Mindhunter: Was Wayne Williams Guilty of the Atlanta Child Murders?

Mindhunter and Wayne Williams

Warning: SPOILERS for Mindhunter season 2.

Is Wayne Williams guilty of the Atlanta Child Murders? In Mindhunter season 2, Williams (portrayed by Christopher Livingston) is depicted as a possible serial killer. Technically, however, the Atlanta Child Murders - which happened between 1979 and 1981 - have officially gone unsolved in real life. So what's the true story here?

While Mindhunter started off - and still is, in many ways - about interviewing people who've committed multiple murders, thus creating the terminology serial killers as well as codifying how the FBI can profile and catch them, Mindhunter season 2 drifted in a new direction about midway through its story. Some serial killers, like Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), were still being interviewed, of course, but the bulk of the season was focused on the Atlanta Child Murders.

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At least 28 individuals were killed throughout Atlanta's metropolitan area at the time. Most of the victims were children, but some were adolescents and young adults. On the first day of summer 1981, Williams was arrested. The Atlanta native, an aspiring music producer, was convicted of murder on February 27, 1982, and sentenced to life in prison. However, Williams was never tried for any of the child murders, only for the adults.

The Atlanta Child Murders In Mindhunter Season 2

In Mindhunter season 2, Holden and Bill travel to Georgia to investigate the on-going Atlanta Child Murders. Upon arriving, they soon realize that city officials are rightfully concerned about how Atlanta will be depicted in the media, as news reports about a potential serial killer would not only frighten citizens but potentially scare off people from visiting. At the time, Atlanta had elected both a black mayor and black police commissioner. So, when Holden suggests that the serial killer is most likely black, it's not well received by his Atlanta peers. They need to protect the city, and also their chances at re-election. On the flip side, naming a white suspect could potentially incite a race war, as some residents might link the killings to the Ku Klux Klan. For both the FBI and city officials, the Atlanta Child Murders needed to be handled responsibly and carefully.

Holden and Bill meet with the victims' families and learn more about daily life in the Atlanta metropolitan area. They attempt to lure the killer to specific locations, based on their knowledge about how the typical serial killer operates and where they've found previously dumped bodies. So it was during a bridge stakeout that they finally identified Williams as a possible suspect. From that point forward, Williams' behavior becomes a major red flag. Holden and Jim Barney interview him at home, and discover that he's been posting flyers across Atlanta, hoping to recruit kids and adolescents for music opportunities. Naturally, Holden, Bill, and Jim continue to press harder with their investigation, and ultimately land a search warrant. Physical evidence links Williams to the Atlanta Child Murders, albeit with a significant caveat.

 Wayne Williams Was Convicted For Two Murders

Mindhunter Season 2

In real life, Williams was never tried for killing any children. He was, however, convicted for killing 27-year-old Nathaniel Carter and 21-year-old Jimmy Ray Payne. When police first pulled over Williams during the stakeout, he provided false information about a professional acquaintance named “Cheryl Johnson”. Two days later, Carter’s body was found at the same location where authorities heard something drop into the river, shortly before pulling over Williams (who also fit Holden's profile of 20s-30s black male). During the trial, prosecutors used a specific type of carpet fiber to connect Williams to several murders. It took only 12 hours for a jury to convict him of two counts of murder.

Williams was relatively small in stature, leading many to believe that he was physically incapable of killing larger adult males. Williams also appeared defensive and arrogant during his trial, which made it seem that he was not only guilty, but that he was fully confident that prosecutors didn’t have sufficient evidence to convict him as well. Mindhunter season 2 establishes the evidence against Williams, along with the looming sense of doubt felt by many people involved with the case.

The Atlanta Child Murders Are Officially Unsolved

Mindhunter Season 2

The real life Atlanta Child Murders remain unsolved to this day. In the 1995 book Mindhunter, written by FBI profiler John E. Douglas, he states that there was "no strong evidence linking [Williams] to all or even most of the deaths and disappearances of children in that city between 1979 and 1981.” During a 2010 CNN special entitled The Atlanta Child Murders, the late George T. Smith - a Georgia Supreme Court Justice - spoke about the case, saying he believed the evidence should’ve been inadmissible. He also discussed the racial element, and that his opinion was especially unpopular amongst his white Georgian constituency.

Wayne Williams Is The Most Likely Suspect

Mindhunter Season 2

Physical evidence makes Williams the most logical suspect for the Atlanta Child Murders. Whether or not he was rightfully convicted is another story, though, one that drives the Mindhunter season 2 finale. Prosecutors successfully used fiber evidence to link Williams with several crimes. Most recently, DNA testing in 2007 further linked Williams to the Atlanta Child Murders but didn't conclusively prove that he was the sole killer.

Beyond the primary evidence, Williams’ behavior supports theories that he’s guilty of the crimes. Witnesses identified visible scratches on Williams’ body during the time of the murders, suggesting a physical altercation with one of the victims. And the fact that Williams had been actively seeking out young Atlanta children makes him appear even more suspicious, especially because the “hustle” - as he notes in Mindhunter season 2 - didn’t seem to produce any music with young Atlanta musicians. Furthermore, Williams spoke negatively about the black Atlanta youth, even using the term “dropshot” to describe useless individuals. Williams also failed a polygraph three times during the initial investigation, and a witness profile sketch matched his physical appearance at the time of the murders: an Afro hairstyle and a baseball cap. Of course, this isn’t hard evidence, but rather conjecture.

In a bizarre twist, Williams implied that he was trained by the CIA. During the aforementioned CNN interview, journalist Soledad O’Brien questioned Williams about an autobiographical story titled Finding Myself. Williams acknowledged it, and appeared curious about how it was located. Finding Myself detailed how Williams was recruited and trained by the CIA at 19 years old. He learned combat techniques over the course of several weekends in rural Georgia, including how to execute a deadly chokehold. Williams appeared somewhat giddy while being questioned by O’Brien, though he repeatedly refused to discuss the text in detail. Just like Mindhunter season 2, Williams dismissed certain information while fueling other theories. In 2019, Georgia officials announced that evidence from the Atlanta Child Murders would be retested. Now 61 years old, Williams continues to serve out his sentence at Telfair State Prison in McRae-Helena, Georgia.

Next: What To Expect From Mindhunter Season 3

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