May 22

This Day in History

Crime

May 22, 1981:

Atlanta child murderer is questioned

Police staking out a bridge over the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta, Georgia, hear a loud splash, and begin chasing Wayne Williams as he attempts to drive away in a station wagon. After questioning him about his involvement in the unprecedented string of child murders in Atlanta over the two previous years, Williams was released. However, he was arrested two days later when the body of Nathaniel Cater was found in the river near the bridge.

In a spree that began in July 1979, 29 black children and young men disappeared or were killed in the Atlanta area. The only clue detectives had to go on was that many of the bodies had the same rare yellow-green nylon fiber on them, leading investigators to believe that all of the killings were connected.

As they desperately searched for the manufacturer of the fiber, a newspaper reported on the significance of the fiber evidence. Fearing that he was on the verge of being discovered, the killer then began dumping the bodies of his victims in the Chattahoochee River. This, in turn, inspired the police surveillance that ensnared Williams on May 22.

The rare fiber was eventually identified as a yarn that was sold to a Georgia carpet company, West Point Pepperell, which used it to make a line called Luxaire. The color of the fibers found on the bodies, including Nathaniel Cater, matched Luxaire English Olive; this was the type of carpet found in Williams' home.

Experts estimated that one in approximately 8,000 Atlanta area homes contained Luxaire English Olive carpet. Prosecutors used this probability, along with fiber and hair evidence from Williams' car and dog, to establish the fact that it was an extremely small chance that anyone other than Williams could be the killer. Adding to the already damning evidence against him, the killings immediately stopped after Williams was arrested.

On February 27, 1982, the jury found Wayne Williams guilty of the murders of Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne, and he was sentenced to life in prison. After the verdict, the Atlanta police department closed 22 other cases, but Williams was never tried, or charged, for those crimes. Since that time, some conspiracy theorists have advanced the idea that it was members of the Ku Klux Klan, not Wayne Williams, who was responsible for the killings in the hopes of starting a race war. Though this theory has not been accepted by the courts, an investigation into five of the murders for which Williams was not convicted was reopened in 2005. It was closed again in 2006 after police dropped an unpromising probe into the Ku Klux Klan's possible involvement.

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