Wayne Williams – Criminal Musings – 19

Wayne Williams is a Black-American convicted murderer responsible for the killings of 2 adults, and potentially responsible for the murder of more than 20 black youths from 1979 to 1981 in Atlanta, Georgia. Those murders are known as the Atlanta Child Murders. The ultimate question is, did he actually do it?

Special Shout out to It’s About Damn Crime who just covered this case as well. Find their coverage here.

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I’m pleased to announce that Criminal Musings now has a research intern! I want to give a big and warm welcome to Tiff Franks! Tiff is amazing, and she is a huge help to me. As you all know, I produce 3 shows and have a day job and a night job. With this help, I can hopefully ensure there will be no more long lapses between episodes, except for the season break, which I will tell you more about in the coming weeks.

When I started looking at this week’s criminal, I claimed he was a despicable monster. However, as I continued to dig, it became a little more hazy. What differentiates today’s killer from the usual murderous miscreants, you ask? Make no mistake, he was definitely a murderer, the criminal justice system did agree on that much. You see, he was convicted for 2 different murders, and those 20 cases currently hand in unresolved limbo. There are some holes in this case, and most of them have to do with prejudice. I suppose, what else is new?

Wayne Bertram Williams was born in May of 1958 and was raised in the Dixie Hills neighbourhood of southwest Atlanta Georgia. Both of his parents were teachers. Similar to last weeks murderer, Vaughn Greenwood, little is known about Wayne’s early life. I can tell you he graduated from Douglass High school and had an interest in radio and journalism. Eventually he constructed his own carrier current radio station. So he had a hobby or whatever? Good for him I guess.

In any case, Wayne’s path to infamy began on July 28 1979 when a woman in Atlanta came across two bodies hidden under some bushes at the side of the road. Both were black male children. Edward Smith, 14, had been reported missing a week before he was found. He had been shot with some kind of .22 calibre weapon. The second victim was 13 year old Alfred Evans, he was reported missing three days before he was discovered. It was determined that he died of asphyxiation.

When two more bodies were discovered in the spring of 1980 and a 7 year old girl was reported missing the FBI was called in. Special Agent in Charge John Glover (the first African-American to lead an FBI field office) offered all the support the FBI could offer.

Up to this point all the bodies had been found in wooded areas, but in April 1981, the killer changed his MO. The bodies started to be dumped in the Chattahoochee River, which allowed investigators to narrow their search. They had all 14 bridges that spanned the river in Atlanta under surveillance.  Williams first became a suspect during this time.

April 28 1981 the body of 29 year old Jimmy Ray Payne was found in the Chattahoochee River.

In May of 1981 officers on surveillance at the river heard a splash at 2am. The first car to exit the bridge just after the splash was Williams. When stopped and questioned he told police he was on his way to check on an address that he was to visit the next morning for a 7am appointment in a neighbouring town to audition a young singer named Cheryl Johnson for his radio/ music business. But when checked, the phone number he gave them was false. In fact Cheryl Johnson didn’t exist either.

Two days later the nude body of Nathaniel Cater 27 years old, who had been missing for three days, was discovered in the river. The medical examiner ruled that he died of “probable” asphyxia but never specifically said that Cater had been strangled. Police believed that Williams had killed Cater and that his body was the source of the “loud splash” they had heard as Williams car crossed the bridge.

Wayne Williams was arrested on June 21st 1981 and charged with the murders of Jimmy Ray Payne and Nathaniel Cater. Prosecutors portrayed him as a domineering manipulator with a disdain for uneducated young black people and likened him to Adolf Hitler, Attila the Hun and Idi Amin.

Williams trial began on January 6th 1982 and during the two month trial, prosecutors matched nineteen different sources of fibres from Williams home, car and environment to a number of victims. Other evidence included eyewitness testimony placing Williams with several victims while they were alive, co-workers told police that they had seen Williams with scratches on his face and arms around the time of the murders which investigators surmised could have been inflicted by victims during a struggle. There were also inconsistencies in his accounts of his whereabouts. Williams took the stand in his own defence but quickly alienated the jury by becoming angry and combative. The jury was comprised of 8 Black people and 4 white people. The jury took just 12 hours to deliberate and found him guilty on both counts, sentencing him to two consecutive life terms.

Once the trial was over law-enforcement officials declared their belief that evidence suggested that Williams was most likely to be guilty of another 20 of the 29 child deaths the task force had been investigating.

Former FBI Profiler John E. Douglas wrote in his book Mindhunter that in his opinion “forensic and behavioural evidence points conclusively to Wayne Williams as the killer of eleven young men in Atlanta.” He added, however that he believed there was “no strong evidence linking him to all or even most of the deaths and disappearances of children in that city between 1979 and 1981.”

DNA testing was performed in 2010 on the scalp hairs found on the body of 11 year old victim Patrick Baltazar while the results were not firmly conclusive the FBI’s DNA lab listed the odds of 130 to 1 against the hairs being anyone else’s but Williams. The FBI report stated only that “Wayne Williams cannot be excluded” as a suspect. A Department of Justice study released in April 2015 concluded that a lot of the hair analyses conducted by the FBI examiners during the 1980’s and 90’s “may have failed to meet professional standards”. Williams defence attorney Lynn Whatley immediately announced that the report would form the basis for a new trial although there is no evidence that a new trial will be starting any time soon.

So listeners, I bet you are wondering, where do I fall on this? And to that, I have an answer, but bear with me as I get there. First, I want to give a shout out to Jessa Nicholson Goetz and Nick Ganzner from Getting Off Podcast, I highly recommend you check out their show. This shout out is specifically because of a shirt they just put out on their merch store that I’ll be purchasing in the next few days. The shirt proudly says on the front of it, “Feminists for the presumption of innoncence.” That is a label I hold for myself. Presumption of innocence to me is incredibly important to our legal system, and I’m about to explain a little more why. I’ve had Wayne Williams on the list for Gay Killers for a while, but up to this point in the episode, I haven’t mentioned anything about him being gay. That is because I am fundamentally unsure if he is gay or not. Research turned up nothing about him having sex with men. At the time of these crimes, and indeed right on up til now, people in the queer community have been falsely accused of pedophilia. I am a youth worker, I work with young people from age 5 to 18. For a time, I was working primarily with students teaching them about resilience, leadership, conflict resolution, life skills and community building. To quote one of my students, I “told them they were already awesome, and I was just there to show them how to be even better.” I was good at it, but I had to stop. Note my language here: I HAD to stop. I didn’t want to stop teaching, because young people are awesome to work with. I got tired of an administration that sabotaged me, but what I hated even more than that, was when I would be in a store like Walmart or whatever and a young person from a previous school I taught at would shout, “JV” and give me a big hug. I’d say Hello and give them a tiny hug back. There have been, on more than one occasion, parents who would give me a nasty look, or even make a comment. On the one hand, this is a parent being concerned for their kid. On the other hand, this is clearly a parent who was not hyper involved in their child’s academic career, otherwise they would have met me. I’m watched like a hawk around young people, and I’m fine with that ultimately because it’s for the safety of children, but what bothers me about it is that you shouldn’t be singling me out for that because of my race, gender or sexuality. You SHOULD be concerned who your young person is around, but be concerned about ALL of those people and leave gender and sexuality out of it.

Here are the facts: Queer people are no more likely to be pedophiles than hetero people. That is a fact about the world. Being attracted to men does not mean a person will be attracted to a prepubescent boy. That is a patently ridiculous notion. Also, not all pedophiles are men, so you can disavow yourself of that idea as well. Pedophiles and Gays are not the same thing. And conflating the two is a mistake.

Williams continues to maintain his innocence with regards to all 24 murders he is suspected to have committed. And at the end of the day, who knows? James Baldwin, the late author of many fantastic works such as Notes From A Native Son and The Fire Next Time, wrote in Evidence Of Things Not Seen (published in ‘85) that he had a lot of concerns with the case, and the disconcerting lack of evidence that managed to still put this man away for life. What it certain to me is this: Short of a break in the case, and a legal system that can keep actively keep racism out, and presumption of innocence in, we might never actually know what the truth is in this case.

I want to say something quickly about this before we go. The podcast Atlanta Monster, by Payne Lindsey, does a deep dive into this case. However, before you actually decide whether or not to listen to that, please see the Slate Article reviewing Atlanta Monster in the show-notes. I think it brought up some great points about the issues with the show. There is a lot of information I honestly just didn’t have time to cover here, like the potential involvement of the Ku Klux Klan, so I think as long as you are going in with a fair understand of why that podcast may be problematic, I think you should be fine. I trust you, my lovely listeners, to be fair and listen carefully.

Be well, do good work, remember the presumption of innocence, and of course… Stay Safe Out There.