Atlanta Police Claimed They Put Away a Serial Child Murderer — But Victims' Families Are Skeptical

Wayne Williams was convicted of two adults' murders, but never officially charged in a series of Atlanta child killings between 1979 and 1981

Catherine Leach-Bell
Photo: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

For almost 40 years, Catherine Leach has grappled with what happened to her 13-year-old son, Curtis Walker, whose bruised corpse was found floating down the South River in DeKalb County, Georgia, on March 6, 1981.

The seventh grader, who helped the elderly and loved to fix bicycles, had died from asphyxia due to probable suffocation.

“He was a boy that loved his mama,” Leach, now 70, says of Curtis, who dreamed about becoming a Hollywood actor.

Curtis was one of more than 20 black boys and young adults found murdered or missing around Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, killed by a suspected serial killer.

Wayne Williams, a 23-year-old freelance photographer who also described himself as a music promoter, became a suspect in the murders when a surveillance team pulled him over near a local bridge in the early hours of May 22, 1981, after hearing a loud splash. (The team was staking out bridges because some of the bodies had been found in the Chattahoochee River.)

The body of Nathaniel Cater, 28, was found downstream days later — and Williams was arrested after police linked dog hairs and fibers found in his parents’ home to Cater and 21-year-old fellow victim Jimmy Ray Payne.

Curtis Walker
Curtis Walker.

During Williams’ trial, prosecutors introduced evidence that allegedly linked Williams via dog hair, carpet and bedspread fibers to around 10 of the child victim’s cases. Williams was convicted in Feb. 1982 for the murders of Cater and Payne, and law enforcement concluded that Williams was responsible for most of the other slayings, too, closing those cases.

Williams is currently serving two life sentences — but the families of some of the murder victims don’t feel the case has been solved.

“They had to hurry up and blame [the child murders] on somebody because the city was fixing to go haywire,” Leach says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday. “Everybody was tense.”

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Leach believes the Ku Klux Klan was actually behind Curtis’ death, a sentiment shared by many Atlantans.

Atlanta Chief of Police Erika Shields

But retired FBI agent Jim Procopio doesn’t believe the murderer was in the Klan because the killer would have had to “blend in” to the black community.

Procopio says Williams lured his victims with the promise of a music career. “Do you want to cut an album or CD? A lot of these kids took the bait and that was it for them,” he says.

However, most investigators concur that even if Williams is responsible for some of the child murders, he is not necessarily behind all of them.

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Recently, the Atlanta Police Department, under the direction of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, has reopened the cold cases originally linked to Williams, as well as the murders of two girls who were killed during the same period.

Wayne Williams
Fulton County Police Department

“We have one goal and it is to bring closure to these cases and to be able to look at these families who were never given a definitive answer and say, ‘We did everything we could possibly do on your child’s case,” says Chief Erika Shields.

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