Four decades later, HBO digs deep into ‘Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children’ case

Credit: Sebo

Credit: Sebo

The case of a possible serial killer murdering more than 25 black children in Atlanta riveted America between 1979 and 1981. Presidents, celebrities and no shortage of psychics got involved.

After a jury in early 1982 found 23-year-old Wayne Williams guilty of two murders, the city closed most of the other cases without ever filing additional charges against Williams. This left many family members suspicious that officials were sweeping everything under a rug. Williams, in prison for life, has always maintained his innocence and speculation has been rife regarding other suspects.

Four decades later, HBO has dug deep to tackle this story in a five-part docuseries called “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: the Lost Children.” Part one debuted last Sunday and is available on-demand for HBO subscribers.

For longtime Atlantans, this is well-worn material.

» THE LIST: Georgia cases featured on true-crime shows

Journalists, authors and filmmakers over the years have tackled the subject in different ways. It's been featured in scripted form (e.g. a 1985 CBS miniseries starring Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones), books (a James Baldwin non-fiction exploration called "The Evidence of Things Not Seen") and in 2018, a podcast ("Atlanta Monster"). Then last year, Netflix's "Mindhunter" and ID's docuseries "Atlanta Child Murders" explored similar territory.

But HBO is HBO. The network carries prestige, and reach, providing generous resources for four experienced documentarians to present this complicated subject matter in a contextually deep and meaningful way.

"It felt so fresh, so real," said Monica Pearson, the award-winning former WSB-TV anchor (1975-2012) who appears in the docuseries.

Frank Ski, the V-103 morning host who did an in-person interview with Williams in 2005 and provides commentary in the program, said he thought "they did an incredible job painting a historical picture and bringing the emotion to life."

Maro Chermayeff, an executive producer for the series, said they spent a year finding material that had never been seen before and interviewing folks who had refused to talk to other media for decades. In all, they spoke to more than 50 people, some for multiple hours.

Pearson, who was given access to all five episodes by the producers in advance, said “shocking” video in the fifth episode made her more convinced that Williams did not commit all the murders. Instead, a white supremacist group may have been involved in at least some of them.

“We really looked into alternative theories,” Chermayeff said. “There are a lot of them, and it’s really quite interesting.”

One thing is for sure, she said: “It’s clear the evidence prosecutors used to convict Wayne Williams for those two murders were very circumstantial and shaky. A lot of it was junk science.”

Danny Agan, a retired Atlanta homicide detective who investigated three of the cases on the list, said this assessment is "an ill-informed belief that fails to objectively consider the large amount of various evidence presented at trial, which by the way withstood years of appeals by Williams and his lawyers, resulting in his convictions being upheld."

He believes Williams committed at least 24 of the murders.

Pearson isn’t sure if the series would lead to any definitive closure for the families.

“We are no further along than we were 40 years ago,” she said. “We still don’t know for sure who killed those children.”

Credit: Monica Kaufman Pearson, WSB News Anchor (1975–2012) CR: HBO

Credit: Monica Kaufman Pearson, WSB News Anchor (1975–2012) CR: HBO

Producer Sam Pollard was inspired to do this particular docuseries after releasing a documentary about Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's major during this crisis. He was the city's first black mayor, and the series highlights how negative publicity from this crime wave impacted a city so driven to be seen as an economic powerhouse for whites and blacks alike.

"It's now a permanent stain on the city," said Maynard Eaton, a veteran Atlanta journalist who covered the murders four decades ago and is featured in the series. "It's tragic, and it gripped the city like nothing else ever has."

The producers were at the press conference last year when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Police Department chief Erika Shields announced they were re-opening some of the cases for review in hopes of gleaning new insights.

“I don’t want this investigation to become the ‘Free Wayne Williams’ campaign,” Bottoms said in the HBO series. (She was inspired to do so in part by the “Atlanta Monster” podcast and ID docuseries in 2018 and 2019, respectively.) “To the extent there is evidence that it was not him, I think that justice will take its course. I really want this to be about the children and the unanswered questions for many of the families.”

The Atlanta Police Department has been reviewing the cold cases the past year.

"Our renewed look into these cases is ongoing," said APD spokesman Carlos Campos this week. "Chief Shields has always said she wanted our investigators to take their time, and do a thorough job without the immense pressure that the original investigators faced. We are allowing our investigators to quietly and diligently go about their important work, but otherwise have no announcements to make right now."

Credit: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms CR: HBO

Credit: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms CR: HBO

The producers were able to talk to Williams many times but were not able to come to terms with him to show up on screen.

“He wanted to have a lot of control we wouldn’t let him have,” Pollard said.

Instead, they use archived interviews with Williams from years past.  “He twists stories,” Chermayeff said. “He is almost his own worst enemy. He can talk in absolute circles.”

Credit: Bettmann

Credit: Bettmann

Anthony Terrell, whose 12-year-old brother Earl was abducted and murdered four decades ago, wants to know for sure who the killer or killers were of the nearly 30 lingering cases but is keeping expectations low. And he said what transpired had more to do with race and the city's need to "move on" than justice.

“You mean nobody has an answer for 30 kids? We’re not worth it is what you’re telling me,” he said in the series. “I want my brother and all the others to be worth something so they can sleep.”

Chermayeff said the cases on the list were cherry-picked (and a few weren’t even children), and the way they died was far from consistent. “Some of them didn’t even look like murder,” she said.

And while those who believe Williams did it say similar crimes stopped after he was arrested, Chermayeff said that wasn’t the case. Murders of black children after Williams was arrested simply didn’t get the media attention, she added.

Credit: Anthony Terrell, brother of Earl Terrell, one of the victims from four decades ago. CR: HBO

Credit: Anthony Terrell, brother of Earl Terrell, one of the victims from four decades ago. CR: HBO


“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children,” Sundays, 8 p.m. HBO or on demand for HBO subscribers

Originally posted Wednesday, April 8, 2020 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog