On July 21, 1979, a 14-year-old boy disappeared. Four days later, another teen went missing. Both, it was soon learned, had been killed.
It was the beginning of a shocking series of murders — some 29 in all — that would take place over the next 22 months in Atlanta. The victims were all young African Americans, and as the death toll mounted, so did fear and tension across the city.
None of the crimes appeared to fall under federal law, but as the murders continued, local politicians, the news media, and even Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn asked the Department of Justice to permit U.S. involvement, and the attorney general did so on November 6, 1980, authorizing a preliminary investigation. On November 17, the FBI launched a major case investigation, devoting more than two dozen agents and other personnel to the case full time.
They joined local and state law enforcement officers on a task force investigating the murders. Collectively, they focused on a dozen disappearances with several shared traits. The victims were all young African-American males who vanished in broad daylight in fairly public locations. Their bodies were found in desolate areas. Their murders had no obvious motivation (in contrast, two other homicides from that period appeared to have been gang-related). These commonalities suggested a single killer.
The case continued through the winter and into the spring of 1981. By late April, however, the killer began to change his behavior, dumping the victims’ bodies in the Chattahoochee River. Members of the task force staked out the 14 bridges in the Atlanta metropolitan area that crossed the river and patiently waited.
On May 22, a big break came in the case. One of the groups conducting surveillance heard a loud splash around 2:52 a.m. A car sped across the bridge, turned around in a parking lot on the other side, and sped back across the bridge. The vehicle was pursued and stopped. The driver was a 23-year-old African-American freelance photographer named Wayne Williams.
Lacking probable cause, authorities let Williams go. But when the body of a young African-American man named Nathaniel Cater was found downstream two days later, more attention was paid to Williams. Investigators soon learned that his alibi was poor and that he had been arrested earlier that year for impersonating a police officer. Later, he failed multiple polygraph examinations.
Williams was arrested on June 21, 1981, and convicted of two murders on February 27, 1982, after he was linked to the victims through meticulous hair and fiber analysis and witness testimony. Following the trial, the law enforcement task force concluded that there was enough evidence to link Williams to another 20 of the 29 deaths. He went to jail for life, and the Atlanta child killings stopped.