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‘Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered’ sheds new light on a brutal, baffling case

The documentary reconsiders the mysterious deaths of at least 28 children, adolescents and adults in their 20s over a two-year period.

Evelyn Miller, Willie Mae Mathis, Sheila Baltazar and Annie Hill — all mothers of missing and murdered kids of Atlanta — prepare to march in a 1984 memorial in a photo seen in “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered.”
Georgia State University/AP/HBO

Wayne Williams was a monster who killed at least 28 children, adolescents and adults in their 20s in Atlanta from July 1979 to May 1981.

Wayne Williams was a patsy used by officials who were more concerned about the city’s reputation and closing the book on this horrific chapter than in finding the real killer.

Or maybe the truth lies somewhere in between — that Williams was responsible for the two murders for which he was convicted and sentenced to consecutive life terms, and some other person or persons were responsible for the dozens of other deaths.

Everybody has an opinion or a gut feeling or a theory in the engrossing, sobering HBO five-part docu-series “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children.” Nearly every surviving relative and loved one is convinced Williams wasn’t the killer. Many journalists and community leaders also have their doubts, and wonder why other leads weren’t pursued. Most of the law enforcement and government officials, of course, are certain they got the right guy in Williams.

“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” opens in 2019, as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms holds a press conference to announce the cases have been reopened in the hopes modern technology will produce answers to so many questions. We flashback to heartbreaking news footage and still photos of so many victims, so many funeral services, so many children left dead in alleys, in the woods, dumped in rivers.

In Episode 1, directors Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre and Joshua Bennett provide a fascinating historical backdrop, showing how Atlanta was a shining example of black progress in the 1960s and 1970s, from the growing number of black-owned companies to Maynard Jackson becoming mayor to a booming business district. But when two bodies of children were found in the woods in July of 1979 and the body count kept rising in shocking numbers, the nation and the world looked at Atlanta and wondered how this could be happening.

A special task force is created. The FBI swoops in. President Reagan says the White House will do everything it to can to help, and Vice-President Bush personally visits. Psychics are brought in. The atmosphere turns into a morbid circus.

The guilt of Wayne Williams, convicted of two of the murders, is examined in “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered.”
AP file

When the press reports about possible fiber matches that could help identify the killer, the monster starts dumping bodies in the river, to wash away evidence and eliminate a crime scene. Eventually, a cop wannabe named Wayne Williams is arrested and is put on trial in February of 1982. Throughout the series, we toggle back and forth 40 years, between archival footage and present-day catch-up interviews with many of the surviving principals in the case, from attorneys to investigators to journalists to activists to the still-heartbroken survivors.

There’s a plethora of evidence to indicate the case against Williams was built on a wobbly foundation, from questionable evidence to shaky testimony from unreliable witnesses. The film also introduces and fleshes out theories the killings could have been carried out by a bad actor who died in prison, or by a well-known racist who formed his own hate group because he thought the KKK wasn’t radical enough.

“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” doesn’t solve the case, but it certainly leaves us with more pressing questions than we already had.