Wayne Williams was convicted of killing two men involved with the case.

Torpy at Large: 40 years and the enduring mist of Missing and Murdered

Once again, Atlanta will try an exorcism to cast away evil spirits from its past.

Last week, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms faced a roomful of cameras and spoke of a 9-year-old Atlanta girl whose childhood was shaped by the horror and dread that shrouded the city some 40 years ago. It was a time when children and young adults went missing and ended up in body bags, their faces displayed on the 6 o’clock news.

“It robbed us of our innocence and reminded us evil was real,” said Bottoms, referring to what became known as the Atlanta Child Murders or the Missing and Murdered cases, with a tally of 29 black lives. That number has been debated, as has almost every facet of the 1979-1981 killing spree — the investigation, the conviction of a misfit named Wayne Williams, and the ongoing conspiracy theories.

The young girl in the mayor’s discussion was Bottoms herself, a child of those fearful times. On Thursday, she was flanked by Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard as she announced that authorities will pore through and retest some of the homicides.

Perhaps some DNA in a long-forgotten piece of evidence will point a finger at someone other than Williams, who was convicted of killing two adults and blamed for the murders of 22 others, mostly children.

Authorities said fiber evidence from those bodies tied them to Williams. Five other cases from the so-called “list” remain officially unsolved. Critics said Atlanta’s image-conscious power structure, both white and black, wanted the case and its devastating publicity to go away. That’s why the case was closed, they reasoned — Williams made too perfect a fall guy.

Ambulance attendants move the body of young Nathaniel Cater from the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta before taking it to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office. Wayne Williams was charged with murder in the May 1981 death of Cater, who was the latest victim in a string of slayings of young Atlanta blacks. 
Photo: Jerome McClendon / AJC 1981 file

The case has been appealed unsuccessfully with some of the nation’s top lawyers. Some cases were reopened in 2005 but quietly closed without any action. DNA samples have been tested. Books and movies have been released. And the debate goes on and on.

The mayor said she got the idea of re-examining the cases — and creating a memorial for the victims — after talking with Catherine Leach-Bell, mother of Curtis Walker, who was 13 when he was abducted and asphyxiated in 1981.

“I want to know who killed Curtis; his case is sitting on a shelf getting dusty and rusty until you can’t see the page,” the aging mother told the media throng. “They’ve been forgotten and forsaken. And it’s not right.”

Catherine Leach-Bell doesn’t think Wayne Williams killed her son. Last year, she told AJC reporter Joshua Sharpe that she thinks the Ku Klux Klan did it, although she has no evidence to prove it.

Police officers escort Wayne Williams, center, back to his house after he had an impromptu talk with the press on June 6, 1981. Williams was ultimately convicted as the lone killer in the Atlanta Child Murders, a law enforcement conclusion that remains controversial. 
Photo: Kenneth Walker / AJC 1981 file

Theories regarding the KKK killing black kids surged through Atlanta at the time of the terror, as did rumors of a crew of murderous rogue cops and a team of child molesters.

Retired Atlanta police detective Bob Buffington says a white serial killer in this case was “impossible.”

The black community was hyperfocused at the time, looking for anything out of the ordinary, he said. White people entering black communities were glaringly obvious.

Buffington, who now uses a wheelchair after having been shot on duty, was lauded by Chief Shields as being a turning point in the case. In May 1980, Buffington found fibers on the shoe of a 14-year-old victim, Eric Middlebrooks.

Shields said some in the department mocked Buffington’s “discovery,” but it ended up being the start of the key building blocks that solved the case.

Buffington said he was derided by a lieutenant who told him, “I don’t want fuzz evidence. I want real evidence — blood, eyewitnesses.”

The crime lab ultimately tied hundreds of fibers found on the bodies of numerous victims to Williams’ home and car.

“It was not one piece of carpet. We had many pieces of different fibers from various places in (Williams’) home,” Buffington told me.

Retired Atlanta police detective Bob Buffington, who collected fibers that linked Wayne Williams to the 1979-81 Atlanta Child Murders, was present on March 21, 2019, at Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ news conference. The mayor announced that officials will use advanced technology to take a fresh look at the Atlanta Child Murders. 
Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Lou Arcangeli, a retired deputy chief who was then a homicide detective, said his colleague caught flak from superiors when Buffington sensed Atlanta might have a budding serial killer.

“Bob went to our commanders and raised a question,” said Arcangeli. “And they did not like it.”

Buffington said he had noticed similarities in deaths that were listed in the daily homicide log. He wrote a letter to a major, who is now dead, expressing his concerns.

He says the major took him aside, telling him he was angling for a demotion: “If you send any more letters like that, you’ll be on morning-watch auto theft.”

Buffington believes cops and prosecutors ultimately got it right and welcomes the new review of the cases.

“I doubt you’ll find evidence that says Williams is innocent,” he said. “I’m satisfied with the work we did. I’m satisfied with the evidence we introduced. I think he did 24. I have no doubt.”

Michael Langford sits on the steps to the West Hunter Baptist Church gym in Atlanta, where he used to lead prayers before groups of volunteers would head out to patrol neighborhoods traumatized by the Atlanta Child Murders. 
Photo: Ben Gray/ AJC 2005 file

Michael Langford, a longtime community activist and former city employee, stood alongside Buffington at the press conference. His opinion of the case diverges from the retired cop’s.

“If I was on the jury, I could not have convicted on the fiber stuff,” said Langford. “One of the mistakes we made (after Williams’ 1982 trial) was to close all these cases. Our haste for conclusion, to get this nightmare behind us, was a disservice to the families. There were a lot of unhealed wounds and a lot of people pushed aside.”

Langford, just out of his teens, organized searches at the time. It was a way to help defuse the seething anger.

“I think Atlanta was on the verge of a race riot at the time,” he said. “The searches gave people an outlet.”

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

“I think that’s true,” Langford said. “Not only in this case, but in the way we look at the court system in general.”

Langford got a feeling of déjà vu last week. “When I walked into the room, it reminded me of back then. The eyes of the world were on Atlanta.”

The 40th anniversary of the case has brought back the cameras. HBO crews are shooting a documentary. Donald Albright, one of the co-creators of the popular “Atlanta Monster” podcast on the case, was there. An Investigation Discovery documentary series, “The Atlanta Child Murders,” was broadcast over the weekend.

The world’s eyes are on Atlanta again. And not in the way that we like.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced on Thursday, March 21, 2019, that officials will take a fresh look at the Atlanta Child Murders that left more than 20 youths and young adults dead four decades ago. At a news conference with Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields, Bottoms said the intention is to use technological advances to retest evidence and see if any answers emerge.
Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

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