Investigating the Atlanta Child Murders

Lori Johnston
48 min readMay 23, 2020

“You shouldn’t cry over spilled milk.” — former mayor Andrew Young on unanswered questions in the case

“Wayne was just a scapegoat. They had to get somebody to put in jail because the city was like a keg of dynamite.” — Willie Mae Mathis, mother of Jefferey Mathis

I grew up in Atlanta in the era of booming economic change, African Americans coming into power with the city’s first black mayor and the most horrible and horrifying serial killer to strike the so-called city “Too Busy to Hate.”

The city and its residents lived in terror of the unknown boogeyman, who would snatch at least thirty children and adults over a two year period. Those that turned up were dead. Some had been gone for so many months, it wasn’t possible to determine how they had died. So prevalent was the media coverage by the end of 1981 and beginning of 1982, that even those of us who did not fit the demographic or live in the areas targeted were fearful.

When Wayne Williams was arrested in 1981 and convicted in 1982, most of the city appeared to breathe a sigh of relief. Although Williams was convicted for the last two murders, the city officially connected him to 22 more and closed those investigations. Nearly from the start, however, there was belief that Williams had not killed all the victims, if any at all. Rumors abounded from political corruption and cover-ups to child prostitution rings to the Ku Klux Klan murdering the children to prevent African Americans from rising up in the city. If some of these theories are to be believed, Williams was either only one of several killers operating in the city at the time or a patsy taking the fall.

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The Missing and the Murdered

Edward Hope Smith. Fourteen year old “Teddy,” a football enthusiast who was hoping to join the high school football team in the fall of 1979, lived in a housing project on Cape Street in southwest Atlanta. One of the more rundown projects in the city, it wasn’t unusual to see more garbage on the street than actual people. Teddy had tried to find a means to escape such destitute living but by July 21, 1979, he hadn’t yet been able to. It was just after…

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Lori Johnston

Writer, reader, margarita drinker. Currently looking for a “dare to be great” situation.