The parents of 13 of the 16 missing or murdered children sat shoulder to shoulder in the front row of the Wheat Street Baptist Church as gospel music rocked the aisles. Some wept quitely. Others swayed with the 3,000 people who turned out Saturday night for the $5-a-head revival benefit.
"We're here to let you know we love you, we grieve for you," shouted Sister Minnie (Happy Lady) Porter, a gospel deejay. Later, after concert expenses were deducted in back and the money divvied up, the families paraded on stage, to applause, to get their cut, grateful to be taking home $90 each. Some hadn't had enough money to pay for their children's funerals.
A few miles away, police were wrapping up a search through the woods where two children's skeletons had been found the day before. The remains, identified today as two of the missing children, brought the official count in the rash of child murders to 13. The discovery stirred fresh anxiety in a city where a black child has been vanishing, on the average, every four weeks for the past 18 months. Three children are still missing; the last vanished from a shopping center Jan. 3.
All of the victims have been black. All were children of poverty, and all ranged in age from 7 to 15. All but two were boys, and all were bright, small for their age, light skinned, and street-wise.
It was cloudy and 91 degress on July 28, 1979 when a woman, hunting aluminum cans near the local fairgrounds, spied what she thought was a dead animal in a trash dump off the raod.
It was Alfred James Evans, 13. He was lying face down, shirtless and barefoot, his black slacks held up by a black belt, a small gold chain about his neck, a $1 bill in his pocket. He'd been strangled. Friends last had seen him three days earlier, on the way to a Kung Fu movie on Peachtree Street.
A terrible odor emanated from the vines nearby and the officer, who'd just found Evans, couldn't ignore it. He searched through the underbrush and, 150 feet away, came upon Edward Hope Smith, 14. He'd been shot with a .22, the pockets of his black pants were turned inside out. Police wrote off the killins as drug-related and almost forgot them. Later, police determined they had disappeared five days apart and they were included in the missing children case.
Then came Milton Harvey, 14, stangled, found in an advanced state of decomposition, Nov. 5, 1979.
Three days days later, Yusuf Ali Bell, 9, was found strangled and stuffed in a crawlspace in a boarded-up school about four blocks from the dingy, redbrick housing project where he lived with his mother, Camille an older brother and two younger sisters. He was number four.
"The whole neighborhood cried 'cause they loved that child," said a project resident. "He was God-gifted."
Indeed, Yusuf was a wily, quickwitted, near brilliant youngster who seemed destined to climb from his depressed surroundings on brain-power alone. At the corner market, grownups would collar the fifth grader to help balance their checkbooks, treating him more like a walking encyclopedia than the kid who wanted to be a gymnast.
"If you wanted to know how to spell something, you'd just ask him, and he'd tell you," recalled George Freeman. "He knew math and history, what was what and how to do it. He was somebody like Abraham Lincoln."
Angel Lanier, 12, died next. She was found strangled, raped and tied to a tree March 10, blocks from her apartment. Her mother, Venus Taylor, 32, a recent emigre from Chicago's South Side who came south because Angel wanted to live around trees, got nervous when her daughter didn't show up after school to watch her favorite TV show, "Sanford and Son." She reported Angel missing to Atlanta police March 4.
Daily, Taylor had begged police to classify Angel a crime victim, so the news media would run her picture. The y refused, she says, telling her that Angel was most certainly a runaway. She cried at the station, cursing police and raising such a ruckus she was threatened with jail, she says Then, six days after she reported her daughter missing, Angel's body was found. She was number five.
The next day, Jeffrey Mathis, 10, disappeared.
Children were dying, and no one noticed, except their mothers.
In May, Camille Bell, Venus Taylor, Angel Lanier's mother, and Willie May Mathis, Jeffery's mother, met at a benefit for Atlanta cabdrivers and found they shared sorrow and a feeling of helplessness. As a remedy, they organized a support group for mothers of missing and murdered children, christening it "The Committe to Stop Children's Murders."
May 18. Eric Middlebrooks, 15, was found beaten to death. Three weeks later, Christopher Richardson, 11, disappeared on the way to a public swimming pool.
June 22.Latonya Wilson, 7, was abducted from her bed while her family slept, say her parents. Volunteer searchers, who have hunted backyards and abandoned buildings every Saturday for months, found her skeletal remains in October, blocks from home.
June 23. Aaron Wyche, 10, was found dead just outside the city limits. Atlanta police don't count him among the murdered children, claiming that he accidentally fell from a railway trestle. But his mother says he was afraid of heights, and would never have climbed up in the first place -- unless he was frightened and perhaps running from someone.
July 7. Anthony Carter, 9, found stabbed to death and thrown in a warehouse dumpster.
"He was the last straw," fumes Camille Bell, 33, a former Philadelphian who moved south for college, then dropped out to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in civil rights days, married and settled in Atlanta. She began pressuring city officials to investigate a possible connection between the murders, but it was not until one year after the first bodies were found that police hinted at a link in the killings -- a theory advanced for months by black parents. Police now believe several sets of killers might be responsible.
The mothers fanned out, stalking PTA groups, churches, lobbying anyone who would listen, catapulting themselves from ghetto anonymity to the nightly news. At first, officials ignored her because she was poor, Bell says. "It takes a lot to get people concerned about a child out of the ghettos," she says. "The feeling of the middle class, who cops and bureaucrats tend to be, is, 'these people don't care about their children, so why should I?' But a lot of these ghetto people care deeply. Their kids are about the only things they have in the world."
July 31. Earl Lee Terrell, 10, left a community swimming pool. He never got home. He's still missing.
Aug. 21, three weeks later. Clifford Emanuel Jones, 13, a Cleveland youngster visiting Atlanta relatives, was found strangled. He'd gone out hunting aluminum cans the day before to earn summer pocket change. Police found his body beside a shopping center dumpster; the size of the Special Task Force was doubled.
"We're going to work on these cases 24 hours a day, seven days a week," promised Atlanta Public Safety Commissioner Lee Brown at the time. But the killings didn't stop.
Sept. 14. Darron Glass, 10, who had run away from his foster home before, was reported missing.
Oct. 10. Charles Stephens, 12, was found strangled. Three days later, a gas boiler exploded in the Bowen Homes housing project day care center, killing four black children and one adult, an event totally unrelated to the child murders. Authorities tried to reassure residents the explosion was an accident, but Mayor Maynard Jackson, who is black, was booed by some of his poor black constituents anyway in a harsh demonstration of the community's deep and growing fear.
A cash reward, now totaling $150,000, which was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers, failed to bring any significant tips. In desperation, police chief George Napper rolled out the red carpet for New Jersey psychic Dorothy Allison. She claimed to have a vision of the killer, vowing he would not dare strike while she was here. Two days later, she left.
Nov. 2 Aaron Jackson, 9, was found strangled, lying face-up on a river bank about one-mile from his dilapidated cinder-block home.
Jan. 3. Lubie (Chuck) Geter, 14, disappeared from a shopping center about five miles away from his home. He was hawking car refreshers, trying to turn a profit on his Christmas money by selling them outside the Big Star food store. He remains missing.
Aaron Jackson loved to roam. Residents of the low-income southwest Atlanta neighborhood often wondered why he was forever wandering about, sometimes for days at a time, scampering through the woods like an inner-city Tom Sawyer.
"I'd see him in the park at 11 p.m. with no shoes, just walking around," said Geneva Smith, manager of Neeson's Supermarket.
Aaron "would go wherever someone would give him a meal," she said."Before he died, the gas and lights were cut off, and for a while, his house was dark and cold. Then the school PTA took up a collection and got the lights turned on. A neighbor raised money for the gas."
One neighbor, Betty Judkins, woke up one day to find Aaron asleep on her couch. He'd broken into the house, helped himself to plums and canned luncheon meat in her refrigerator and fallen asleep.
He was a fourth grader at John Wesley Dobbs elementary who lived with his father, Aaron Sr., 41, a $5-an-hour construction worker, and two older half sisters in a green cinder-block house.
The other night, a naked bulb burned in the living room, where one of the Jackson girls was asleep with a bad cold on a couch, a blanket and raincoat her only covers. A red rug was threadbare. Jackson, an Air Force veteran and former cafeteria manager for Bolling Air Force base, was asleep in a chair when a reporter knocked on his door. He doesn't have a phone.
Little Aaron had been gone for a day, when Jackson turned on his TV and learned that another black child had been found dead down the street. "He was supposed to be visiting friends," said Jackson. "I went out to look for him, but I didn't know the lady he was supposed to be visiting.I couldn't find him. Then I called police and they brought the picture out. It was him."
Young Aaron's mother, Benny Jackson, 39, a Washington D.C. waitress, sent Aaron south last April to live with his father, after the Jacksons separated two years ago. "I hoped he'd do better in school in Atlanta."
He grew up in southeast Washington. "You can only discipline a child so much," sighed Benny Jackson. "With two working parents, it was impossible to watch him all the time.
"He was a free spirited child, but he was a loner. That's what bothers me.
Aaron didn't talk to grown-ups. Whoever killed him had to catch him off guard."
She flew to Atlanta for the funeral, then, last week, turned on a Sunday morning CBS report and watched herself on TV crying beside the grave. "It really shook me up," she says. "All of a sudden, it was so final. Watching it like that, you know it's all over."
Police don't believe there is one "mad Atlanta strangler" on the loose who is responsible for all the killings. "We have attempted to dispel that speculation," said Commissioner Brown. "The evidence points to more than one killer. There could be as many killers as cases."
But several task force detectives believe the same killer or killers had a hand in a number of the murders. Several parents remain suspects. At least one flunked an FBI polygraph test, say police, but no arrests are pending.
"It's baffling and disturbing," said Lewis Slaton, Fulton County district attorney. "It's not like Buffalo where four blacks were killed with a .22. In Atlanta, we've always solved our cases in the past, given enough police and enough time. But in this one, we haven't. Maybe we could have shown a little more attention at the outset, but we weren't sure some of the missing children were dead. . .
"We've offered the highest reward in history, but haven't gotten a thing from it, which indicates there aren't any witnesses, that the killers aren't going to admit it, or that the killers are so tightly knit . . . it's possible a husband and wife killed a child by accident, but aren't going to tell on each other because they might be accused of killing other children.
"What's so confusing, is that the way these children died differs from how kids usually die," at the hands of parents or relatives, often by accident, said Slaton. "We've got one with a .22, five strangled, a couple stabbed, and two so decomposed we couldn't really tell. . . . So far it's a blur."
The investigation has been shrouded in frustration, controversy and bungling. Three officers were demoted for their handling of the Lubie Geter case. Fulton County medical examiner R. E. Stivers threatened to sue the Atlanta police and the FBI for tampering with the crime scene after officers carlessly tossed bones of children discovered Friday into plastic bags. "Those idiots really did mess us up," fumed Stivers, whose own investigator later retrieved 11 more teeth and more bones from the site.
The mothers of the missing children are holding their breath. "My baby's gone! I know my baby's gone!" cried Willie May Mathis, 38, who paced the floor of her home and chain-smoked Pall Malls as reports of the discovery of the children's bones filled the airwaves.
A proud, sturdy woman, Mathis raised seven children alone after her husband, a cement contrator, was murdered six years back while moonlighting at a cemetery as a night security guard. Jeffrey, 10, the baby in the family, was last seen one block from home last March. He'd gone to the store for her cigarettes. She'd just warned him about strangers. The day before, Angel Lanier had been found dead. Jeffrey rapped on the barbershop window of W. A. Williams, then disappeared, climbing into a blue car, said witnesses. "It was as if the earth opened up and swallowed him," his mother said.
"What is the reason for it? Why are they picking certain children? It's gone on too long. People are angry, afraid for their children. Some think if a white child had been missing or [found] murdered police would have arrested someone by now, or called in the National Guard. But you can't say that because we have a black mayor and a black police chief. If only [Commissioner] Brown had said right away, Children are being murdered and snatched, stay off the street,' parents would have been more vigilant. But police got started too late. . ."
"Sometimes life is a hard pill to swallow, a burden to bear," said Mathis. "After my husband passed, I didn't think I'd be able to make it." Then Jeffrey vanished. "You just got to keep praying, keep thinking he's alive."