Tim Thomas has told WSB-TV in Atlanta that he fought off Wayne Williams -- the prime suspect in the Atlanta child murders -- after Williams, inset, offered the then-teenager a ride in 1976. Thomas said this is the first time he’s spoken about the experience publicly. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison for the murders of two grown men, though he is suspected of killing about two dozen other people, mostly children.
Photo: WSB-TV
Photo: WSB-TV

Did man escape Atlanta child killer? Man says he fought off Wayne Williams as teen in 1976

Tim Thomas told WSB-TV’s Aaron Diamant that he’d put his harrowing experience out of his mind -- until Atlanta city and police officials announced last week they are taking a fresh look at Williams’ case and retesting any evidence that remains to determine, once and for all, if Williams truly was the man responsible for killing more than two dozen men and boys between the ages of 6 and 28. 

>> Related story: Atlanta child murders: 29 black men and boys killed in case that terrified nation

Convicted killer Wayne Williams is pictured in May 1999 near the fence line at Valdosta State Prison in Valdosta, Ga.
Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore

Thomas told the news station he was a senior at Harper High School in Atlanta when he was walking home one day. A man driving a white station wagon pulled up beside him and offered him a ride. 

Thomas climbed in, but said he almost immediately knew something was not right.

“I said, ‘You’re driving so slow,’ I said, ‘Why don’t you just let me out and I can walk?’” Thomas said. “He said, ‘I can’t do that.’

“I said, ‘Oh boy.’”

Thomas said the man offered him cash for sex and, when he declined the offer, the driver refused to let him out of the vehicle.

“You run across a lot of stuff like that when you don’t have transportation,” Thomas told the news station. “There’s all kinds of weirdos gonna pick you up.”

A frightened Thomas said he was ready to fight and protect himself. At the intersection of Fairburn and Cascade roads, he made his move to escape. The driver grabbed his shirt. 

Thomas said he managed to get out of the station wagon, dragging the driver behind him. 

“By that time, he had some kind of rag he kept throwing in front of my face,” he said

Convicted killer Wayne Williams is pictured leaving court during one of his pre-trial proceedings in 1992. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, who were among about 29 black men and boys slain in the Atlanta area during a 23-month killing period from 1979 to 1981. The series of killings, the majority of which were of children, became known as the Atlanta child murders. Williams was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.
Photo: AP Photo

Thomas escaped with his life. He said he put the close call out of his mind until 2010, when he saw footage of Williams on television and immediately recognized the accused murderer’s thick glasses and Afro. 

“I said, ‘Dang. That’s that guy that picked me up that night,’” Thomas said

By that point, Williams had been in a Georgia prison for 26 years, convicted of murdering Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21. Cater and Payne were both grown men, but the majority of the homicide victims Williams is suspected of killing were children.

From left are Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, the only two victims Wayne Williams was convicted of killing among at least 29 black men and boys Williams, then 23, was suspected of killing between 1979 and 1981. Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the two murders.
Photo: Getty Images

Though Williams was tried for just two killings, the Atlanta Police Department attributed at least 22 of the other 29 known homicides to Williams and closed those cases. He is also a potential suspect in the case of a black child who went missing but was never found. 

Now 60, Williams has maintained his innocence in the homicides. Others, including former investigators and parents of some of the victims, also doubt Williams’ guilt.  

Thomas told WSB-TV last week’s announcement by Atlanta Mayor Kiesha Lance Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields made him decide to tell his story. He gave a sardonic smile as he talked of listening to news reports of Williams denying his guilt.

“This guy’s saying that he didn’t do it, and I’m saying, ‘No, man, no,” Thomas said. “This guy, he’s dangerous.”

>> Related story: Police to retest evidence in Atlanta child murder cases

The Rev. Johnny L. Jones of the Second Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Atlanta speaks April 23, 1981, at the funeral of 15-year-old Joseph Bell. Bell was one of about 29 black men and boys killed in a 23-month span in 1979 and 1981 in and around Atlanta. Wayne Williams, now 60, is serving life in prison in the murders of two of those victims, Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21. The series of killings, the majority of which were of children, became known as the Atlanta child murders. Williams was never convicted of any of the children’s slayings.
Photo: AP Photo

Former FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Jones told WSB-TV Thomas’ story is credible. 

“I think the story he is telling, it didn’t seem rehearsed,” Jones told the news station. “It seemed credible to me.”

It could also be invaluable to investigators involved in the new probe of the slayings. They could use Thomas’ story to comb records for similar crimes that may have been missed.

They could also potentially gain additional insight into how Williams got close to his alleged victims. Williams, then a 23-year-old freelance cameraman and wannabe record producer, may also have used the promise of a potential music career to lure some of his young victims. 

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Atlanta police officials have created a hotline for tips in the case, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Anyone with information on the slayings can call 404-546-2603.

Regardless of the outcome of the new probe, Thomas told WSB-TV he is grateful to be alive. 

“It could have went the other way, (from) what I know now,” he said. 

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