'Up and Vanished' podcaster tackles Wayne Williams, Atlanta missing child murders

Donald Albright, Payne Lindsey and Jason Hoch are the primary team members creating the new podcast "Monster." CREDIT: Ousman Sahko

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Donald Albright, Payne Lindsey and Jason Hoch are the primary team members creating the new podcast "Monster." CREDIT: Ousman Sahko

Posted Friday, January 5, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his myAJC Radio & TV Talk blog

In 2015, Atlanta documentary film-maker Payne Lindsey was fishing for cold case crime stories to investigate. He landed on the unsolved 2005 case of the missing Ocilla teacher Tara Grinstead, which he decided to turn into a podcast called "Up and Vanished," in the vein of the groundbreaking 2014 podcast "Serial."

But unlike "Serial," his podcast led to clear culprits who were arrested in early 2017. Though Lindsey didn't uncover the evidence that pointed to the murderers, he brought the case back into the light and indirectly helped the police find the guilty parties. "Up and Vanished" was a massive hit, generating more than 150 million downloads worldwide, Lindsey said.

For a sequel, Lindsey decided to look into the spate of Atlanta child murders from 1979 to 1981. While Wayne Williams was imprisoned for life tied to two adult murders, he was never tried or convicted for any of the 28 child murders, leaving many victims' families feeling a lack of closure. Called "Atlanta Monster," the podcast debuts on Friday, January 5.

This time, Lindsey is teaming up with the largest for-profit podcast company in the world, Atlanta-based How Stuff Works, which has some of the most downloaded podcasts such as "Stuff You Should Know" and "Stuff You Missed in History Class."

"This is a dream collaboration," Lindsey said. "We're newcomers trying to understand this business."  How Stuff Works provides Lindsey, who co-owns a small production company called Tenderfoot TV, more resources for what is essentially a much bigger, significantly more complicated case.

Compared to the small-town single murder Grinstead case, this one has "more victims, more families, more leads, more evidence," Lindsey said. "FBI. GBI. Local police. Hundreds of people."

"It's been great combining production resources," said How Stuff Works Chief Content Officer Jason Hoch at his company's headquarters at Ponce City Market last month. "We know how to do a deep dive into any subject. We look at telling stories through a certain lens. We've tapped into amazing historical archives. We'll show how forensic science 40 years ago versus today is completely different."

This podcast gives How Stuff Works a chance to expand its footprint since most of its podcasts are more science and information based. Crime is a hot genre in podcasting and this is How Stuff Works' first entree into the field.

And there was mutual admiration. Lindsey moved his offices to Ponce City Market just to be near How Stuff Works. And Hoch was a huge fan of "Up and Vanished."

"I loved his fearlessness," Hoch said, "his deep desire to get at the truth. That's not a skill you see all the time. It's natural in him. He's also a great storyteller."

Indeed, Lindsey struggles to define himself. He isn't a journalist. He isn't a private detective. A former music video producer, he wanted to produce documentary films but found podcasting a financially easier entry point. So he often just calls himself a "storyteller."

Digging into the Atlanta child murders is not for the faint of heart. It's more than 35 years cold. Many key players are dead. Memories fade and distort.

But even with the saturation media coverage back in the day, Hoch said there are people talking now who were too scared to do so in 1980 but are more willing to do so in 2018.

"Plenty of voices have not been heard," Hoch said. "We are setting up an arc in the first episode of what this story is going to be. And like 'Up and Vanished,' once it starts airing, you'll find new people you didn't even know about."


Credit: Rodney Ho

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Credit: Rodney Ho

In the first podcast episode, Lindsey paints the picture of a bewildering time for kids and parents in Atlanta when dozens of children, mostly between the ages of 8 to 13, were being snatched up and killed. Newscasters would say, in most ominous tones: "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?"

"That statement became a nightly statement," said Monica Kaufman Pearson, who was a Channel 2 Action News WSB-TV evening anchor at the time, on the podcast. "They needed to be reminded that there was a monster on the prowl in metro Atlanta. This town was in a state of fear. It was scary. It was very scary."

Hoch, who was a child at the time himself, remembers Pearson's warnings. Lindsey, on the other hand, is 30 and grew up in Kennesaw. He had never heard of the child murder cases until his business partner Donald Albright mentioned it. Albright, who is black, said there was a definite racial divide regarding the case because all the victims were black and mostly poor.

"There are racial and social class issues," said Albright. "I want people to listen to this and wonder why they had never heard about it. We want to strike up a conversation. This case deserves to be back on the radar. It's what the victims' families deserve."

At the same time, he said, "it changed the way parents raised their kids. You couldn't just go out alone at night."

They had no shortage of material to peruse: news clippings, broadcast news reports at the time, subsequent documentaries and specials, YouTube videos by amateur sleuths and even a much maligned 1985 CBS miniseries starring James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman.

Lindsey said they have four white boards in a room with sticky notes all over the place, just trying to make sense of it all. He hopes they can ultimately intertwine old and new material, unspooling missing pieces and finding answers to unanswered questions.

As crime cases from the 1990s and 2000s have been strip mined, people are going further back in time and the Atlanta child murders are now in the spotlight. Regina King is developing a scripted FX series connected to it. And the Netflix series "Mindhunter" plans to tackle it as well for its second season.

Albright said he hopes to provide voices of some prominent Atlantans in upcoming episodes who were around at the time, including former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed and Outkast's Andre 3000, who referenced the murders in a song.

Whether "Atlanta Monster" works or not, Lindsey is planning a second season of "Up and Vanished" and has a TV deal with the Oxygen network.

His philosophy to create effective podcasts is simple: "A good story is built on moments. Try to find those moments that feel right, that takes you somewhere, makes you feel something."