Dawud Shabazz joined the search party, but wasn’t prepared for what they found. The little girl’s hair was still in beaded pigtails. Her bones were scattered in the grass.
“I just saw my kid laying there,” recalled Shabazz, whose own four children ranged in age from 3 to 13 at the time.
The remains were those of LaTonya Wilson, 7. She was one of 29 black youths and young adults killed from 1979 to 1981, the era of the Atlanta Child Murders.
The ongoing horror story changed life forever for many in Atlanta.
“It’s 11 o’clock, do you know where your children are?” longtime Channel 2 anchor Monica Pearson would begin nightly broadcasts during that time. “It affected how people saw the city,” she recalled.
Police investigated dozens of suspects. Some confessed but were eliminated because cops believed they were mentally ill and lying. State and local authorities debated whether one killer or many were taking children who’d vanished while walking home from the roller rink, while working odd jobs or just standing on the sidewalk. Concerned residents responded by patrolling neighborhoods, some carrying baseball bats.
“The city was like a powder keg ready to explode,” said activist Michael Langford, then a Morris Brown College student.
Shabazz installed new locks and rarely slept through the night. He and his wife sent her two sons to live with their dad in West Africa, believing they’d be safer there than in Atlanta.
“I’m so hurt and upset these things happened to these innocent children,” Shabazz said.
All these years later, the hurt hasn’t left him. Neither have lingering doubts about whether Wayne Williams is the one culprit guilty of all the crimes ascribed to him. After he was convicted in 1982 in the cases of two adults’ murders, police closed most of the other cases. Williams was given two life sentences, and charging him with further crimes was unnecessary, authorities decided at the time.
In March, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that police and prosecutors would take a new look, using modern technology to test old evidence in case something was overlooked the first time.
“It may be there is nothing left to be tested,” said Bottoms, who recalled living through the grim chapter in Atlanta’s history as a terrified 9-year-old. “But I do think history will judge us by our actions and we will be able to say we tried.”
It’s unclear what the new efforts have borne out. The Atlanta Police Department has declined to detail its progress with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but did grant an interview to The New York Times.
“I think the investigators were under such political pressure that they were not allowed to do their jobs to the extent they could,” Police Chief Erika Shields told the Times, stressing that she was not judging the original officers. At the mayor’s March news conference, Shields said officials had an obligation to do everything possible to bring closure all these decades later.
A somber milestone
The 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Atlanta Child Murders sparked a surge of renewed interest, and in Williams, who is held at Telfair State Prison in southeast Georgia. He has maintained his innocence.
Local broadcaster Frank Ski interviewed Williams in prison years ago, after receiving letters from him. He didn’t open the letters at first, and approached their meeting with some trepidation.
“At first I was afraid,” Ski said during an interview with the AJC. “I didn’t know what he was going to be like.”
He was surprised at Williams’ slight stature and left wondering, like many have over the decades, if he could indeed have pulled off all of the crimes.
“Wayne maybe weighed 160 pounds wet. When I first met him that’s what I thought: who is this itty bitty guy?” Ski said. “He said he is not the guy and he feels like he was framed.”
Ski also has interviewed some victims’ family members about their doubts, and deems himself skeptical that Williams is sole guilty party behind all of the killings.
There’s been disagreement among investigators as well.
Retired Atlanta homicide detective Danny Agan, who appeared at Bottoms’ news conference and in a recent Investigation Discovery documentary, said he believes Williams committed most, but not necessarily all of the murders. His former colleague, Bob Buffington, believes Williams is behind 24 of the crimes. Late prosecutor Jack Mallord always maintained the case against Williams was solid and based on unassailable fiber and hair evidence.
“There are some doubters who continue to beat the drum on behalf of Williams’ claims the the was railroaded and framed. As in other high-profile cases, no doubt conspiratorial claims will continue,” he wrote in “The Atlanta Child Murders: The Night Stalker.” His 2009 book includes details about the police and FBI stakeouts that led to Williams’ arrest, the hair, fiber and blood evidence investigators examined, trial testimony and details about the victims.
The skeletal remains of LaTonya Williams, Mallord wrote, were identified through dental records and her clothing. They were discovered in October 1980, four months after she disappeared, “by a search party of volunteers.”
‘God is with you’
LaTonya’s parents reported her missing on June 22, 1980. The perpetrator would have had to remove a pane of glass from a window, come inside and carried the child out the back door, all without waking LaTonya, her parents or siblings, police said at the time. Investigators called the case odd and surprising.
Shabazz was among the volunteers who joined officials for a massive search on Oct. 18, 1980. His team came upon the child’s remains at Sewanne Avenue and Verbena Street, not far from her home. Shabazz felt weak and had to sit down as officers and news crews swarmed.
After word spread a body was found, Willie Mae Mathis came to the scene and began sobbing. Mathis’ son Jefferey, 10, had gone missing in March 1980.
“Hold on, sister,” Shabazz told her. “God is with you, and so are we.”
Jefferey’s body would be discovered the following February. Nearly 24 years later, Willie Mae Mathis moved from the Atlanta house she’d lived in for 30 years. She didn’t go far, relocating right next door, and made sure to keep the same phone number.
“I have been thinking about my son every day since he left the house,” she told the AJC in 2005. “Every time the phone rang, I thought it was him.”
The late Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s mayor at the time, had come to Mathis’ house to personally deliver the terrible news when Jefferey’s remains were found. Still, she clung to the hope that maybe there had been a mistake.
“If someone got him after all these years, maybe he can find his way home. That is why I have never changed my phone number,” she said during the 2005 interview. She died the next year.
It was a meeting with another long-grieving parent that prompted Bottoms to announced the new investigative efforts. Catherine Leach-Bell’s son, 13-year-old Curtis Walker, was among the victims. Leach-Bell feels sickened at the thought that the case may yet be unsolved.
“I ask the Lord who did it, she said, “and why.”
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