The Atlanta Child Murders

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Abstract

Between 1979 and 1981, at least twenty-eight children, teenagers, and adults were murdered in and around Atlanta, Georgia. This was labeled as the worst serial murder case to occur in and around Atlanta, Georgia. Forensic evidence, the presence of carpet fibers on several of the murder victims, became the main evidence pointing to a local man, Wayne Bertram Williams, who would come to be known as the Atlanta Child Murderer. This forensic evidence, along with circumstantial evidence such as Williams being seen with several of the murder victims before their disappearances, led to a jury of his peers declaring he was guilty of at least two of the murders and the presiding judge, Judge Clarence Cooper, sentencing him to two consecutive life sentences in Hancock State Prison in Sparta, Georgia. While other forensic evidence, like the presence of the pair of gloves and some nylon rope in his car, could have assisted with the conviction of Wayne Bertram Williams, it was the tracing of the carpet fibers found on some of the murder victims from the manufacturer of the carpet to the carpet in Williams’ house that convinced the jury to declare that he was guilty.

The Atlanta Child Murders

A murder trial for Wayne Bertram Williams took place in Atlanta, Georgia from the end of December 1981 to the end of February of the following year. Judge Clarence Cooper was the presiding judge and the verdict of the jury was guilty of two acts of murder in the first degree. The sentence was to serve two consecutive years in Hancock State Prison, located in Sparta, Georgia.

The Beginning

The Atlanta Child Murders began in the summer of 1979 with the disappearance of a fourteen-year-old boy named Edward Hope Smith and a thirteen-year-old boy named Alfred Evans. Edward Hope Smith and Alfred Evans disappeared four days apart and were found in the same location three days after Evans had vanished, a desolate, wooded area. These were later suspected to be the first victims of a man the police labeled as the Atlanta Child Murderer. As many as twenty other children disappeared in and around Atlanta between the summer of 1979 and the beginning of 1981. In February of 1981, carpet fibers were discovered with the body of twelve-year-old Patrick Baltazar, assumed to be the sixteenth murder victim of the Atlanta Child Murderer. “Before Wayne Williams became a suspect, the Georgia State Crime Laboratory located a number of yellowish-green nylon fibers and some violet acetate fibers on the bodies of victims murdered in the Atlanta area. The fibers appeared to have a common source” (Deadman, 1984, p. 10). These carpet fibers were traced by the Federal Bureau of Investigations to a local carpet manufacturer in Atlanta, West Point Pepperell. The forensic evidential line of investigation then went from the carpet manufacturer, West Point Pepperell, in Atlanta, Georgia to the carpet in Williams’ house.

Wayne Williams

While staking out several bridges in the area in 1981, one of the police officers heard a splash in the Chattahoochee River and questioned Wayne Williams, who happened to be leaving the scene at the time in his mother’s Chevrolet station wagon. The police officer allowed him to leave, though there were gloves and nylon rope on the seat of the station wagon. Two days after that, the body of Nathaniel Cater was found floating a few miles south of the location where the police officer had heard the splash beneath the bridge. “An essential part of this case, presented by the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, involved the association of fibrous debris removed from the bodies of 12 murder victims with objects from the everyday environment of Williams” (Deadman, 1984, p. 10). Similar carpet fibers to the ones found on Patrick Baltazar were also found on Nathaniel Cater. This led to police officers interrogating Williams and searching his house. Fibers from Williams’ house were matched with fibers found on some of the other murder victims. “Expert witnesses testified that it was highly unlikely that any environment other than that present in Wayne Williams' house and car could have produced the combination of fibers and hairs found on the victims, especially when there were so many varied origins” (Deadman, 1984, p. 10). This forensic evidence led to the conviction of Wayne Williams.

Forensic Evidence

The existence of carpet fibers was the only forensic evidence needed. Wayne Bertram Williams was convicted of the murders of Jimmy Ray Payne and Nathaniel Cater and sentenced to Hancock State Prison in February of 1982. The carpet fibers found on Cater, as well as fibers found on some of the other victims had been traced to a carpet manufacturer in Atlanta and then traced to Williams’ house. “Laboratory results obtained from the Georgia State Crime Laboratory have shown that Williams is linked to many of the task force victims in that fibers like those in a bedspread and carpet from Williams’ room and dog hairs like those from Williams’ dog were recovered from many of the victims” (Cronin, n.d., p. 3). The FBI was able to indict Williams with the murders of Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne. The disappearances stopped after Williams was arrested. Yet, this is not the end of the story.

More Forensic Evidence - After the Fact

Years later, in 2019, the case of the Atlanta Child Murders was reopened by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “The point is not to vindicate convicted murderer Wayne Williams, who was implicated as the prime suspect in the slayings, but to provide closure to the families of victims who have long sought answers about their children's killers, said Bottoms” (McLaughlin, 2019, p. 1). She later told Police Chief Erika Shields that she wanted to, “give some peace -- to the extent that peace can be had in a situation like this -- to the victims' families” (McLaughlin, 2019, p. 1). Also, with new equipment, equipment that wasn’t available in the 1980s, there may be a possibility to clear up some of the confusion of what happened. “The city, Fulton County and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation will be examining never-before-analyzed evidence and re-examining other evidence in the case, though officials did not promise any outcomes that would change the 40-year-old narrative” (McLaughlin, 2019, p. 1). With this new equipment and technology comes closure for the families of the victims.

In conclusion, though there was a mass amount of circumstantial evidence, along with a great amount of evidence provided by witnesses, it was the forensic evidence that authorities utilized to indict and convict Wayne Bertram Williams. Even though many people had seen Wayne Williams in the company of many of the murder victims of the Atlanta Child Murders, it was the forensic evidence, the carpet fibers that were found on many of the murder victims that connected Williams to those murder victims, albeit to the murders themselves.

References

Cronin, W. (n.d.). Atlanta Child murders part 22 of 24. FBI Crime Vault, (p. 3 of 97). Atlanta. Retrieved from https://vault.fbi.gov/Atlanta%20Child%20Murders/Atlanta%20Child%20Murders%20Part%2022%20of%2024/view

Deadman, H. (1984). Fiber evidence and the Wayne Williams Trial. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 53(5), 10-19. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=94475

McLaughlin, E. C. (2019, March 21). Back under the microscope. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/21/us/atlanta-child-murders-wayne-williams-mayor-bottoms/index.html