Wayne Williams, at the Valdosta Correctional Instution in 1991. (Jonathan Newton / AJC file)
Photo: Jonathan Newton/AJC
Photo: Jonathan Newton/AJC

From 1991: Wayne Williams 10 years after Missing and Murdered

(Note: This article was originally published on June 16, 1991, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) 

For Wayne B. Williams, the most notorious of Georgia's 22,000 prisoners, life is spartan but never simple. "I cry. I break down," he admits. Then his legendary resolve returns: "But you will never see me banging my head against the wall. Not me." 

Williams is a 33-year-old dormitory orderly in a South Georgia prison, working the late shift. He usually sleeps past breakfast on the top bunk in his cell. He rooms with a convicted murderer from Columbus. "We pass the time with chitchat," says cellmate Jeffery Allen. "Nothing important. Ballgames" - he laughs - "and women." 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covered the disappearance and murder of young children in the city as they happened. When Wayne Williams was arrested and convicted, we were there. Read the AJC’s comprehensive real-time coverage on our Wayne Williams page.

Williams's arrest on Father's Day 10 years ago led him toward infamy. Prosecutors portrayed him as a domineering manipulator with a disdain for uneducated young blacks and likened him to Adolf Hitler, Attila the Hun and Idi Amin. He was convicted of two murders and implicated in 22 others in Atlanta's Missing and Murdered case. 

In his own way, Wayne Williams - whose very name evokes a period of time, an aura - still exudes control. He defiantly maintains his innocence and still receives, and denies, letters that request his autograph. 

Today, Williams weighs a firm 140 pounds, down 35 from the bloat of his trial, and though 5-foot-7 he plays prison-yard basketball like a desperado, fancying himself as one of his heroes, the Detroit Pistons' Bill Laimbeer, a 6-foot-11 center with a tough-guy reputation. He has two broken fingers as a result. 

In his first extensive interview about prison life in a decade, Wayne Williams says: "I guess one reason that I can do this 'time' in such a content manner is because by the age I was when I was arrested . . . I had pretty much lived, I guess you could say, a fuller life than a lot of people do with regular 9-to-5s by the time they reach 40. I had done a lot of things in my life, worked a lot of different careers that I enjoyed. I enjoyed that time because it was quality years, so I really didn't miss out on a lot." 

Later, he amends his statement: " 'Content' is the wrong word altogether. Let's just face it - nobody can be content with this mess." 

Williams recently posed for a photograph in the yard of the Valdosta Correctional Institution. As a group of inmates watched silently and a few others picked up litter nearby, Williams changed poses and removed his glasses without direction. He later told a Department of Corrections monitor that he wanted to limit future media contact. 

"They just need to leave W.W. alone," he said. 

CHANCE CROSSINGS 

The lives of 30 young blacks were lost from 1979 to 1981 in the Missing and M urdered case. It represented the city's most traumatic, self-conscious period of the century. "The state of Georgia," wrote James Baldwin, "had never before exhibited so intense an interest in Black life or Black death." 

Atlanta has swept past the case, but those who were inside its crucible often have found themselves rotating in the same eerie orbit. 

Wayne Williams has conversed in prison with the brothers of several of the victims - they were fellow inmates. He even shared his case files with the brothers of victims Jefferey Mathis and Patrick Rogers. "We had a good understanding," Williams says. 

"I truly hope they find out who killed their children." - Wayne Williams

He probably would have had a different sort of meeting with Kenneth Chester, brother of victim Billy Barrett. Chester was convicted of vehicular homicide in Decatur last year, then told his mother, Janie Glenn, "I hope they send me where Wayne is." Ms. Glenn believes her son wanted a chance at retribution. 

But when Chester arrived at the prison in Jackson, he learned that Williams, who was implicated in Billy Barrett's murder, had been transferred to Valdosta three months earlier. 

Willie Mae Mathis, mother of 10-year-old victim Jefferey Mathis, often saw Faye and Homer Williams at the local supermarket, after their son's February 1982 conviction. There were never any exchanges, though Mrs. Mathis recalls wanting to say, "This is what you raised - a beast! That's what you get for not beating his butt sooner!" 

It has been a decade filled with confusion, denial, revulsion and misunderstanding among those who were intimately involved. Wayne Williams says he's contacted some of the victims' mothers. "I truly hope they find out who killed their children," he says. 

Wayne Williams believes all of these crossings might carry a deeper, ethereal meaning. "There's been too many coincidences that keep happening," he says. "Apparently God must have meant whatever happened to have occurred. 

"That's the only way I can read it. I do think about that a lot." 

A 'GOOD INMATE' 

Department of Corrections Commissioner Bobby Whitworth denied a reporter in-person access to Williams, though he allowed a photographer to enter the Valdosta facility. Williams consented to five telephone interviews over five weeks, totaling about four hours. 

His voice is alternately hip, relaxed, defiant and measured. Whatever his emotion, Wayne Williams's voice always sounds powerful, in control. "I was in the media," the onetime free-lance television photographer says. "I know what time it is." 

Corrections officials say Williams is a "good inmate" and rarely has been a source of trouble, though internal Department of Corrections documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicate that in 1987 he twice received 14 days in isolation: once for hiding turkey nuggets, biscuits and a plate of eggs in his cell and again for fighting with an inmate who had hit him in the forehead with an ash can. Williams responded by striking the inmate with a mop ringer. 

Williams says the fight was with a friend. "It was over a silly argument," he says. "It was pathetic." 

High-profile inmates, and inmates convicted of crimes against children, often are separated from other prisoners as a matter of protection. Williams, however, circulates in the general prison population at Valdosta. 

Three "known predators" were listed in his prison files, but Williams says he's unaware of any threats against him since his conviction. 

"Let's just say I'm not worried about my capability to handle myself very well," he says, "unless it's a squirrel attack, a sneak attack, something totally unexpected." 

He was moved last fall from the maximum-security prison at Jackson to Valdosta, a facility that is a level below maximum. An official 1988 inmate review of Williams reads, in part: "He appears to have established appropriate peer relationships and he works well and cooperates with staff. . . . He has not utilized any leisure time or been involved in any self-help or counseling programs." 

After 10 years as a prisoner, he says, "The only thing that has changed is, age has tempered me and made me a little wiser. . . . 

"Very few things worry me to the point of getting me upset, and that helps to defuse a lot of tense situations. 'Carefree' would be the wrong word. I'm a very light-hearted person. It's almost like the class clown. You could put me in that category. That's me." 

Wayne Williams in prison in 1991. CREDIT: AJC file photo
Photo: HANDOUT

'HE DID THE DEED' 

Blighted memories of asphyxiated young blacks found in open fields and rivers across Atlanta now rise like smoke from a distant fire. 

Search parties with dogs hunted for bodies. Residents of Techwood Homes armed themselves with guns and baseball bats. A curfew was instituted for children. Symbolic green ribbons appeared across Atlanta. 

Of the 24 murders attributed to Williams, 18 of the victims were between the ages of 9 and 17. Victims were last spotted at Church's Fried Chicken, a bus stop, a mall, a gun shop. Beleaguered Mayor Maynard H. Jackson sat next to a stack of fresh bills in a bank - the reward money. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. later lent help, in concert. 

"His presence at places you wouldn't ordinarily think he should be. He did seem to have a connection with all of the boys." - a juror from Wayne Williams’ trial

The nine-week trial linked fibers pulled from the Williams family home and automobiles to fibers found on victims' bodies. The media came from as far as India. The case led to a book, then to a controversial movie. 

The jury deliberated 11 hours. One juror, requesting anonymity, recalls the most incriminating evidence: "His presence at places you wouldn't ordinarily think he should be. He did seem to have a connection with all of the boys." 

Wayne Williams is serving consecutive life sentences. He has an appeal set for September and isn't eligible for parole until June 1996, the month before the Olympics arrive in Atlanta. Williams's attorneys say he was framed and that members of the Ku Klux Klan are among the murderers. 

W.J. Taylor, the deputy Atlanta police chief who once directed the Missing and Murdered Task Force, responds: "That's poppycock. . . . He did the deed - all 24." 

Homer Williams has stood steadfastly by his son. He has even kept the 1970 Chevrolet Concourse station wagon that prosecutors allege was used by Wayne Williams to carry the bodies of some victims. 

The car serves as a father's monument to his son. Homer Williams, once a suspect himself, is now 77 and living in Columbus. He had the Chevy painted a radiant blue and says he's saving it for Wayne. 

"How they railroaded that poor boy is unbelievable!" he says. He accuses, among others, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, former FBI Director William Webster and Mayor Jackson. Mr. Bush, then vice president, helped secure $4.2 million in federal funds for the Atlanta case. Homer Williams adds, "They were trying to cover things up. . . . Atlanta was in turmoil." 

'I'M GONNA GET OUT' 

At Valdosta, Wayne Williams says he tries to maintain a low profile. He serves as a player-coach on an inmate softball team that rarely wins, but says he declines to serve as jailhouse lawyer for fellow inmates seeking his legal advice. 

"Everybody knows who I am," he says. "But I don't know some of these people from Adam Ant." 

There are select inmates whom he confides in, but he avoids prison cliques. He phones his father, collect, about every other day and says he reads several spy thrillers a month from the prison library. He watches sports on television whenever possible, doting on the Pistons and San Francisco 49ers. He even made a request over the telephone: "I need to know how many times Gerald Riggs fumbled when he was with the Falcons. That could win a lot of money for me here." 

"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." - Wayne Williams

He says if he is someday released he would first attempt to improve conditions in Georgia's corrections system and then might pursue the ministry. "I know eventually," he says, "that I'm gonna get out." 

Most importantly, Williams says, "all I want is for society to see me for the individual I am and not the creation that was necessary for the state to get a conviction." 

THE CASE AGAINST WAYNE 

Wayne Williams is widely perceived as the serial killer of black children, yet he was convicted of killing two adults: Nathaniel Cater was 27, Jimmy Ray Payne 21. There were no eyewitnesses to either killing. 

Both bodies were found in the Chattahoochee River, about one month and 100 yards apart. Seventeen of the 24 murder victims attributed to Williams were either strangled or asphyxiated; Mr. Cater and Mr. Payne reportedly were asphyxiated. 

Williams flatly denies he knew any of the victims before his arrest. He knows them now, though, and discusses their cases in a clinical manner. 

"If you look at the case group, you'll see no serial killer," Wayne Williams says. "You didn't have one general pattern, [but] two or three sub-groups with several suspects. Some were money-for-sex: Joseph Bell. Hill. Baltazar. Angel Lenair. Some were street crime. Middlebrooks. Porter. Evans. Smith. And, we'll probably find out, Payne and Cater. 

"Then some were plain psycho murders. Yusef Bell. Clifford Jones." 

Prosecutors had painted Wayne Williams as a possibly homosexual young black who suffered a stalled rise to stardom. He had graduated in the top 10 percent of his Frederick Douglass High School class. (He scored a superior 118 IQ in prison tests, according to internal documents.) The prosecutors' portrayal, he says, "put me in a Catch-22 situation: 'Well, he's brilliant and he's trying to show the world he's brilliant.' Well, that's a lie. I'm not trying to show the world, or prove anything to the world." 

As an aspiring music promoter, he auditioned young talent in Atlanta at a time when murdered young blacks were being found across the metro area: "A very unfortunate coincidence," he says. 

FIVE HOURS OF FREEDOM 

He left prison for five hours last July to attend the funeral of his mother, who died in Atlanta but was buried in Columbus. Homer Williams says he decided not to bury his wife in Atlanta because he did not want a media event. 

Wayne Williams was escorted by the Butts County sheriff in the back seat of an unmarked car. They were met by four Muscogee County deputies who monitored him at the service. "Fulton County would've had 20 or 30 cars with blue lights flashing," Wayne Williams says. "Sometimes the best security is no security at all." 

As it was, Faye Williams's funeral was held up nearly two hours, until her son arrived. 

"A lot of people could say the sheriff took a risk by taking Wayne Williams," says Wayne Williams. "There was no risk in it. If I had wanted to run I could've done that at the county jail. 

"That's the last thing from my mind right now."

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