Wayne Bertram Williams (born May 27, 1958) is an American serving life imprisonment for the 1981 killing of two adult men in Atlanta, Georgia, and believed by police to be responsible for at least 23 of the 30 Atlanta murders of 1979–1981, also known as the Atlanta Child Murders. He was never tried for the child murders and continues to maintain his innocence. Since Williams became a suspect in May 1981, there have been no similar killings of young black men.
Early life and education
Wayne Williams was born on May 27, 1958, and raised in the Dixie Hills neighborhood of southwest Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Homer and Faye Williams. Both of his parents were teachers. Williams graduated from Douglass High School and developed a keen interest in radio and journalism. He constructed his own carrier current radio station and began frequenting stations WIGO and WAOK, where he befriended a number of the announcing crew and began dabbling in becoming a pop music producer and manager.
Williams first became a suspect in the Atlanta murders on the morning of May 22, 1981, when a police surveillance team, watching the James Jackson Parkway bridge spanning the Chattahoochee River (a site where several victims' bodies had been discovered), heard a "big loud splash", suggesting that something had been thrown from the bridge into the river below. The first automobile to exit the bridge after the splash, at roughly 3 a.m., belonged to Williams. When stopped and questioned, he told police that he was on his way to check on an address in a neighboring town ahead of an audition the following morning with a young singer named Cheryl Johnson. However, both the phone number he gave police and Cheryl Johnson turned out to be fictitious.
Two days later, on May 24, the nude body of 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater, who had been missing for four days, was discovered in the river. The medical examiner ruled he had died of probable asphyxia, but never specifically said he had been strangled. Police thought that Williams had killed Cater and that his body was the source of the sound they heard as his car crossed the bridge.
Williams failed three polygraph tests and hairs and fibers retrieved from the body of another victim, Jimmy Ray Payne, were found to be consistent with those from his home, car and dog. Co-workers told police they had seen Williams with scratches on his face and arms around the time of the murders which, investigators surmised, could have been inflicted by victims during a struggle. Williams held a press conference outside his home to proclaim his innocence, volunteering that he had failed the polygraph tests, which would have been inadmissible in court.
Williams was again questioned by police for twelve hours on June 3rd and 4th at FBI headquarters and released without arrest or charge but remained under surveillance.
Arrest and trial
Williams was arrested on June 21, 1981, for the murders of Cater and Payne. His trial began on January 6, 1982, in Fulton County. During the two-month trial, prosecutors matched 19 sources of fibers from Williams' home and car—his bedspread, bathroom, gloves, clothes, carpets, dog and an unusual trilobal carpet fiber—to a number of victims. Other evidence included witness testimony placing Williams with several victims while they were alive and inconsistencies in his accounts of his whereabouts. Williams took the stand in his own defense but alienated the jury by becoming angry and combative. After 12 hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty on February 27 of the murders of Cater and Payne. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. After Williams became a suspect, the killings stopped.
In the late 1990s, Williams filed a habeas corpus petition and requested a retrial. Butts County Superior Court judge Hal Craig denied his appeal. Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker said that "although this does not end the appeal process, I am pleased with the results in the habeas case" and that his office will "continue to do everything possible to uphold the conviction". In early 2004, Williams sought a retrial once again, with his attorneys arguing that law enforcement officials covered up evidence of involvement by the Ku Klux Klan and that carpet fibers linking him to the crimes would not stand up to scientific scrutiny. A federal judge rejected the request for retrial on October 17, 2006.
Neither Williams nor anyone else was tried for the murder of a boy — later identified as Curtis Walker, aged 13 — whose body was dumped into Atlanta's South River in 1981. This was the same case which led to the stakeouts of Atlanta bridges by the Atlanta Police and the FBI that resulted in Williams becoming a suspect in May 1981 and his apprehension in the following month. Williams is serving his sentence at Telfair State Prison. On November 20, 2019, Williams was again denied parole. He will next be eligible for parole in November 2027.
Williams has maintained his innocence from the beginning and claimed that Atlanta officials covered up evidence of KKK involvement in the killings to avoid a race war in the city. His lawyers have said the conviction was a "profound miscarriage of justice" that has kept an innocent man incarcerated for the majority of his adult life and allowed the real killers to go free. In contrast, Joseph Drolet, who prosecuted Williams at trial, has stood by Williams' convictions, noting that after Williams was arrested, "the murders stopped and there has been nothing since."
Other observers have criticized the thoroughness of the investigation and the validity of its conclusions. The author James Baldwin, in his essay The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), raised questions about Williams' guilt. Members of his community and several of the victims' parents did not believe that Williams, the son of two professional teachers, could have killed so many. On May 6, 2005, DeKalb County Police Chief Louis Graham ordered the reopening of the murder cases of four boys killed in that county between February and May 1981 that had been attributed to Williams. The announcement was welcomed by relatives of some victims, who said they believe the wrong man was blamed for many of the murders.
Graham, an assistant police chief in neighboring Fulton County at the time of the murders, said his decision to reopen the cases was driven solely by his belief in Williams' innocence. Former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, who was an Atlanta homicide detective at the time, also said he believed Williams was wrongly blamed for the murders. "If they arrested a white guy," he said, "there would have been riots across the U.S." Dorsey is currently serving a life sentence for ordering the murder of his election opponent Derwin Brown.
Fulton County authorities have not reopened any of the cases under their jurisdiction.
According to an August 2005 report, Charles T. Sanders, a white supremacist affiliated with the KKK—and an early suspect in the murders—once praised the crimes in secretly recorded conversations. Although Sanders did not publicly claim responsibility for any of the deaths, he told an informant for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in the 1981 recording that the killer had "wiped out a thousand future generations of niggers". An anonymous alleged former friend of Sanders told documentarian Payne Lindsey (Atlanta Monster) that Sanders had taken credit for the murders mentioned in a 1986 Spin article, claiming that his brothers were also involved.
He did not directly implicate the KKK or lead his friend to believe that anyone else from the organization was involved. Sanders allegedly mused over how lucky he was that he and Williams had the same carpet and that they both owned a white German shepherd. The anonymous former friend went on to say that, "Once it was pinned on Wayne Williams, they were through. That was their way out." Police dropped the probe into possible Klan involvement when Sanders and two of his brothers passed lie detector tests. The case was once again closed on July 21, 2006.
Former FBI profiler John E. Douglas wrote in his book Mindhunter that, in his opinion, "forensic and behavioral evidence points conclusively to Wayne Williams as the killer of eleven young men in Atlanta." He added, however, that he believed there was "no strong evidence linking him to all or even most of the deaths and disappearances of children in that city between 1979 and 1981".
In 2007, the FBI performed DNA tests on two human hairs found on one of the victims. The mitochondrial DNA sequence in the hairs would eliminate 99.5% of persons by not matching their DNA. The mitochondrial DNA sequence in the hairs would eliminate 98% of African American persons by not matching their DNA. However, they matched Williams' DNA and so did not eliminate the possibility that the hairs were his.
DNA testing was performed in 2010 on scalp hairs found on the body of 11-year-old victim Patrick Baltazar. While the results were not firmly conclusive, the DNA sequence found appears in only 29 out of 1,148 African-American hair samples in the FBI's database, and did not rule out Williams. The Baltazar case was included among ten additional victims presented to the jury at Williams' trial, although he was never charged in any of those cases.
Dog hairs also found on Baltazar's body were tested in 2007 by the genetics laboratory at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which found a DNA sequence also present in the Williams family's German Shepherd. However, the director of the laboratory, Elizabeth Wictum, pointed out that while the results were "fairly significant", they were not conclusive. Only mitochondrial DNA was tested which, unlike nuclear DNA, cannot be shown to be unique to one dog. This means that while the report said the hairs on the bodies contained the same DNA sequence as Williams' dog, the same DNA sequence occurs in about 1 in 100 dogs. The FBI report stated only that "Wayne Williams cannot be excluded" as a suspect in the case.
A Department of Justice study, released in April 2015, concluded that numerous hair analyses conducted by FBI examiners during the 1980s and 1990s "may have failed to meet professional standards." Defense attorney Lynn Whatley immediately announced that the report would form the basis for a new appeal; but prosecutors responded that hair evidence played only a minor role in Williams' conviction.
On March 21, 2019, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields announced that officials would re-test evidence from the murders, which will be gathered by the Atlanta Police Department, Fulton County District Attorney's Office, and Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In a news conference, Mayor Bottoms said, "It may be there is nothing left to be tested. But I do think history will judge us by our actions and we will be able to say we tried.”
Williams appears as the main antagonist in several media portrayals of the case. He was first depicted in the 1985 television miniseries The Atlanta Child Murders and was played by Calvin Levels. In 2000, Showtime released a drama film titled Who Killed Atlanta's Children? with Clé Bennett playing Williams. In 2019, Williams was featured in season 2 of the Netflix series Mindhunter alongside others such as Charles Manson and David Berkowitz. Williams' character was portrayed by Christopher Livingston.