Between 1979 and 1981, nearly 30 black children and young adults disappeared from the streets of Atlanta while walking to the convenience store or on the way to play with friends. Days or weeks later, the bodies of the victims—most of whom were male and poor—were found dumped in the woods or the Chattahoochee River. The kidnappings and killings created a panic unlike anything experienced in the city’s modern history, spurring parents to make their children play inside and birthing playground whispers of a real-life boogeyman on the loose.
Known as the Atlanta Child Murders, the crimes attracted national attention, and a two-year manhunt by local, state, and federal law enforcement ended in the middle of 1981 with the arrest of Wayne Williams. On February 27, 1982, the 23-year-old aspiring musical talent scout was convicted for the murders of two young men, Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne, and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Williams, who has maintained his innocence, was never tried for the killings of any of the children. However, Atlanta Police declared 23 of the 29 cases solved after he was found guilty.
The story spanned race and class, and lives on today, discovered for the first time by younger generations even as it has faded from some people’s memories. Five cases are considered open by DeKalb County Police. Conspiracy theories about the case are still discussed. And many of the victims’ families live without closure. Today, the cases get another review. Local filmmaker Payne Lindsey and producer Donald Albright, the duo who created the breakout podcast Up and Vanished, which investigated the disappearance of a former beauty queen in rural Georgia, have teamed up with Atlanta-based website and podcast company HowStuffWorks to present Atlanta Monster, a 10-episode podcast series about the Atlanta Child Murders. We recently spoke with Lindsay, Albright, and Jason Hoch of HowStuffWorks about the series, the first episode of which premieres today. You can listen to the podcast here.
Payne, you mention in the first episode that although you grew up in metro Atlanta, you had never heard of this case, and that Donald mentioned it to you when you were looking for a follow-up to Up and Vanished. Donald, how did you hear about this case?
Donald: I grew up in California, and I was two when the first disappearances began. I don’t remember [an exact] moment when the case was introduced to me. But I remember the aftermath. In the black community, it was talked about at some point if you were [a kid], at family gatherings and among friends. I don’t remember being scared, but it was a conversation piece. “This could happen.” Even hearing the commercials in episode one. I didn’t realize [those were from this case].
As I got older, it was one of those things that was in the background of the African American community. One reason being that there were so many victims. But the main reason was because it was a black serial killer. There was a myth in the black community that there was no such thing as a black serial killer. There were always theories about who really did it. It was widely covered throughout the past 30 years. The alternate theory was the KKK was involved.
Payne, what made you say, “Yes, let’s tell that story?” One of the reasons you picked the Tara Grinstead case [for Up and Vanished] was because it was unsolved. Williams was convicted of killing just two of the victims on that list. But, in the eyes of police, he’s responsible for the rest. How did that change the reporting and production process?
Payne: Usually I’m not attracted to the kinds of stories where you already know the conclusion or think you do. [With this story,] a guy is in jail. But Jason and Donald had mentioned it to me separately, and after doing some research, I realized there was a bigger story. There’s a guy in jail, but the story doesn’t end there. It really never ended. The magnitude and racial issues are still relevant in 2018. All those things together made this seem like a really big story and a challenge. I wanted to challenge myself with something massive, and this seemed to have all the right pieces. Two Atlanta podcast companies tell Atlanta’s darkest secret. There’s so much about this case that people don’t know. Or they forgot and remember differently. We want to start from the beginning and tell you the real deal, the real facts, and then let you decide for yourself.
How was the partnership with HowStuffWorks formed?
Jason: I was a huge fan of what Payne had done with Up and Vanished. [HowStuffWorks is] in a growth mode right now and trying to expand [into new areas]. We wanted to get into journalism we hadn’t done before, and true crime was one of those topics. The biggest challenge was, “How can we open the doors up and let Payne tell the story he wants to in a way that’s accessible for a [broad] audience, not just for a local audience?”
I grew up in Wisconsin and I was nine or 10 years old [during the case]. I got pulled into the house early, and I was nowhere near where any of it was happening. That “It’s 10-o-clock, do you know where your children are?” mentality—it was everywhere. We all remember growing up and being able to run around and play outside freely. You could be gone for two or three hours as a kid. But today, kids play video games. It was a different time. And I think that does resonate nationally.
Donald: The reason I brought [the Atlanta Child Murders] up to Payne was because my fiancee is from New London, Connecticut. She also remembers growing up hearing about the case. It speaks to people who were young when this was happening, from Georgia to Wisconsin to Connecticut. It was a national story then, and I think we’re making sure it’s a national story again. Millennials haven’t heard about this. And if it was such a big story [that Gen X-ers all remember], why haven’t Millennials heard about it? Is it the racial or social status of the victims the reason why this wasn’t as big as the Zodiac killer or other [well-known] serial killers?
What were the big challenges you faced in producing the podcast?
Donald: It’s been an ongoing challenge dealing with how much time has gone by [since the murders], and finding people to talk at all was one of the biggest challenges early on. Some have have died, others are in prison. One of the beauties [of the podcast] is that we were able to tap into a news archive that’s never really been heard before. So the podcast is going to be full of authentic audio that takes you back to the time period.
Jason: The University of Georgia has a wonderful archive where they’ve taken a significant amount of old video from WSB-TV, from the early days and up to the trial, and digitized it. So we asked the library staff for everything on the case. [When the murders first began], people didn’t really know what was happening. But then reporters began talking to families. Psychics were trying to locate the killers. You’re going to hear things that I don’t think you’d expect.
As one person mentioned in the first episode, these killings took place long before we had social media, or even a 24-hour news cycle. How was the community’s understanding of these crimes shaped?
Payne: The media shaped everything, in my opinion. It was such a big national story. Two years went by and they still didn’t know who did it. There was pressure for them to arrest someone and make it all go away. You can see that in the news coverage. And it kind of perpetuated the paranoia in the city. They had to do something about it because of the media coverage. I think in some ways that affected the investigation and how things transpired. There wasn’t 24-hour news yet, but with newer cameras and color TV, news was getting bigger and bigger.
The case didn’t just frighten children and families, but it rattled Atlanta’s power structure. In addition to fearing for the kids, they feared for the city’s reputation. Did you find anyone who just didn’t want to talk about it?
Payne: Several, mostly people who were part of the government who had to stand up in front of people and talk about it. I’m sure they look back and wish they had done things differently. A lot of things were more socially acceptable back then, even how you talk about people. There were a lot of people who didn’t want to talk because they have closed this chapter of their lives. But we wanted to leave open the door for people to change their mind [Editor’s note: production on the podcast series is ongoing]. In Up and Vanished, we got the result we did because that door was wide open. You could come to us with new information and change the outcome of the next episode. We’ve got the same thing happening here. This involves generations of people. We want to leave that door open for people to tell the story their way. We’re telling it through everyone else’s voices. We’re trying to make this the very last chapter. Even though a lot of people have closed this door, most haven’t. If you have family members of victims saying this isn’t over yet, if there are any other truths that need to be unearthed, let’s unearth them.
Wayne Williams is adamant that he’s innocent. Will we hear from him in the series?
Payne: We hope to. To tell this story you have to reach out to every person you can. We’re trying to close the door on this case forever, and to make that possible, we have to hear from everyone.
I think there’s a lot of information [in this case] that can make you feel a lot of different ways. We’ll present them and you’ll go through the roller coaster I went through. All the information combined together is what has never been done, and we’re doing that so you can make your own assessment. There have been times when I think [Williams is] innocent or times I think he’s not. Or there are times I think he committed some of the murders or none of them. You follow the facts. And if you do that, I think we’ll get to a satisfying conclusion.
Jason: Because it’s been 40 years or so, people think they remember [the case] a certain way. But because of how [the podcast] is rolled out, it’ll come back to them more quickly. Talking to some of the people we interviewed, I’m interested in how it resonates with a national audience.
People were literally in the woods with family members looking for kids. Psychics. That was part of the culture of America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But you don’t hear about that anymore. I can’t believe that a police force [today] would be out in the woods with psychics. But it happened on the national news. I’ve seen tens of clips on this, and I’m still in disbelief that [it actually happened].
Payne: [There were a lot of] different leads before they found Wayne Williams on the bridge that night. I think a lot of people hear “Atlanta Child Murders” and think “Wayne Williams.” But what about before Wayne Williams? We’re exploring that.
Donald: The weird thing when looking back at some of that news footage was seeing how this case was covered and what made the news. You don’t remember how prevalent the coverage was about the [sex trafficking ring, one of several conspiracies floated at the time]. It was part of the nightly news, but that wasn’t part of the facts that were given to me [as a child]. You’re going to question the progress we’ve made in the last 30 to 40 years if only because you remember how underdeveloped we were in the 1980s, from investigations to news coverage to race relations. There are some things, like when they polled the black and white communities and asked if police treated each community differently. Those [themes] are the same today.
Jason: Wayne Williams was convicted of two murders, but the list of those killed was close to 30 African American kids. Of all the theories of what happened, a lot have been based on the lack of closure for these families who didn’t have a trial and couldn’t close the book.