'Atlanta Monster' Podcast Hopes To 'Close The Door' On 1970s Child Murders

Feb 8, 2018
Originally published on February 8, 2018 4:18 pm

If you lived in Atlanta in the late 1970s or early '80s, you heard this question every night: "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?"

The reason that TV news started broadcasting that question every night: Many people didn't know where their children were. Kids were disappearing. Their bodies would turn up in the woods, strangled.

Between 1979 and 1981, at least 28 black children and young adults were killed in Atlanta. Those murders are the focus of the true-crime podcast Atlanta Monster, created by Payne Lindsey and Donald Albright.

"The police had no idea what was going on," Lindsey says. "They didn't know if it was a serial killer or if there was any pattern to this at all. But as the numbers grew, the community in Atlanta became very paranoid and started lobbying for the government to do something about this."


Interview Highlights

On the racial climate in Atlanta when the child murders began

Donald Albright: I mean, you gotta think, it's 1980 Atlanta. We're in the South. You know, it's 15 years removed from civil rights legislation. So there's already a tension, and the city's going through a change: first African-American police chief, first African-American mayor. So everything is on high alert when it comes to racial tensions. So then dozens of African-American children start disappearing and then are found being murdered. You know, the first thing people went to is, "This is somehow racially motivated." They didn't know who or why, but the first people you would think of in that instance would be, "This has to be some sort of Ku Klux Klan conspiracy." And there really wasn't a better answer out there. Especially because of the times.

On how police first handled the missing children reports

Albright: What I see is, they looked at these kids and they said, "OK, well that kid was probably a runaway." That's what they say a lot of times when it's a poor black child that goes missing: "Probably a runaway, probably [will] turn up in a week or two, or went to his friend's house. No big deal." And then these kids were gone for long periods of time, and then bodies were being discovered. And then it was the fight to get the deaths noticed. It's just one of those things where I think people wished that it wasn't what it was. But the fact that these were victims that you could easily ignore, you know, I think that played a lot into it.

On what suggested there might be a serial killer involved

Payne Lindsey: Well, at first it was just the development of a pattern. They started seeing kids showing up in the same places. They were dying by asphyxiation. And the FBI was able to develop this sort of pattern of similarities in all these killings. And it was kind of a messy operation because it was just so many people involved. But the FBI was able to identify a pattern, and they sort of built this profile of who this killer may be, and they literally staked out bridges in Atlanta waiting for another body to come, to try and catch this person.

On how bridge stakeouts near the Chattahoochee River led police to Wayne Williams in May 1981

Lindsey: A police recruit heard a splash down there in the water by the bridge, and that was FBI special agent Mike McComas, and he was in charge of the bridge stakeouts in Atlanta. And there were about 14, 15 bridges they were staking out for 30 days. And this recruit hears a large splash, which he thinks is a body, shines his flashlight on the water but doesn't see anything — sees ripples. They see a car up there on the bridge. They stop it, and then they find Wayne Williams. And you know, after that they begin to tail Wayne Williams and look into this guy.

Albright: Three days later, the body of Nathaniel Cater was found about 500 yards downriver. So that's what clued them into that that must be, you know, they theorized that was the body he dropped that night. It wasn't long after that he was arrested.

On the case that investigators built against Wayne Williams

Lindsey: It was carpet fibers and dog hairs they were able to link from Wayne Williams — his car, his home — to some of the victims. Besides that, everything else was mostly circumstantial. And he obviously had failed a couple of polygraph tests, but those were inadmissible in court. Besides that, they didn't have much against him.

On why Williams was only convicted of the murders of two adults

Lindsey: The biggest question that surrounds that case is, "If Wayne Williams is the Atlanta Monster, is the Atlanta child murderer, then why was he only convicted of killing two adults?" And that's how the families feel, that's how some people in the community feel. It just doesn't add up all the way.

On what happened after Williams was arrested

Lindsey: That's one thing that the FBI kind of hangs their hat on is that the killing stopped. Obviously the killings didn't stop entirely. Unfortunately, there's been other kids who have been murdered since 1982. I think what they really mean is that the pattern cases decreased.

Albright: And it was a shaky pattern to begin with. Some of these kids had stab wounds, some of them had genital mutilation, some of them were beaten with objects, some of them were just strangled. They were found in various places, various counties, so there's not a distinct pattern that you would think of, like when you, you know, people who are accustomed to watching serial killer movies or hearing about this serial killer calling card, there was nothing like that, that definitely tied Wayne Williams to all of these victims.

On whether they've discovered more questions than answers

Lindsey: I mean, this case is so complicated. It's so convoluted. There's information everywhere, that sometimes ... the more you dig, the more questions you have. But in that same process, you're answering some of the questions too. I think that there's just so much gray area in this case, it's time for somebody, something — a project like this — to close the door on this thing. It's been way too long, and this, for me, is one of the last chances to do it.

Monika Evstatieva produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Living in Atlanta in the late 1970s, early '80s, we heard this question every night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?

KELLY: Do you know where your children are? And the reason that TV news started broadcasting that question every night was many people didn't know where their children were. Kids were disappearing. Their bodies would turn up in the woods, strangled. Between 1979 and 1981, at least 28 black children and young adults were killed in Atlanta. The Atlanta child murders - they're the focus of the true crime podcast Atlanta Monster. And the creators of that podcast, Payne Lindsey and Donald Albright, join me now. Welcome to you both.

PAYNE LINDSEY: Hey, how you doing?

DONALD ALBRIGHT: Thanks for having us.

KELLY: I was a kid in Atlanta then. I was 8 or 9 years old, so the same age as some of the kids who were disappearing. And I remember the fear that gripped Atlanta in those years. For those who don't know the story, I wonder if you would just recap briefly what started happening in 1979.

LINDSEY: It started with African-American kids just going missing. And the police had no idea what was going on. They didn't know if it was a serial killer or if there was any pattern to this at all. But as the numbers grew, the community in Atlanta became very paranoid and started lobbying for the government to do something about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We are paying people to maintain the safety of the streets of the city of Atlanta. If the safety of the city of Atlanta is not maintained, then the people that we are hiring to do that job need to be looked at carefully. If that job is not done, then we need to look towards why we are paying people not to do a job.

LINDSEY: And as about two years went by, the number was near 30 African-American kids who had turned up murdered. And so all the law enforcement agencies were on this hunt for this mysterious serial killer. And the entire city and really the nation was on high alert.

KELLY: And, I mean, part of the, you know, uncertainty as this started unfolding was disagreement over whether this was a serial killer or not, what exactly was happening. I mean, even some of the parents weren't quite sure what to make of this situation.

ALBRIGHT: Yeah. I mean, there was up to, I think, at least 14 victims. They still weren't sure that this was a serial killer or that these were even patterned cases. So the FBI got involved after 14 children had been missing. Some had already been found murdered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: St. Anthony's Church was crowded with Patrick Baltazar's family, his friends and classmates. The shock of his disappearance 10 days ago had barely sunk in when they learned Friday that his body had been found. Patrick's fellow fifth-graders sat quietly, attentively, wondering why their friend had been taken from them.

ALBRIGHT: You know, a lot of back-and-forth. And ultimately all the law enforcement organizations got involved. At the time, it was the largest task force ever assembled with over 400 agents. So, you know, it ended up getting the nation's attention and the attention of law authorities.

KELLY: Yeah. And part of what your podcast focuses on in telling this story is how differently different neighborhoods and communities in Atlanta viewed what was going on. I mean, people in black neighborhoods - and we mentioned this was - all the kids going missing were black - they saw this as city leaders and Atlanta police not stepping up to protect them. Is that right, Donald?

ALBRIGHT: Yeah. So what I see is, you know, they looked at these kids and said, OK, well, that kid is probably a runaway. That's what they say a lot of times when it's a poor black child that goes missing - probably a runaway, probably turn up in a week or two or went to his friend's house. No big deal. And then these kids were gone for long periods of time. And then bodies were, you know, being discovered. And then it took - then it was the fight to get the deaths noticed. And it's just one of those things where I think people wish that it wasn't what it was. But the fact that these were victims that you could easily ignore - you know, I think that played a lot into it.

KELLY: Let me fast-forward us to May 1981. By this point, there was a huge manhunt underway. Cops were staking out bridges crossing the Chattahoochee River. And I remember that so vividly because the Chattahoochee River runs right past my old school. Our football field backed up to it. And on this one particular evening, a police surveillance team is staking out a bridge right there, and they hear a big splash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE MCCOMAS: And I remember getting on the radio and asking, you know, what's going on? And all I heard was something about a splash.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCOMAS: I had a '77 Ford LTD with 400 Big Block in it. And I can tell you I scorched tires getting up there because I said something's happening. And I just felt it.

KELLY: They were at the bridge on this stakeout that night because they had been finding children's bodies in the river. Is that right?

LINDSEY: That is correct.

KELLY: OK, so that's the moment where they see Wayne Williams, the man who would eventually be charged and convicted in connection with the child murders. What happened?

LINDSEY: A police recruit heard a splash down there in the water by the bridge. And that was FBI Special Agent Mike McComas. And he was in charge of the bridge stakeouts in Atlanta. There was about 14, 15 bridges they were staking out for 30 days. And this recruit hears a loud splash which he thinks is a body, shines his flashlight on the water, doesn't see anything, but sees ripples. They see a car up there on the bridge. They stop it. And then they find Wayne Williams. And, you know, after that they began to tail Wayne Williams and look into this guy. And he was...

KELLY: They didn't arrest him right away.

LINDSEY: They didn't. They let them go that night.

ALBRIGHT: But three days later, the body of Nathaniel Cater was found about 500 yards downriver. So that's what clued them into that that must, you know - they theorized that was the body that he dropped that night. And it wasn't long after that that he was arrested.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Wayne Williams is an Atlantan (ph) born and bred, 23 years old, a product of the city's public school system. People who know Williams say he is a highly intelligent young man, a good student when he was in school.

KELLY: All that said and done, he was convicted and sentenced in 1982. But that was for the murders of two young adults. They never actually tried him or anybody else in court for the children's deaths. Why not?

LINDSEY: That's the biggest question that surrounds this case, is if Wayne Williams is the Atlanta monster, is the Atlanta child murderer, then why was he only convicted of killing two adults? And that's how the families feel. That's how some people in the community feel. It just doesn't add up all the way.

KELLY: And was part of it he was arrested and the killings stopped?

LINDSEY: That's one thing that the FBI kind of hangs their hat on, is that the killings stopped. Obviously, the killings didn't stop entirely. Unfortunately, there's been other kids who have been murdered since 1982. I think what they really mean is that the patterned cases decreased.

ALBRIGHT: And it was a shaky pattern to begin with. Some of these kids had stab wounds. Some of them had genital mutilation. Some of them were beaten with objects. Some of them were just strangled. They were found in various places, various counties. So there's not a distinct pattern that you would think of like when you - you know, people who are accustomed to watching serial killer movies or hearing about these serial killer calling cards, there was nothing like that that definitively tied Wayne Williams to all these victims.

KELLY: It sounds like having spent months and months investigating this, you two have more questions now than when you began.

LINDSEY: Yeah. I mean, this case is so complicated, it's so convoluted, there's information everywhere that sometimes, like you said, the more you dig, the more questions you have. But in that same process, you're answering some of the questions, too. And I think that there's just so much gray area in this case it's time to - for somebody, something, a project like this to close the door on this thing. It's been way too long. And this, to me, is one of the last chances to do it.

KELLY: Payne Lindsey and Donald Albright, creators of the true crime podcast Atlanta Monster, thanks to you both.

ALBRIGHT: Thank you. I appreciate it.

LINDSEY: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.