When serial killers are caught and convicted they usually admit their crimes but Wayne Williams, who has been widely presumed to have been responsible for murdering 29 children and young people in the city of Atlanta, has maintained his innocence for 38 years.
His protestations were largely ignored until a true crime podcast, Atlanta Monster, reinvestigated the case of the Atlanta child killings and came up with a number of alternatives — including the possibility the Ku Klux Klan was responsible.
Last month the Mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and the city's police chief Erica Shields announced they were reopening 22 of the cases amid growing concerns that a massive miscarriage of justice was perpetrated.
"It would certainly be in order for us to look once again at evidence that the city of Atlanta has in its possession…to once again take a fresh look at these cases and to determine once and for all if there's additional evidence that may be tested that may give some peace, to the extent that peace can be had in a situation like this, to the victims' families," Mayor Bottoms said.
Between July 1979 and May 1981 dozens of young black boys went missing from the streets of Atlanta — mainly from the impoverished west side of the city — and turned up dead.
The city ordered a 11pm-6am curfew for young people but it failed to stop the killings.
I was 9 when the #AtlantaChildMurders began. I remember the fear that gripped our city and the deep concern within my own family. Today, I announced that the City will launch a re-evaluation of the evidence. We hope it will provide closure for the victims’ families & loved ones. pic.twitter.com/1ldcWdoaCc— Keisha Lance Bottoms (@KeishaBottoms) 21 March 2019
Mayor Bottoms was at elementary school at the time of the killings and she recalled one moment when a suspicious cruised past the queue for the school bus.
"It was chaos, and we all just took off running, and kids were crying and everybody was hysterical. It was like there was a bogeyman out there, and he was snatching black children," Bottoms told the New York Times.
BREAKING: Happening right now, convicted killer Wayne Williams calls in from prison to declare his innocence to the family members of the missing and murdered children of Atlanta. @cbs46 Listen here: pic.twitter.com/rlWicOPnV7— Hayley Mason (@HayleyMasonTV) 19 April 2019
In March 1981 President Ronald Reagan pledged more than US$1 million to help the local police solve the murders.
"I want the people of Atlanta and the nation to know that this Administration is doing and will continue to do what we can to help bring an end to this tragedy. We moved as quickly as we could and were aware that there was a need for outside help. This administration is totally colour-blind," said President Reagan, who dispatched Vice President George H W Bush to the city to find out how the investigation was going.
Two months later, on the last night of a massive stakeout operation, police arrested Wayne Williams, 23, near the James Jackson Parkway bridge.
Several bodies had washed up in the city's two rivers — the Chattahoochee and the South River — and detectives had figured out the killer was throwing them in from bridges.
I’m sorry y’all but I don’t think #WayneWilliams committed ALL those #AtlantaChildMurders— Shakethia Arrington (@Muffinbaked1980) 24 March 2019
Patrick identified a white man to police & then Patrick was murdered. I think before part 3 concludes, we will all experience reasonable doubt to convict William for all of them.
At around 2am a young police academy rookie heard a splash in the Chattahoochee and tipped off colleagues on the bridge, who detained Williams, whose car had just driven across.
Two days later the body of Nathaniel Cater, a 27-year-old male prostitute, washed up on the shore just downriver from the bridge.
Williams would later be convicted of murdering Cater and another young man, Jimmy Ray Payne, and jailed for life.
Although he was never convicted for any of the child murders, law enforcement made clear it believed Williams was responsible for those killings and most people in Georgia assumed the serial killer was behind bars.
In 1986 Spin, a music magazine produced by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, carried an article claiming the Ku Klux Klan was responsible for some of the murders.
The article claimed Charles Sanders, a 30-year-old Ku Klux Klan member who lived just outside Atlanta, had admitted killing a black boy, Lubie Geter, 14, in January 1981 after he hit his car with a go-kart.
"Shortly after, Sanders' brother Don was heard on a wiretap to tell another Klan brother that he was going out to look for ‘another little boy'," the Spin magazine article claimed.
A month after Geter's body was found, a police informant identified by the code name "B. J. Jones" phoned his contact in the ABPS's intelligence division and said that he had information about the child murders, particularly the killing of Lubie Geter.
An informant, BJ Jones, told Atlanta police Charles Sanders had said in 1979 he was "attempting to create an uprising among blacks in Atlanta by murdering black children…he wanted Jones' help in committing more murders of Atlanta's black children."
Spin magazine made zero impact and was forgotten about until the Atlanta Monster podcast aired last year.
A man contacted Atlanta Monster creator Payne Lindsey and told him he had been friends with Sanders in the mid-1980s and remembered his reaction when the article came out.
He said Sanders had made a point of showing him and several other drinking buddies the article, said it was all true and then went into detail about how he had killed Lubie Geter and bragged about killing other black boys.
The man told the Atlanta Monster podcast that when Williams was arrested and charged, Sanders and his accomplices had seen it as the perfect excuse to stop the killings, because Williams would "carry the can."
The Atlanta Monster podcast also claims some of the murders could have been carried out by a gang of black paedophiles led by a man called Tom Terrell, and it also says the police overlooked a suspect who drove a blue Chevrolet Nova.
A child of a Ku Klux Klan member approaches a black state trooper (KKK rally in Atlanta, GA, 1992) pic.twitter.com/t2XNFq5l42— That Really Happened (@ThatRlyHappened) 22 September 2014
Williams himself claims there was no serial killer at all, and says the murders had different modus operandi.
"If you look at the case group, you'll see no serial killer. You didn't have one general pattern, but two or three sub-groups with several suspects," Williams told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991.
Williams, now 60, is in the same prison as the relatives of two of his alleged victims but he plays basketball with them and says neither bear him any ill-will because they do not believe he is responsible for the murders.
Atlanta Mayor @KeishaBottoms sat down today at @V103Atlanta with @FRANKSKI and gave an emotional interview about the #AtlantaChildMurders and the case being reopened. Watch: pic.twitter.com/VffCM07TxU— The People's Station (@V103Atlanta) 22 March 2019
Pressure will grow to release him if the joint investigation by Atlanta Police Department, the Fulton County District Attorney's Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation undermines the original evidence used to convict him.
Mayor Bottoms said modern technology would be used to test stored evidence such as DNA or cloth and carpet fibres.
"It may be there is nothing left to be tested. But I do think history will judge us by our actions and we will be able to say we tried," Mayor Bottoms told a press conference last month.
And if Williams is cleared, then the question will inevitably be asked again — who did kill those children and could it have been the Ku Klux Klan?