HBO’s New Docuseries Reexamines The Atlanta Child Murder Cases

Evelyn Miller, Willie Mae Mathis, Sheila Baltazar and Annie Hill, all mothers of the missing and murdered kids of Atlanta, prepare to march down Auburn Avenue for a second annual memorial to the slain youths of Atlanta. (1984) (EPISODE 1)

Courtesy of Georgia State University/AP/HBO

Beginning 40 years ago, there were nearly 30 murders of Atlanta children over a period of 23 months.

In March 2019, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields announced that, with the advancements in DNA technology, the city would reopen the cases, which were mired in controversy.

Monica Kaufman Pearson, then a nightly anchor on WSB-TV, would come on television every night and say, “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”

This referred to the Atlanta Child Murders from 1979 to 1981.

HBO has released a new five-part documentary series called “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children.” The series takes a deep dive into the harrowing tragedy that still looms in the shadows of the city today.

Earlier this week, “City Lights’” host Lois Reitzes spoke via Zoom with Pearson and filmmaker Maro Chermayeff.

Chermayeff said her interest in creating a documentary around the murder cases and Wayne Williams began before Bottoms reopened the cases.

“I felt so drawn to the relevance and importance of the story and having a voice for the families. We knew about these other shows, which had been made about this, but we felt that there was another story to tell, one in which Atlanta was another character.”

This isn’t the first time that this time in Atlanta’s history has gotten national attention.

In 2010, CNN created a special crime documentary called “The Atlanta Child Murders.” In 2018, Tenderfoot TV and How Stuff Works created the podcast “Atlanta Monster.” In 2019, the Netflix drama “Mindhunter” was inspired by the Atlanta child murders in the creation of its second season.

This HBO series also delves into the separation between economic and racial classes in Atlanta.

“If it had not been black children from a poor neighborhood, if it had been white children or middle-class black children, I think these murders would have been investigated much sooner,” said Pearson.

These murders took place shortly after Mayor Maynard Jackson was elected into office. Jackson was the first African-American mayor of Atlanta and of any major city in the South. Jackson’s administration brought both great change, such as Atlanta’s international terminal, and controversy. Mothers of victims and residents criticized him for waiting too long to act on these cases.

“These murders happened during a time in which, unless someone is missing for 48 hours, you don’t really think of them as becoming a subject of harm. So back then, even on television, we would not put up a notice about a missing kid unless the police inspected foul play and it had been 48 hours. But unfortunately because these were children from a certain neighborhood, it took even longer before they started looking into it,” said Pearson.

Chermayeff continues, “At one point Camille Bell (mother of Yusuf Bell) says, at the time Yusuf went missing, there were 500 missing children at that time.”

Due to the area in which these crimes were committed, Atlanta law enforcement stated and presumed that the perpetrator was an African-American male. Pearson has a different theory as to who the killer could have been.

“The fact that they kept saying ‘This had to be done by a black men because there were no white men in the community!’ That means that these were white people who may have never been in the black community. Growing up in a black community, there were white people in black neighborhoods all the time. They owned the grocery stores, the gas station, they were utility workers, white policemen. There were white people coming into the neighborhoods to do things that were not legal such as buying drugs or buying sex. To me, that was one of the biggest failings of the investigation because they assumed immediately that it had to be a black person.”

Wayne Williams was convicted of murdering two adults in the investigation — Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne. He was later believed to have been responsible for the murder of 23 children, but he was never tried on these claims. He continues to maintain his innocence and is currently serving two life sentences.

“I still feel that had the investigative techniques been different, had they widened the net and not been in a rush to just get it solved … unfortunately we’ll really never know what happened,” said Pearson.

A new episode in the five-part series is released each Sunday on HBO.

Editor’s note: After hearing this City Lights interview, Lou Arcangeli, a retired Atlanta Police Department deputy chief and detective on the missing and murdered children cases, reached out to WABE to counter assertions from director Maro Chermayeff and journalist Monica Pearson that police work was inadequate, sloppy, or otherwise improper. Specific to Ms. Chermayeff’s claim in the interview that police German shepherds contaminated crime scenes with dog hair that would be similar to that of the dog owned by Wayne Williams, Arcangeli writes, “Of the cases presented at trial: Three bodies were recovered from rivers, one was found near another victim’s body at a secured crime scene, the other eight were found by citizens. What crime scene and victim’s body does Maro Chermayeff believe was contaminated by police dog hair? Her accusation is totally without merit and a deliberate attack on police, prosecutors and everyone who believes in Williams’ guilt. I challenge Chermayeff’s statement because this was not as she accuses; ‘A MESS’.”

Arcangeli also writes, ”In another unchallenged assertion by your guests, they both said that Williams did not get a fair trial.  That opinion is not shared by the Supreme Court of Georgia. The Court found the trial to be fair and upheld the Williams conviction.”

Arcangeli concludes, “In the final analysis the arrest, trial and conviction of Wayne Williams were a phenomenal Atlanta, and American success. This case was the result of solid basic police work and teamwork between local, state and federal law enforcement, and political leaders. This arrest and conviction of Wayne Williams ended the Atlanta Child Murders and was a huge relief to Atlanta’s citizens, and to everyone worldwide who shared Atlanta’s pain.”