Will Atlanta child murders ever be solved? Those close to case fear answer is ‘No’

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Anthony Terrell is grateful that HBO’s “Atlanta’s Murdered and Missing: The Lost Children” has brought a new spotlight to the terror which gripped black residents of Atlanta in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when dozens of children and young adults were murdered or disappeared without a trace.

Terrell is also thankful that the five-part documentary, which concluded Sunday, allowed him to discuss the pain and trauma he has suffered all his life as the survivor of one of the victims of the brutal crime wave — his 10-year-old brother, Earl, was murdered after going to a neighborhood swimming pool.

But in the end, the 49-year-old worries it is not enough.

Although Atlanta native Wayne Williams was prosecuted for two of the crimes, the remainder of the cases were closed without being thoroughly investigated. Painful questions have lingered for many of the survivors, who maintain that the real truth behind the murders has never been uncovered. Both the nonfiction “Atlanta Monster” podcast and Season 2 of Netflix’s “Mindhunter” have renewed public interest in the case in recent years.

“Atlanta’s Murdered and Missing” concluded Sunday with strong evidence that the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists belonging to the National States’ Rights Party may have been involved in the killings and the disappearances. Also prominent were emotional interviews with Terrell, survivors and others who recall the era as one of Atlanta’s darkest chapters.

The city’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced last year that she is reopening the investigation into the murders. But Terrell is concerned.

“I don’t feel there’s ever going to be closure,” he said in an interview last week.

He and others who participated in the HBO project offered their feelings about the case in the wake of the documentary’s finale.

—Joshua Bennett, executive producer: When you see the story of the Atlanta child murders, it’s always about Wayne Williams. We made an effort to talk to all of the family members, the mothers, brothers and sisters of these victims. They’ve been pushing and fighting for answers for 40 years. I was a baby when this was happening. For my whole life, they’ve been seeking justice. That effort has finally paid off with reopening the case. The city of Atlanta is finally beginning to acknowledge the pain these mothers have suffered through all these years.

This has been such a travesty of justice for so many years, and I think there is a reckoning for that. The old guard is slipping away and there’s a new administration willing to look at this case with fresh eyes. I think the mayor and chief of police will bring a little more clarity.

—Sam Pollard, executive producer: This is such a complicated story, definitely not black and white. There’s never been any kind of memorial or statues to any of the victims. What was really revealing to me was talking to the survivors. So many of them had never had their stories told. For them, it seemed like it was an emotional exorcism.

—Anthony Terrell, brother of Earl Terrell: My mother’s family has all passed. I wonder why this has taken 40-something years. Two years would have been perfect time for my mother to tell her story. I’m the only one left to tell that story.

Me and my brother were walking home from elementary school. My auntie and uncle asked us if we wanted to go swimming. My youngest brother was in the house and my auntie had to leave, so I had to stay home to watch my youngest brother. We had to pick and choose who was going to go swimming, me or my brother Earl. I told Earl, “You go.” I had two or three dollars in my pocket. I told him to take the money. He couldn’t find his swim trunks so I told him where my trunks were. He went swimming. My mom came home later and said, “Where Earl at?” It just went from there.

Sometimes I feel like if I would have went, it would have gone the opposite way.

I don’t think there’s going to be any closure. It should have happened 40 years ago. The media always focuses on Wayne Williams. They did it back then and they’re doing it now. Wayne was convicted of killing two adults. The other 20-some kids, there has never been a conviction. It’s going to go back to being about Wayne Williams. We tend to focus on something, and then turn to something that doesn’t have anything to do with it.

If this had been 20-some white children, it would have been solved in two weeks. But the South is still embedded in Georgia.

We’re not going to hope, but we’re going to pray. Prayer is what has kept us strong.

—Monica Kaufman Pearson, WSB news anchor (1975-2012): I always felt there had not been a complete investigation into each and every murder. Particularly the two girls, because it did not fit with the pattern.

As far as the reopening of the case, I applaud the mayor for doing it but I feel it’s almost lip service. What evidence do we have that hasn’t completely deteriorated?

I hate to say it this way. But the reality is, there’s no such thing as closure for anyone in this case because of what happened 41 years ago.

We forget — for us, it was a story. But they have to live with the pain of their loved one being killed and their case never being investigated as thoroughly as they liked. They have to live with the fact that they were denied twice, not only from the death of their loved ones but hearing their child being described sometimes as hustlers, and the parents being described as irresponsible for not knowing where their children were.

And with the pandemic going on? It was a year ago that the mayor said we’re going to look at these cases again, and we haven’t heard anything. We don’t know where they are in the investigation, the police chief says she’s short-staffed. How many people can she really assign to that? The resources are needed now, not in the past. That’s got to move to the now, not the past. So you have the hopes of these parents, and they’re dashed again.

This will come up again at the 50th anniversary, and maybe the 60th. And then it will become just a footnote.


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