The True Story of the Grisly Murders That Inspired 'Mindhunter' Season 2

Josh St. Clair
Photo credit: Getty

From Men's Health

• Netflix’s second Season of Mindhunter returns August 16.
• The season will focus on the Atlanta Child Murders, a string of kidnappings and killings that occurred between 1979-1981.
• The murders ended after the arrest of Wayne Williams.

In April 1981, at roughly 2:50 a.m. under Atlanta's James Jackson Parkway bridge where the body of a boy had been found one month prior, an FBI surveillance team heard a loud splash. They radioed teams above, who immediately stopped a light-colored station wagon making its way across the bridge toward the highway entrance. The driver, identifying himself as Wayne Bertram Williams, said he was talent scout. He said he didn’t drop anything from the bridge. He said he hadn’t even stopped there. He did give permission, however, for a vehicle search. In the car, agents found a bedspread, a bag of men’s clothing, a bag of women’s clothing, and a 2-foot-long nylon cord. Having no legal justification to hold Williams, the agents let him go. And he drove on.

Two days later, fishermen found the strangled body of Nathaniel Cater (27) just over a mile downstream from the bridge. Cater was then the 29th body the bureau and local police had found over the last 2 years.

The FBI had titled the case “ATKID,” Atlanta Child Murders. The children included teens and young adults. Most of them were boys. All of them were black. And all 29 of them were kidnapped and murdered between 1979 and 1981 across the Atlanta area.

Season 2 of Netflix's Mindhunter will explore this gruesome case, and the FBI's role in profiling the killer. Here's what to know about Wayne Williams and the Atlanta Child Murders.

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Who is Wayne Williams?

Wayne Williams was born in Atlanta and grew up with two college-educated parents. Williams, however, did not graduate college, one in a series of many personal failures, notes former FBI agent Susan E. Lloyd who recently wrote about the ATKID case for the Grapevine. William worked as a talent recruiter, a photographer, a DJ. He would occasionally ride along with late night ambulance drivers.

After the abduction of a 7-year-old girl in 1980 (the ninth victim), the FBI and the Behavioral Sciences Unit joined the investigation. The bureau assigned more than two dozen agents to the case, including special agent John Douglas (upon whom Jonathan Groff’s Mindhunter character, Holden Ford, is loosely based). Douglas was tasked with developing a profile of the killer.

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In documents obtained by the newspaper the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC), Douglas described Williams after his arrest as “an angry young man seeking power, who wears a mask to cover his personal inadequacies.” Douglas said that Williams was not dissimilar to the serial killers he had interviewed over the course of his research—including Ed Kemper, Jerome Brudos, and Charles Manson.

Douglas had submitted a profile to the FBI even before Williams’ arrest. He predicted that the killer (then unknown) would have been over-pampered by his parents. He wrote that the killer most likely resided in the area, was single, had difficulty relating to women, held an occupation that brought him to remote locations, and likely, at some point, impersonated law enforcement. Douglas also predicted (though it would be rare for serial killers at the time) that the Atlanta killer was black—that he was able to move in black communities inconspicuously, Douglas believed, proved this. (Douglas even suggested that the killer’s favorite colors were “black, dark blue, and brown.”)

In 1976, Williams was arrested and charged with impersonating a police officer. He was soon after released. The killings began three years later.

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When did Wayne Williams commit the Atlanta Child Murders?

Douglas believed that the killings commenced when the stress and failures in Williams' life became too much to bear: his not graduating, his causing his parents to file for bankruptcy after their investment in his failed business, and his having trouble with employment. Douglas wrote that Williams likely used the killing to assert control and give his life notability, success.

On July 28, 1979, the body of Edward Hope Smith (14) who had been missing for a week, was found in a vacant lot—shot. Not far from Smith, another body, Alfred James Evans (13) was also found. Evans had been strangled.

Almost four months later, Milton Harvey (14), was found dead. That same day, another body: Yusef Ali Bell (9), strangled and left in a vacant lot.

Four months passed. Then, the first female victim: Angel Lanier (12), found strangled on March 10, 1980. Then, over the course of two months, Jeffrey L. Mathis (10), Eric Middlebrooks (14), Christopher Richardson (12), Latonya Wilson (7), Aaron D. Wyche (10), Anthony Bernard Carter (9), and Earl Lee Terrell (10) all went missing. All were later found dead.

A task force was formed and two FBI agents from the Behavioral Science Unit arrived in Atlanta.

Autumn. Clifford Jones (13), Darren Glass (11), Charles Stephens (12), and Aaron Jackson (9). All went missing. All—with the exception of Glass—were found dead. (Glass' body was never recovered.)

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Green nylon fibers and dog hairs had been found on many of the bodies. This detail was published by the AJC and soon after the killer changed his habits, dumping mostly naked bodies in the rivers. Patrick Rogers (16) was the first of this new spree. And then, in January 1981: Lubie Geter (14) and Terry Pue (15).

John Douglas arrived in Atlanta shortly after, tracing the crime scenes and beginning work on his profile.

The killings continued. February: Patrick Baltazar (12) and Curtis Walker (13). March: Joseph Bell (14) and Timothy Hill (13).

Atlanta issued a curfew for youths under the age of 16. Then the killings changed.

Eddie Duncan (20) was found in the Chattahoochee River on March 31. In April: Larry Rogers (20), Michael McIntosh (23), John Harold Porter (28), and Jimmy Ray Payne (21). In May: William Barrett (17).

For over a month, the FBI set up surveillance along the river’s bridges. On May 22 they heard a splash.

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How did the FBI connect Wayne Williams to the murders?

While executing the search warrant, agents found in Williams' home fibers and dog hairs consistent with those identified on 18 and nine victims, respectively. They also found carpet fibers consistent with those identified on 13 victims. (Williams’ wardrobe, they discovered, was composed of primarily drab brown colors.)

Agents arrested Williams on June 21, 1981. He was 23.

The trial began on January 6, 1982. Though no fingerprints or murder weapons were presented as evidence, prosecutors pointed to 19 sources of fibers and hairs that matched those on the victims. Fiber experts testified, stating that the probability of finding that exact carpet in a random home was approximately 1 in 7,792. Witnesses also testified to seeing Williams with his victims before they were killed.

Before the trial, Douglas advised prosecutors how to treat Williams on the stand, suggesting that they focus on Williams’ failures in life. The tactic proved effective and Williams became combative, at one point calling prosecutor Jack Mallard a “fool.”

On February 27, 1982, Williams was found guilty of the murders of Nathaniel Cater (27) and Jimmy Ray Payne (21) and given two consecutive life sentences. (Law enforcement believes at least 23 of the other killings can be attributed to Williams.)

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Where is Wayne Williams now?

Williams is currently serving out his life sentences at Hancock State Prison. He maintains his innocence to this day. He is 61.

The reconstructed history in this story owes much credit to the FBI Grapevine story "ATKID: The Atlanta Child Murders Case," which appears in the January/February 2019 edition and is authored by Susan Lloyd (FBI 1979-2004). The Grapevine is published by the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.

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