful, don't take no money or get in no cars with strangers," said Teresa Brown, 9, who talked to a reporter on her way home from Cleveland Avenue Elementary today. She said she had been having nightmares "about these kids getting killed. Sometimes I get scared and cry. But that's what happens to kids who take things from strangers."
Leaders of white church and civic groups had urged their members to show their concern forthe anguish of the black community -- to write the parents of the dead children -- and join in the search. Many did soSaturday.
Mack Henderson, a search coordinator and former Army captain, said the volunteers have been receiving calls from criminals who want to help but fear being labeled as a "snitcher" if they give the information directly to police. "They feel the crimes are so heinous they want to do whatthey can to help," he said. "Somebody knows something in the criminal sector."