Sunday, October 21 was a balmy Indian summer day last year, very warm. The lady next door, who is elderly, offered Yusuf 17 cents to go to the store and get her some snuff. No other kid would go for 17 cents, but Yusuf loved her. He asked me if he could go, and I said, ‘Okay.’ ”
That was the last time Camille Bell, 33, saw her 9-year-old son alive. Eighteen days later his body was discovered in an abandoned school building. He had been strangled. An investigation by Atlanta police turned up no clues, and public interest in the case quickly faded. Camille Bell was both grief-stricken and angry. In the months that followed she read of the disappearance and killing of other Atlanta children. The cases were disturbingly similar: All the victims were bright, attractive, black youngsters between the ages of 7 and 15. Most had been strangled; some—like Yusuf—had had their clothing washed, and all but one had been taken off the street in broad daylight.
Last May Mrs. Bell began to contact other mothers of missing and murdered children. “We got together in a sort of support group,” she recalls, “and the more we talked we found that none of us had been able to get the police to keep in touch with us. They wouldn’t call us back; nothing was being done.” In July Bell called on Public Safety Commissioner Lee Brown. “He said he didn’t want to alarm everyone,” she recalls disbelievingly. “Eight children were dead or missing then, and he didn’t want to alarm anyone!” By the next month the number of dead or missing had risen to 12, and Camille and seven other mothers had formed the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders. “We were encouraging people to get to know their neighbors,” says Bell. “We were encouraging the busybodies to go back to dipping into everybody’s business. We were saying that if you tolerated crime in your neighborhood you were asking for trouble.”
Bell believes the tide began to turn in August when Clifford Jones, 13, a visitor from Cleveland, was kidnapped and strangled. Because the boy was from out of town, his death was reported in the national press. That drew attention to the other killings as well. Only then, says Bell, did the city administration surge into action. “When Clifford Jones was killed and it hit the news, it threatened Atlanta’s lifeblood, the convention business,” she says. “People don’t come to conventions in cities where they don’t feel safe.”
Born in Philadelphia, Bell is the daughter of an engineer father and a mother who was a high school science teacher. A National Merit Scholar, she attended Morristown College in Tennessee for two years before coming to Atlanta to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Married in 1967 to John Bell, a laborer, she was divorced two years ago. She later quit her job with an employment agency to spend more time with daughter Cici, now 4, the youngest of her three surviving children. “She was suffering from institutionalization at daycare centers,” says Bell. “I decided to do something about it.”
Currently Bell sells cleaning products and cosmetics to supplement her child-support payments, while directing her committee of mothers from headquarters in a suburban mall. The count of dead or missing now stands at 14, and the manhunt for the killer has become a national cause. The FBI has been assigned to the case, the Atlanta police task force searching for the murderer has been increased in size from five to 24, and reward money for information leading to an arrest now totals $100,000. Several thousand volunteers comb the neighborhoods each weekend for the four children still missing and believed slain, while New Jersey psychic Dorothy Allison has been recruited in a desperate attempt to uncover clues. Appearing regularly on TV and radio talk shows, advising PTAs and other parents’ groups, Camille Bell is convinced she is achieving a purpose. “I was seeing Atlanta go from being the city too busy to hate to the city too busy to give a damn. I didn’t like it,” she says. “And there’s something else. I’m working to the day that I can go to the cemetery and see Yusuf’s grave and tell him, ‘Hey, I know who killed you and we’re going to handle that.’ ”