Wayne B. Williams, 23, the only suspect to be arrested in a two-year series of 28 Atlanta murders, is a confident, near-brilliant young man who stalked fame and fortune as a TV cameraman and a music promoter, always hustling on the fringe of the professions he admired.
As a free-lance photographer, he roamed 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.
Always on the lookout for the next Stevie Wonder, he auditioned hundreds of black Atlanta youths in studios, promising to make them stars. But those he knew in the music business say he had a tin ear; none of his acts ever pressed a record.
Yet to hear Wayne Williams tell it, he was a big man in both the media and entertainment. Indeed, he called a news conference and passed out his resume to reporters one morning this month after FBI agents grilled him about the murder of Nathaniel Cater, 27. The body of Cater, the latest victim in the series of slayings of black youths, was pulled from the Chattahoochee River three days after police on stakeout heard a splash and stopped Williams for questioning.
He was a master of hyperbole.On the resume, he describes himself as on "special assignment" for the local ABC-TV affiliate, adding: ". . . on staff for the station. I also did editing and night beat stories for the station."
"The way his resume was written, it would appear he was a full-time employe," said Dick Mallory, WSB-TV's news director. "He did stringer work and was paid by the piece. We used maybe two or three reports."
Williams described himself as "president and general manager" of WRAZ radio in the mid-1970s, "responsible for the total operation of the station, overseeing sales, operations, promotions, and public relations."
He failed to note that WRAZ was a low-power AM station that he had started in his basement as a teenager, an event chronicled at the time by local TV stations in upheat features on the black youth with chutzpa and brains who, friends say now, never seemed to live up to his promise.
"He had a lot of potential," recalled Jocelyn Dorsey, a local anchorwoman who did a feature on Williams as a broadcast whiz kid and later encouraged him in the field. "He was ambitious, articulate, one of those kids who seemed to border on genius. You didn't find many black youngsters back then involved in electronics and broadcasting. As a black woman in broadcasting, I found it encouraging."
So she urged him on, one of many young black students who admired her and sought her advice. She says, "He was a little hustler, and I admired him for his ambition."
He phoned her every six months or so to stay in touch. His parents, retired school teachers who poured their savings into his media ventures and whose modest home in northwest Atlanta he shared, thanked her "for taking an interest in his career."
Dorsey helped sign him on as a stringer in 1978. The station issued him 400 feet of film and he was off into the night, monitoring police broadcasts for tips and racing to accident scenes, a fledgling member of the Atlanta media's ghoul squad.
Several news directors considered hiring him, but declined because he lacked a creative eye and because he "was a little strange," recalls Dorsey.
"Not that he did weird things, just the way he talked to people and looked at you," she said. "I passed it off as [his] being very bright and maybe being ostracized by other children for his intelligence."
Williams hit the streets and boasted that he knew them better than the police he knew on a first-name basis. Often he beat them to the scene. Friends say he was thrilled at being around police -- authorities say he seemed to "enjoy" the 12-hour grilling he underwent on June 2. His resume claims that he worked with police in his job as an arson identification technician for the fire department. City officials can find no record of his ever having held such a job.
Soon Wayne Williams hired his own cameramen to chase ambulances, and branched out into entertainment. He visited schools, shopping centers, night clubs and local talent shows to introduce himself to young blacks who dreamed of singing their way out of the ghetto the way others with hot jump shots dreamed of shooting their way out via the basketball courts.
Several weeks ago, before he was arrested at his home Sunday, he visited a shopping center in an Atlanta suburb and handed a flyer to a young black boy.
"Can you sing or play an instrument?" it asked. "If you are between 11-21 (male or female) and would like to become a professional entertainer, YOU can apply for positions with professional recording acts. No experience necessary, training is provided. All interview private and free!!"
He took black youths to several studios around town, recording their voices, paying for expensive studio time by check with money that no one knows how he earned. Sometimes he sent the cassettes off to peripheral contacts in the recording business such as Wade Marcus, an independent record producer in Los Angeles he met by spotting Marcus' name in the credits on a hit album by Peaches and Herb, then phoning him.
"He wanted me to help him produce some of his artists," said Marcus in a telephone interview. He agreed to hear some tapes and Williams flew to Los Angeles to play them. "I thought it was pretty good, but Wayne will be the first to admit he has no ear for talent. He knows what's commercially feasible, but he's got no knowledge of music."
The project never got off the ground.
"Wayne really wanted to make it big," said Marcus, formerly a trombone player for Ray Charles. "He's a very straight-ahead person who doesn't like to waste time. He impressed me as a hard worker."
But the same jobs that he hoped to use as his meal ticket to the big time also provided him an opportunity to cruise the streets -- and helped make him a prime suspect in recent weeks as the city's "snatcher," the ghetto nickname for the killer or group of killers who have eluded a massive police search for almost two years. Police also were intrigued with his "mad professor personality," in the words of one official close to the investigation.
Crime laboratory analysis of fibers and dog hairs found in his house after he was stopped on a bridge over the Chattahoochee River and questioned May 22 in the Cater killing bore strong similarities to fibers and dog hairs found on at least 12 other victims, circumstantial evidence that authorities felt bolstered their case considerably.
Police say that bloodstains found behind the seat of his car also matched the blood type of one recent victim, William Barrett -- more circumstantial evidence that FBI and taks force officials felt should justify an arrest. Another stain, sources say, matched the blood type of a young man not yet added to the task force list.
But until Sunday, Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton complained that he didn't have enough evidence to make a murder case hold up in court.
Today, when Williams appears for his preliminary hearing on the charges, Slaton will have to convince a judge that there is enough evidence to send the case to a grand jury.
The bizarre events on the bridge over the Chattahoochee River probably will figure heavily in the case against Williams. Early on the morning of May 22 two Atlanta policemen assigned to the lonely stakeout beneath the bridge had fallen asleep in their pup tent, when they were awakened by a splash that sprinkled the tent. They couldn't see anything, and radioed a chase car nearby. Moments later, FBI agents observed Williams driving across the river, in which seven victims have been dumped.
Cater, who was found nearby three days later, was among them -- the 17th victim to die by either asphyxiation or strangulation, and one of several found partially clothed.
The agents stopped Williams and questioned him. In the car they found a bag of men's clothing and other items, but failed to inventory the material and let him go. Williams told them he was on his way to a night club to meet a female singer, a story police have been unable to corraborate. After Cater's body floated to the surface three days later, Williams came under heavy surveillance and soon discovered that he was being followed by planes and police cars.
The FBI questioned him on June 2, and later Williams declared his innocence. He also said that police considered him a "prime suspect," having told him that he had given "deceptive" answers on lie detectors tests.
The decision to arrest Williams reputedly was made Sunday, after top law enforcement officials met secretly Friday at the urging of Vice President George Bush, who had reviewed a comprehensive FBI report.