OPINION | ‘Missing and murdered’ cases: 40 years later, still divisive

Cobb County police and the Atlanta Task Force recover Nathaniel Cater’s body from the Chattahoochee River on May 24, 1981. AJC FILE PHOTO
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Cobb County police and the Atlanta Task Force recover Nathaniel Cater’s body from the Chattahoochee River on May 24, 1981. AJC FILE PHOTO

In 1986, a correspondent for ABC’s “Nightline” was in Atlanta looking into the infamous string of homicides of young black males that occurred from 1979 to 1981 — the “missing and murdered” cases.

“That case just will not seem to go away,” he told the AJC at the time.

That Reagan-era statement is still true.

I knew HBO was making a documentary on the killings and realized it had been released when I got an angry email from Lou Arcangeli, a retired Atlanta police deputy chief.

Arcangeli was peeved that the series, and accompanying press coverage, was giving credence to the “myth of Wayne Williams’ innocence. This myth continues,” Arcangeli wrote, “despite the findings of the jury, the overwhelming physical evidence, the eyewitnesses, and the lengthy and exhaustive judicial review and appeals.”

Police and prosecutors, he wrote, get tarnished unfairly by the ceaseless “documentaries, mock-umentaries, celebrities and self-proclaimed community representatives alleging incompetence, cover-ups and claims of political pressure to frame an innocent black man.”

I talked with Arcangeli, retired Atlanta homicide detective Danny Agan and former FBI agent Jim Procopio and discovered all were miffed at the same person — Monica Kaufman Pearson.

Monica Kaufman Pearson? The beloved decades-long anchor of Atlanta’s WSB-TV? Huh?

Pearson, who worked in Atlanta during the killings, was interviewed at length by the HBO producers and serves as a narrative glue that holds the five-part series together.

In the first episode (I’ve only seen the two that have been broadcast), she issues a challenge to police, “Do what should have been done in 1979, 1980 and 1981. Do the police work. Solve the case.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at a news conference on March 21, 2019, where she announced that officials will take a fresh look at the Atlanta child murders that left nearly 30 youths and young adults dead four decades ago. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)
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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at a news conference on March 21, 2019, where she announced that officials will take a fresh look at the Atlanta child murders that left nearly 30 youths and young adults dead four decades ago. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Last year, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that police would re-investigate the cases to see if there was anything new in those dusty files.

In all, some 29 murders were linked together back when. Wayne Williams, a young black man, was convicted in 1982 of killing two adults and was linked by fiber evidence to the deaths of 10 more children during the trial. Ultimately, authorities tied 22 cases to Williams on top of the two convictions. He remains in prison.

Retired Atlanta homicide detectives Danny Agan (left) and Lou Arcangeli on March 21, 2019. Both men worked on the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders. Photo credit: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
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Retired Atlanta homicide detectives Danny Agan (left) and Lou Arcangeli on March 21, 2019. Both men worked on the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders. Photo credit: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Agan told me: “Monica, the cases were investigated. They were investigated from the beginning.”

Agan, who was at a crime scene in 1980 when detective Bob Buffington found the first fiber evidence on a body, doesn’t think Williams killed all the victims. But he believes he killed 24 of them.

He also thinks Pearson’s credibility and celebrity give credence to the idea that Williams didn’t do the killings.

“She’s been in everyone’s house for years, people are going to believe her,” he said. “It’s frustrating, it’s disheartening after all this time. This thing is rife with conspiracy theories.”

Theories have abounded in books, docudramas and a popular podcast: Cops killed the kids. The Ku Klux Klan did it. They were victims of a porno ring.

Atlanta television news icon Monica Kaufman Pearson. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM
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Atlanta television news icon Monica Kaufman Pearson. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Pearson is a journalist, not a conspiracy theorist. And, she points out, she’s married to a former cop. But she said the HBO show turned her head around in how she views the case.

In the mid-1980s, evidence surfaced that the GBI had investigated Klan involvement in the killing of at least one victim. The prosecutor, Lewis Slaton, who is long dead, said he never knew about the investigation into the KKK, so he could not turn those files over to defense attorneys as is required by law.

In 1992, Williams’ attorneys tried to use that information to get him a new trial. It didn’t work.

“There were so many things that changed my mind,” Pearson told me. “I still think Wayne Williams was involved. I still think he killed someone or someones. But I now believe white supremacists were involved.”

“What concerns me was that each individual case of the children were all dumped together at the time,” she added. “These cases were never investigated like they should have been.”

Many of the dead kids' families think their loved ones were pushed aside in an attempt at civic image control.

I’ve noticed how white and black people’s views of this case often diverge, with more black folks not buying the official version that Williams was a serial killer.

Wayne Williams in an undated photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections.
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Wayne Williams in an undated photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections.

The killings of black children and young adults from low-income neighborhoods brought about a paranoid frenzy. In some neighborhoods, baseball-bat-wielding squads were formed for protection. Once the trial ended, local leaders wanted this horror to disappear.

Procopio, the former FBI agent, summed up the situation to HBO interviewers: “This is a case of politics, greed, racism and, oh yeah, murder. They shut down the case two (weeks) after Wayne was convicted and said, ‘Yeah, he probably did all the rest of them but we’re not going to waste any more time or money. Thank you, goodbye.’ The families never got closure.”

Jurors in the Wayne B. Williams trial leave the bus to walk onto the Jackson Parkway Bridge on Feb. 13, 1982, to personally examine the site where prosecutors in the trial charged that Williams dumped his victims into the Chattahoochee River. (UPI-David Tulis-1982)
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Jurors in the Wayne B. Williams trial leave the bus to walk onto the Jackson Parkway Bridge on Feb. 13, 1982, to personally examine the site where prosecutors in the trial charged that Williams dumped his victims into the Chattahoochee River. (UPI-David Tulis-1982)

Procopio, like Agan, believes Williams did most of the killing. The evidence was solid, he said, but local officials messed up the aftermath by not properly explaining to the families why the case was being closed after Williams’ conviction.

As to any likelihood of KKK involvement, he said: “The Klan wasn’t smart enough to pull this off. And if they did, they’d be bragging about it.”

Andrew Young took over as mayor in January 1982, right as Williams’ trial started. He agrees the local leadership wanted this stain removed as quickly as possible.

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“This was a horrible time in Atlanta; there’s no question, we wanted it to go away,” he told me this week. “But we were also worried about our own kids. It wasn’t in anyone’s interest to have a fall guy. To convict the wrong man wouldn’t have stopped it.”

When talking with Young, you either get a history lesson, or embark on an odd tangent. Sometimes both.

Young said he met Wayne Williams when Williams was in middle school. Young was running for Congress, and Williams asked if he could interview Young, then brought the candidate to a room in the back of his home where the teen had set up a radio station.

“I came away very impressed,” Young said. “But something later happened to him. His parents were elderly and had no control over him.”

I asked Young if he thought the right guy was convicted.

“I do,” he said, but quickly added, “I wasn’t at the trial.”