Victims’ Peers Angry, Confused About Killings 10 Years Later
ATLANTA (AP) _ Dwayne Redding’s voice softens and his eyes cloud with dark memories as he talks about the year he turned 15.
That was 1981 and Redding was a high school sophomore with college plans and a part-time job. He also was a young black male in a city where his type was being hunted down by a wily killer who already had gotten someone Redding knew.
″I was frightened. I mean, I really was frightened, because it hit close to home,″ he said. ″That’s when it crossed my mind that I could become a victim.
″Here I was, a 15-year-old kid, working at a Dairy Queen until 11 or 12 o’clock at night. What saved me from being a victim?″
The killings began 10 years ago, soon bringing terror for the children of Atlanta’s black neighborhhoods. Residents believed the deaths were linked after about four bodies were found, months before police officially announced a connection. From July 28, 1979, until May 24, 1981, 28 victims slipped into the clutches of a killer.
Finally, there was an arrest. Self-styled music promoter Wayne B. Williams, a pudgy, bespectacled young black man, was convicted of two murders and sentenced to life in prison. Police also blamed Williams for 22 other slayings.
Not everyone accepted Williams’ connection to the other killings, and some people still push for the cases to be re-examined.
From the time Edward Smith and Alford Evans were found dead in a weedy lot until Nathaniel Cater’s naked body surfaced in the Chattahoochee River, young black men in Atlanta lived with the fear they could be next, but they never really talked about it.
They say counseling efforts never reached far enough into their circles. Psychologists say many children shunned counseling, either out of bravado or confusion.
Whatever the reason, these grown men, when they reflect upon their childhood horror, feel their generation was abandoned.
″We need to deal with it, get it out and talk about it. It’s not too late to do that,″ said Derrick Boazman, a 23-year-old student at Morris Brown College. ″It’s a must - for the sake of justice - that we re-examine the whole issue. It needs to be brought to the forefront.″
Boazman was 13 when the murders began. By the time they ended, he had joined a youth group, the United Youth-Adult Conference, and given up activities that kept him out after dark.
″We were kind of scared; we didn’t want to say we were,″ he said. ″It was a saddening feeling to think that someone out there was preying upon and victimizing children.″
Redding, 23, a student at Georgia State University, didn’t say much to anyone about the murders until 1986. Some soul searching prompted him to think more about Timothy Hill, a victim who had frequented the ice cream parlor where Redding worked at the time. Hill’s body was found March 30, 1981.
″He was a likeable kind of kid. He liked to talk to you,″ Redding said. ″I’ll never forget the day of his funeral, seeing the funeral procession. Everybody was silent and saddened, and it was kind of weird being that close to someone who had been the victim of what I still consider an unsolved murder.
″It never occurred to me to go to counseling. It hit me later. It prompted me to be a bit more introspective about the magnitude of what had taken place. It is an issue a lot of people would rather forget about. And I can’t understand that.″
The fear still haunts Michael Hardnett, 26, an electrician.
″I thought if it could happen to them it could happen to me, too, ’cause back then I used to hang out in the late hours,″ he said. ″Every time I left the house and hit the street, I felt I had to be on my guard. I had to watch my back.
″Now, I’ll go out, and when I leave, I’m always looking out the door or down the street. When I hear something, I want to know what it is.″
Hardnett said his friends didn’t want to accept what was happening.
″A couple of them, they didn’t want to say they were scared, but I’d say they were scared,″ he said. ″I wasn’t just going to ignore it. I knew I was a small person and I could get picked up that easily.″
Boazman said he had not been overwhelmingly concerned with the murders until a schoolmate from his neighborhood, 12-year-old Charles Stephens, was murdered Oct. 9, 1980.
″It struck home for me. I’ll never forget it. I didn’t want to be caught outside after it had gotten dark,″ Boazman said. ″Now, the magnitude is still a quandary for me. If I had been approached or accosted, it would have been terrifying.″
As lawyers prepare new appeals for Williams, the young men who could have been victims say they do not believe Williams committed all the murders pinned on him. They say those cases should be reopened.
They say the public was never fully aware of other suspects in the case. Police questioned hundreds of possible suspects; they arrested a relative in the case of 7-year-old Latonya Wilson, but released him later.
The young men criticize Mayor Andrew Young and Public Safety Commissioner George Napper, both of whom are black, for not renewing investigations of the 22 cases linked to Williams, who was arrested in June 1981 and charged with murdering Cater and 21-year-old Jimmy Ray Payne.
″I never felt in my heart that Wayne Williams was the killer of all those persons. I really feel it was a conspiracy,″ Boazman said. ″To close the doors on all the rest is an injustice. Whatever happened to the leads on them, the public doesn’t know.
″It was politically expedient to keep it hushed,″ he said. ″Here we have, in the black community, all these heinous crimes, then have a black man convicted. To see another young, intelligent black man arrested and sent to jail for those cases. ... The psychological effect could be lasting.″
Hardnett agreed. ″It just seemed like they were after anybody to me. They just said, ‘Well, he did it.’ I really just thought it was wrong, because to me they just didn’t care about the other cases.″
Prosecutors decline to comment because of Williams’ impending bid for a new trial. But Larry Howard, who was director of the state crime lab during the killings, says dog hairs, carpet fibers and other evidence painstakingly plucked from victims’ bodies solidly linked the bulk of the murdered children to Williams.
″I think in those cases where we identified physical evidence, there was a single person. I think we identified Williams as that person,″ Howard said from his retirement home in Montana. ″We were pretty much on target.″
Redding, who leads a group that monitors racial situations on college campuses in Georgia, said he also doubts Williams’ guilt because the city’s leadership ″seemed to thirst and hunger for a scapegoat″ once Williams was arrested.
″I feel justice must be served,″ he said. ″We have to investigate these crimes just as thoroughly and just as severely as the Jews have continued to investigate those who were perpetrators of Nazi acts of war.
″We have to be that serious about it.″