Between 1979 and 1981, at least 28 people fell victim to a killer in Atlanta, GA, many of them young adults or children. The case began to draw national attention as the number of victims rose dramatically, and many believed a serial killer was operating in the area.
Facts about the Atlanta murders are limited to specific details. Many of the killings remain unsolved. Law enforcement arrested 23-year-old Wayne Williams on June 21, 1981, and subsequently put him on trial for two of the murders. A jury found him guilty, leading police close most of the cases later and attribute the deaths to Williams, even though he never faced charges related to any other cases.
These killings are still controversial, not only because many cases remain unresolved, but also some have called Williams's guilt into question.
The victims had little in common besides the fact that most were African American. The vast majority were male, but a few young girls were also victims during the same time.
While most of the victims were children or adolescents, at least six of them were adults age 20 or older. The victims' ages ranged from 7 to 28. The only connection among the victims was they all resided within the same geographic area.
The killer had different methods of murder, but consistently used strangulation to take victims' lives. Other victims died from gunshots, asphyxiation, stab wounds, or beatings.
In several cases, investigators never determined a cause of death due to issues with decomposition; some of the bodies did not turn up until months after they went missing.
The varying causes of death suggested either the perpetrator did not have a modus operandi or perhaps there were multiple murderers.
By July 17, 1980, the Atlanta police set up a special task force dedicated to investigating the killings. This group grew to include 50 detectives and support staff. But after having made limited progress, the investigators requested out-of-state assistance to solve the case.
The FBI got involved in the investigation on November 6, 1980, and expert homicide detectives throughout the country also joined to consult the local authorities. President Ronald Reagan took a personal interest in the matter, sending Justice Department officials to Atlanta and issuing federal funds to set up a tip line.
Thanks to the FBI, who suggested the killer might have dumped bodies into the rivers from bridges, the local police were able to set up a stringent sting operation. They staked out dozens of bridges around Atlanta and noted suspicious activity. During one stakeout on May 22, 1981, detectives heard a splash under a bridge, then spotted a car driving away.
Police later tracked down the vehicle and discovered the driver was 23-year-old Wayne Williams. After searching the car, authorities found fibers that would later link him to several victims.
A few days later, the body of Nathaniel Cater turned up several miles away from the bridge, in the same river. This led police to suspect Williams had killed Cater and dumped his body in the river. Williams protested, saying he was discarding trash.