Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children is a 5 part HBO documentary series.
4 out of 10 stars. This isn’t exactly riveting and much information is left out. What information is included is often very vague, so you don’t feel like you actually learned anything. What bothered me most is that the series doesn’t follow any type of timeline. It jumps all over the place. It also doesn’t give dates, leaving you very confused.
The series is not told around a timeline, but my review will be. This is NOT the way the facts are laid out in the series. In fact, it was done very poorly.
The first episode of this series gives an overview of the thirty murders that occurred over a 23 month period from 1979 to 1981. The murders stopped when Wayne Williams was arrested. He was convicted of two of those murders in 1981 after the jury deliberated for only 11 hours.
In 1974 the first black mayor was elected in Atlanta, Georgia and his name was Maynard Jackson. At the time northern Atlanta was for the middle class and the rich and southern Atlanta was for the poor including the very poor who made less than $2,000 a year.
Wayne Williams was the son of Homer Williams, a news photographer, and Faye Williams, a retired schoolteacher. When Wayne spoke of his parents he often lumped them together. When he wanted attention he’d say he was the son of news journalists. When he wanted sympathy he’d say he was the son of two retired schoolteachers. In interviews, Homer Jackson was a man filled with rage. Clearly, his son learned some of that rage because he was capable of strangling to death nine year old children and grown men.
Wayne was considered a bright student when he was a kid, but he was an only child and spoiled by both parents. He was homosexual and was seen by many people in the community in the company of very young boys. So he was a pedophile too. He built a radio station in his garage and made his car look like a police car complete with running lights. He convinced many kids in the neighborhood that he was a legitimate talent scout looking for the next Michael Jackson. In the documentary series, one man, who was seven when Wayne Williams almost abducted him, gives a chilling account of seeing Wayne Williams’ arrest on the news and finally feeling safe.
In 1979 the average number of murders a year in Atlanta was 240, so the police force was already overworked when it came to murder cases. There are only three officers to handle the 500 missing person cases every year in Atlanta.
On July 28, 1979, two children were found in the woods of southern Atlanta off of Niskey Lake Road. They had different amounts of decomposition so they were dumped there at different times. Fourteen year old Edward Hope Smith was shot to death. Alfred Evans was strangled to death. When Alfred’s mother was brought to identify his body, she claimed it wasn’t him although dental records matched the body. She refused to accept the body and he was buried by the city in the pauper’s graveyard. She never had his body moved to a proper cemetery. And that’s one of the very first indications that some of these moms are not quite there. During that same interview, her remaining son claims Wayne Williams didn’t kill these kids. Then why did the murders stop after he was in custody?
In September, fourteen year old Milton Harvey went missing. In October, nine year old Yusuf Bell went missing. Yusuf Bell’s mom Camille became the outspoken voice of the parents of the missing. It is squarely at her feet that much of the disinformation about Wayne Williams falls. She publicly denounced the police and claimed they railroaded an innocent man into prison. And every time she said this, she claimed the murderer was not a black man. So her own racism kept her and the other parents from looking at the evidence and making an informed decision.
In November, Milton Harvey’s body is found. On November 8, Yusuf Bell’s body is found strangled in an abandoned school. Camille Bell, Yusuf’s mother, starts the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders and begins collecting donations. Then 14 year old Eric Middlebrook’s body is found on Flat Shoats Road. He was missing less than a day and was in foster care. His foster mother refused to speak with the police.
On June 22, 1980, eleven year old LaTonya Wilson is kidnapped from the bedroom of her home. And this case is thought to be another murderer who is never named in this series. On June 9, 1980, eleven year old Christopher Richardson disappears. On July 7, 1980, nine year old Anthony Carter is found stabbed to death.
On July 17, 1980, the black police commissioner, Lee Brown, forms a task force. They bring in Dorothy Allyson, a psychic, and psychics descend on Atlanta by the hundreds.
On July 30, 1980 ten year old Earl Lee Terrell disappears from a public pool. When his mother is interviewed she denounces the city for allowing a child to leave the pool unescorted. But she is at home and could easily have gone to the pool and watched her child or set a time to walk him there and walk him home. She didn’t. In fact, after a year of murders, it’s shocking that most children are still running around without parental supervision in the midst of a murder spree on young children.
Clifford Jones is found dead, dumped behind a dumpster. Twelve year old Charles Stephens is found smothered to death. Then out of the blue, the Bowen Homes Daycare Center is blown up on October 13, 1980, killing four children and one teacher.
On October 16, 1980 Charles Stephens is found asphyxiated. There are now 158 missing or murdered children in Atlanta. The community begins searching the woods for bodies, knowing the police are understaffed. They find seven year old LaTonya Wilson’s body. Police had claimed they’d searched the field she was dumped in, so the body was dumped after the police searched the field. Wayne Williams had a police scanner in his car and listened to it. He would’ve known that.
Atlanta men start stalking the streets with guns and baseball bats. At the time black police officers weren’t allowed to arrest white people. They would have to call in a white police officer and since many Ku Klux Klan members were police officers, it kept them out of jail.
On November 6, 1980 the FBI finally joins the case at the insistence of the president. Then nine year old Anthony Carter’s body is found stabbed three times. His mother Vera confesses to the cops that she killed him, but she is never arrested.
Sixteen year old Patrick Rogers is found in the Chattahoochee River. His nickname was “Pat-Man” and he was a martial arts expert who was always going to talent shows. Wayne Williams had put out several flyers saying he was a talent scout looking to put together a black boy band. It is believed that’s how Wayne lured Patrick into trusting him. He called this group Gemini.
On January 5, 1981 fourteen year old Lubie Geter disappears from a shopping center. Four days later on January 9, they find two bodies on Red Wine Road.
At this time, the FBI and Atlanta forensics experts had discovered the same forensic evidence on several victims tying them together: (1) green carpet fibers, (2) dog hairs, and (3) purple acetate fibers. This was published in newspapers and suddenly the bodies stopped appearing in fields and in the woods and started being dumped in the local rivers. Joseph Bell, Curtis Walker, and Aaron Jackson are found in the South River. Patrick Rogers, Eddie Duncan, and Timothy Hill are found in the Chattahoochee River. On April 27, 1981, Jimmy Payne’s body is found in the Chattahoochee River.
The ages of the victims also suddenly increased, probably because the FBI was narrowing in on a killer. The first victims were young, mostly nine year olds. Now he moved up to young adults in their late teens and early twenties.
FBI agent Mike McComas requests that the task force focus on bridges since the killer is now dumping the bodies in the rivers. It would be too dangerous for the killer to pull his vehicle up alongside the river because of the mud, but he could dump a body off a bridge easily and drive away. There are 14 bridges in Atlanta. The task force positioned 140-145 police officers every night for more than a month. At the time, the murders were occurring every 8 days.
On May 22, 1981 at 3 am the police hear a large splash in the water off one of the bridges. They see a car going extremely slowly, less than 5 mph so he won’t make noise with the expansion joints in the bridge. They catch him at the end of the bridge and it’s twenty three year old Wayne Williams. He claims he is a talent scout and on his way to see Cheryl Johnson at the Spanish Trace Apartments for a 7 am appointment. Who goes to a meeting four hours early? There is no Cheryl Johnson even though the police put out a public announcement. They find gloves and rope in his car, but they don’t have enough to hold him and let him go. Two days later, on May 24, they find the body of twenty seven year old Nathaniel Cater in the same river.
The FBI had worked up a profile on the killer and Wayne fit that profile perfectly. He dressed up his car like a police car, listened to a police scanner, and posed as a cop. He had already been arrested once before for impersonating a police officer. Wayne takes a lie detector test and fails miserably. On the three questions related to the murder the polygraph spiked, meaning he killed them, but lie detectors are not admissible in court.
On May 22, neighbors and police see Wayne Williams burning tons of photos. This was immediately after the police released him.
On June 3, 1981 they search Wayne’s car and home. They find a slapjack, used in subduing people, and boxes of slides of young black boys. When one of the cops finds a slide of one of the victims, Homer comes and takes it from him, so it’s clear that Homer has been covering for his son. They find that his green carpet matches the green carpet fibers exactly. The purple acetate fibers match the purple acetate fibers from his bedspread perfectly. And they find German shepherd dog hairs.
Wayne repeatedly holds press conferences and passed out his resume to the tv reporters. On his resume he claims to be a airline pilot and a race car driver. His father comes out and takes photographs of the press, antagonizing them and trying to intimidate them. Repeatedly Wayne is in the face of the police, the police commissioner, and the mayor until they finally have him arrested on June 21, 1981 for the murders of 21 year old Jimmy Ray Payne and twenty seven year old Nathaniel Cater.
Wayne hires Mary Welcome, a famous lawyer who had the city shut down every bath house in Atlanta. But she is not a criminal attorney so Tony Axam is also hired. Wayne fires him and hires Alvin Binder, a white guy. Wayne hires Mary because of her fame, hoping to become famous.
Two issues with the forensics are notable here. The first was that Nathaniel Cater’s autopsy report said he’d been dead 5 to 14 days, not two. If he was the body Wayne dumped on May 22, then on May 24 when he was found, he’d been dead only 2 days. The second was that Jimmy Ray Payne was found in swim trunks and near a swimming hole. The coroner wrote in his autopsy report that had it not been for the other murders, his death would’ve been ruled an accidental drowning.
Trial of Wayne Williams
During the trial the prosecution wanted to produce evidence that Wayne was also linked to ten other murders of children: (1) Alfred Evans, (2) Eric Middlebrook, (3) Charles Stephens, (4) Lubie Geter, (5) Terry Pue, (6) Patrick Baltazar, (7) Joseph Bell, (8) Larry Rogers, (9) John Porter, and (10) William Barrett. This is a practice that’s been part of the legal system since 1842. Evidence of other crimes creates a pattern and is therefore admissible. Judge Cooper allowed the evidence.
Of the 30+ murdered children, 18 were found with dog hair on them, 21 were found with purple acetate fibers on them, and 15 were found with green carpet fibers on them. The defense tried to claim that the fibers came from the river and dropped two pillowcases in the river, dredged them along the bottom, and pulled them out. They did NOT have any of these three forensic items on them. They could only have come from Wayne’s house where all three were present. Which brings up the burning question? Where were his parents when he was killing these kids in his room?
The way probabilities work is that they are multiplied. The probability that all three of these fibers and hairs would be found in any other person’s home was astronomical. Maybe if the parents understood probability they’d realize that Wayne was the actual killer, not some fall guy. There was no doubt that most of these victims were in Wayne William’s bedroom.
The prosecution brings in dozens of witnesses who saw Wayne with the murdered children right before they died. One witness was in a car with Wayne when Wayne started talking about the murdered kids and grabbed his crotch. Bobby Toland testified that Wayne had told him that the best way to eliminate the poor black people of Atlanta was to kill the children. He asked him, “Do you know how many people you can eliminate by killing just one black kid?”
Sharon Blakely was perhaps the most compelling witness. She was Wayne’s friend and coworker. She testified that he talked about black street kids and how much he hated them. He said he knew how to cut off their air and stop them from breathing by pressing on their neck. When asked if she thought Wayne was a murderer, she hesitated, apologized to Wayne, and said, “Yes.”
After all the evidence against him is laid out, it’s overwhelming. So Wayne takes the stand in his own defense, always a bad idea with hot heads. With very little effort the prosecution gets him enraged and the jury sees Wayne Williams angry. The Jury took only 11 hours deliberating and came back with a guilty verdict. He was given two life sentences.
After the trial
Several points were made after the trial.
- The FBI spent two million dollars on the trial. In comparison Wayne’s family spent $5,000 on their defense.
- Police Commissioner Lee Brown believed that Wayne had killed 23 of the murdered children and closed those cases without taking Wayne to trial for those murders, leaving the parents without closure.
- Camille Bell publicly claimed she thought Wayne was innocent and had never killed anyone. She gave no reason for this at all and probably hurt those parents more than anyone else.
- In 1983, Wayne’s new lawyer filed an appeal with Georgia’s Supreme Court. He claimed 33 points of error. Most of those were witnesses who had changed or recanted their testimony. Bobby Toland was said to be a KKK member living under an assumed name. His real name was Williams. The initial forensic report said the white dog hairs were from an Alaskan malamute or a Siberian husky, not a German shepherd. The records for the number of green carpets manufactured was incomplete so they couldn’t say how rare they were. The Supreme Court had only six months to look at the appeal and decided against Wayne.
James Edward Brooks
In 1986, Clifford Jones was murdered by James Edward Brooks, a known local pedophile who was black. Nineteen year old Fred Cosby saw Brooks rape Clifford Jones in a laundromat then put a rope around his neck and strangle him to death. Several other witnesses saw Brooks dump Jones’ body. Cosby wasn’t considered a credible witness because he was “slow”, but he described every detail of the scene and Clifford Jones’ clothes accurately.
Clifford Jones’ murderer was thought to be Wayne Williams because he was found with the same rare green carpet fibers. But he wasn’t used as one of the ten other murders in the trial for pattern evidence.
Brooks died in jail so he is never interviewed for this series.
Tom Terrell was a local black pedophile who admitted to having sex with one of the victims. He was never arrested.
John David Wilcoxen
John David Wilcoxen was found with thousands of child porn pictures and videos. Among the boys in the pictures and videos were Lubie Geter and Earl Terrell. Both boys were known to have been to Wilcoxen’s house repeatedly to perform fellatio on Wilcoxen’s customers for $5 or take porn pics for $10. The boys would then use the money to play at the OMNI arcade.
If you’ve watched the second season of the Netflix series Mindhunters then you’ve noticed discrepancies in FBI profiler John Douglas’s version of the Atlanta Child Murders from what is detailed in this documentary. (1). Douglas wasn’t the one who suggested watching the bridges. (2) The president ordered the FBI involved, not the governor or mayor. (3) The Atlanta police already had suspects. (4) The Atlanta police had an entire investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. They were never dismissed as suspects.
4 out of 10 stars. I had high hopes for this documentary series, because HBO did Chernobyl. But this was disappointing. It would be much more compelling if the information was given completely, not just piecemeal and bounced around in time. 🙁