William A.H. Williams (at left in white jacket, shown in 1974), the man who kidnapped Atlanta Constitution editor Reg Murphy in 1974, called the Journal-Constitution Feb. 20, 2014, to comment on the 40th anniversary of the event. Why did he choose Murphy as a target? “I guess I didn’t like his editorials,” Williams, now 73 and living in Las Vegas, said.
Photo: Calvin Cruce / AJC File
Photo: Calvin Cruce / AJC File

40 years later, a kidnapper apologizes for holding Atlanta editor captive

It was an odd phone call Thursday afternoon to managing editor Mark Waligore. The man on the other end of the line said he had kidnapped one of Waligore’s predecessors exactly 40 years ago.

He had no idea I had been searching for him for a month. I was writing a Personal Journey about the 1974 kidnapping of Atlanta Constitution editor Reg Murphy and had tried all sorts of ways to get in touch with the perpetrator, William A.H. Williams. That story was pre-printed last week and appears in today’s Living & Arts section.

Williams’ call to the newspaper was coincidental. Now 73, he’s a retired jack-of-many trades who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Las Vegas with a cat named Miss Molly and enjoys tending a bucket garden on his patio.

He’s also trying to beat Stage 4 melanoma and was getting reflective of his life. He was thinking about Feb. 20, 1974, the evening he approached the front door of Murphy’s Druid Hills home and convinced the editor to leave with him to help a charity. Minutes later while driving, Williams pulled a gun and later stuffed Murphy blindfolded into the trunk.

“I thought after 40 years, I should say something,” Williams said, explaining the reason for his call. “I’m still around and have no malice in my heart.”

Williams kept Murphy captive for three days, playing cat-and-mouse with FBI agents and newspaper executives as the city watched the episode play out on TV.

Managing editor Jim Minter ended up delivering the ransom money driving an open-air Jeep wearing only slacks, gym shoes and a T-shirt, as the kidnapper had directed. Asked why he made that demand, Williams laughed, saying he could not remember. He said he was so zoned out on speed pills that his plan was half-baked at best.

“Mentally, I didn’t know if I was on foot or on horseback,” he said. “I didn’t plan it out. The goal was to get the money and then plfffft…. I didn’t think it through past that point. Even to this day, I ask myself, ‘What in the hell was I thinking?’ “

About six hours after receiving $700,000 in ransom money and releasing Murphy in the parking lot of a Ramada Inn, the FBI kicked in the door of Williams’ Lilburn home and arrested him and his then-wife, Betty. She pleaded guilty to lesser charges, divorced him and drifted off into the mists of time. Macon, he thinks. He has not seen his daughter, Janet, since. She would be 43, he figures. He’d like to meet her again.

Williams said he has been married four times. Or maybe five, he added, not exactly sure. “My big regret is how I treated my first wife,” he said, the one before Betty. He has a couple of girlfriends, these days. “I just can’t stop.”

Williams says the nine-plus years he served in prison saved his life and allowed him to earn two college degrees in psychology. He points out with some pride that he was convicted on federal extortion charges, but not kidnapping. Prosecutors couldn’t determine if he took Murphy past state lines to get a federal kidnapping conviction. But, he notes, he did it — “no ifs, ands or buts.”

The kidnapping took place two weeks after newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Murphy’s abduction on the heels of that — by the until-then unheard of American Revolutionary Army — turned the Atlanta case into a brief national sensation. It turns out Williams’ “army” was a one-man operation that existed only in his mind.

Why Murphy? He can’t remember. “I guess I didn’t like his editorials,” Williams ventured. “I thought he was a leftist liberal.”

Williams said he sort of came to his senses about a day into the kidnapping and tried to allow the blind-folded Murphy to escape.

Murphy went on to head newspapers in San Francisco and Baltimore, as well as the National Geographic Society and United States Golf Association. He lives in a large home on a golf course in St. Simons Island.

Williams claims the kidnapping turned Murphy into a celebrity and helped boost his career. “If it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t be (in St. Simons) right now and if not for that (kidnapping) I wouldn’t be here down and out,” he said, quickly adding, “I enjoy my life.”

Williams’s career path sounds like the makings of a bad country song: He sold cars in El Paso, condominium time shares in New Mexico and newspaper subscriptions in Las Vegas. He also worked in a Nebraska meatpacking plant.

Williams is now a Muslim and will learn if he is clear of cancer after a doctor’s visit March 17.

If he is not, “then so what? I’m ready. I’m coming to a lot of reckoning.”

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