A decades-old investigation into the gruesome murders of black children in Atlanta has been officially reopened, coincidentally converging with renewed interest in the case thanks to the second season of the Netflix series Mindhunter.
Earlier this year, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta police chief Erika Shields announced that, following advancements in DNA technology, the city would be retesting evidence associated with the Atlanta child murders, a series of gruesome killings of more than 25 black children and adolescents in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During the press conference, Shields said there were boxes of evidence associated with the case, some of which had never been tested, and that the department believed it had a responsibility to the families of the victims to reopen the case.
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“[We hope] to let them know that we have done all that we can do … to make sure their memories are not forgotten … and in the truest sense of the word to let the world know that black lives do matter,” Bottoms said.
Between 1979 and 1981, the Atlanta metro area was terrorized by a serial killer who primarily targeted young black children and teenagers, as well as a handful of adults. Authorities believe that in total, the perpetrator behind what became to be known as the Atlanta Child Murders killed more than 31 people over a two-year period.
In 1981, a former club promoter named Wayne Williams was arrested and ultimately convicted in the murders of two adults, after police matched fibers found on the men’s bodies to those from Williams’ home and car. He was sentenced to life in prison. While police believed Williams may have been behind the child murders as well, they were unable to charge him for those murders due to a lack of evidence.
Williams has long maintained his innocence, arguing that police manipulated the fiber evidence and that he was framed, possibly for racially motivated reasons. Former FBI profiler John Douglas, whose book served as the inspiration for Mindhunter, has also expressed skepticism that Williams committed all of the child murders, as have some of the victims’ families, who have harbored “lingering doubts about Wayne Williams’ involvement,” according to Carlos Campos, director of the Public Affairs Unit of the Atlanta Police Department. Bottoms tells Rolling Stone that the investigation was not reopened to exonerate Williams, as much of the existing evidence already pointed strongly in his direction, but that the case should nonetheless be reopened to discover the full truth.
The press conference announcing the reopening of the case was held back in March, not last week, as some news outlets have erroneously reported. Yet that did not stop many from speculating that the premiere of the second season of the Netflix series Mindhunter, which focuses heavily on the murders, Williams, and the victims’ families, played a role in the reopening of the case.
Campos denies this. “No TV shows or podcasts have had anything to do with our taking another look at this case. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms asked our Chief Erika Shields to take another look after she was approached by family members of the child murder victims,” he says, adding that the producers of Mindhunter did not reach out to the Atlanta Police Department while developing the second season. (Netflix did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
During the March press conference, however, Mayor Bottoms did make reference to producer Will Packer, who created the documentary Atlanta Child Murders, which premiered on ID two days after the press conference was held. “I want to acknowledge and thank my friend Will Packer who is doing a documentary on the missing and murdered children,” she said during the press conference.
Regardless of the reasons for reopening the case, Bottoms stressed that the ultimate goal was to bring closure to the loved ones of the victims, such as Catherine Leach-Bell, the mother of Curtis Walker, who was murdered in 1981 when he was 13. “ I want to know who killed Curtis; his case is sitting on a shelf getting dusty and rusty until you can’t see the page,” Bottoms said during the press conference. “They’ve been forgotten and forsaken. And it’s not right.”