Did Wayne Williams kill more than 25 children, adolescents and adults during a two-year-spree that terrorized Atlanta’s black community nearly 40 years ago?
That’s the mystery explored in a new true-crime podcast, Atlanta Monster, which picks up where the investigation left off after Williams, who was charged only with killing two adults, was convicted and sentenced in 1982 to two consecutive life terms in prison and assumed by prosecutors to be guilty of all the other killings.
Williams, 59, was never charged in any other murders and has maintained his innocence.
A 2016 podcast, Up and Vanished, by Atlanta Monster creators and Tenderfoot TV founders Payne Lindsey and Donald Albright, enlisted listeners as real-time detectives to reconsider the cold-case investigation into the 2005 murder of Georgia teacher and former beauty queen Tara Grinstead. The podcast is credited with contributing to two arrests in the case last year.
The creators hope to generate the same attention with Atlanta Monster, a 10-episode series launching Friday that combines old footage with new and unheard interviews, specifically to examine long-held questions about whether Williams committed all the killings from mid-1979 to mid-1981.
It also seeks to elevate a case that garnered national headlines at the time, but which Lindsey and Albright say has faded in the public consciousness more than those of other serial killers.
“If we wait any longer, it’s going to be too late,” Lindsey, an Atlanta filmmaker and the podcast’s host, tells PEOPLE. “A lot of the people are passing away. Memories are foggy.”
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The two men approached their story from very different backgrounds.
Lindsey, 30, who is white and grew up in Georgia before moving 10 years ago to metro Atlanta, tells PEOPLE he’d never heard of the case until recently. “This was really kind of a history lesson,” he says. “What I found was just this complete horror and terror that was taking place in the city of Atlanta,” where the race of the victims “definitely played a role in this case, without a doubt, because all of the children were black and they were poor. They didn’t get the immediate attention that white children would have gotten.”
Albright, 40, who is black and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, was too young to know about the breaking-news headlines as the murders occurred. “But it was one of the things where, in the black community, this was discussed,” he says. “I just grew up hearing and knowing about these missing and murdered black kids.”
A Splash in the River Leads Investigators to Williams
With the benefit of more than 1,000 hours of original interviews looking back at that time, the podcast re-creates the banding together of victims’ mothers who took their panic and frustrations to the media and law enforcement, which they felt was slow to sound an alarm. “They were pressured enough to realize that this was a serious issue, and it was not a coincidence that these children were going missing,” Lindsey says.
Williams, a 23-year-old photographer and aspiring music promoter when he was arrested in 1981, became a suspect when he was stopped for questioning late one night near a bridge after a police officer heard a splash in the river below. Task force investigators working the case had theorized that the culprit might dump his next victim near water and had staked out several possible locations.
When the nude body of 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater was found two days later floating downstream, the focus on Williams — who offered apparently inconsistent alibis — quickly narrowed.
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A witness later said he’d seen Cater and Williams hand-in-hand leaving a movie theater shortly before Cater disappeared. Forensic experts testified at Williams’ eventual trial that carpet fibers from his car, as well as hairs from his dog, closely matched some of the microscopic fibers found on several of the recovered bodies.
Skepticism Among Victims’ Families
But even as many investigators came to accept that Williams was responsible for some of the deaths, they questioned whether the circumstantial evidence connected him to all of them. Later revelations, for instance, showed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had suppressed tape-recorded evidence that suggested the possible involvement in some killings by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The emphasis on Williams overlooked other potential suspects, said critics of the investigation
The doubts about Williams’ guilt grew — and persist — among those today who wonder if they received justice for lost loved ones after further investigation into the other murders was dropped, Lindsey and Albright say.
“We don’t really take on cases where the door’s been closed, and this is one of those cases,” says Albright. “The families of the victims are the ones saying they don’t think he did it. They don’t feel like their child was ever actually given justice.”
Have the podcast’s creators reached a conclusion themselves?
“That’s actually a very tough question to answer,” says Lindsey, who says that on some days he’s convinced of William’s guilt, and on other days he’s not. “Hopefully by the end of this, we all can feel like we know what happened and be able to close that door.”
With new episodes available every Friday for the next 10 weeks, and being put together as they go, “we’re leaving the door wide open for anybody with some information to come in here and shape this,” Lindsey says.
They have not yet interviewed Williams.
“To tell this story the right way, we’ve got to hear from everybody,” Lindsey says, “and that includes Wayne Williams himself.”