Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Wayne Williams and the Atlanta Child Murders

Building the Case

On May 24,1981, the nude body of Nathaniel Cater, who had disappeared a few days earlier, was discovered in the Chattahoochee River. The medical examiner had once again documented the cause of death as being "probable asphyxia." He was unable to establish the time frame in which Cater had expired. Therefore, it was not really known exactly how Cater had died or when, but only that he had stopped breathing for some unknown reason. The medical examiner obliged the police by stating that Cater had been dead just long enough for Wayne Williams to have thrown him off the bridge several days earlier.

Based on the discovery of the body and the "splash" from the bridge, police theorized that Williams had killed Nathaniel Cater and had thrown him off the bridge the night they had pulled him over. Interestingly, four witnesses would later come forward to the police saying that they saw Cater alive after Williams supposedly threw his body from the bridge. This critical information was not shared with Williams's lawyers.

The authorities monitored Williams' actions on a continuous basis while they got the necessary search warrants for his home and cars. Throughout the string of murders, a large number of fibers had been found on the various bodies of the victims. The FBI wanted to determine if any of the fibers from Wayne Williams' environment matched the fibers taken from the murder victims. Also, a few victims had dog hair on them. Samples of the hair from Williams' dog were taken for comparison.

When the FBI took Williams in for questioning, without a lawyer present, they grilled him about his activities on the night of the bridge incident. Williams told them he played basketball that afternoon at the Ben Hill Recreation Center and then went home. Later in the afternoon, Williams said he got a call from a woman who called herself Cheryl Johnson who wanted to audition for him. She supposedly gave him a phone number and address in Smyrna and arranged to meet Williams at her apartment at 7 A.M. the following morning. He said he stayed at home until he went to the Sans Souci Lounge after midnight to pick up his tape recorder from the manager. He said that he left the Sans Souci when the manager was too busy to see him. Then he told the FBI that he was going to look for Cheryl Johnson's apartment and drove around Smyrna looking for the Spanish Trace Apartments in which she said she lived. When he couldn't find the apartments, he said he stopped at a liquor store and called the phone number she gave him, but the number was busy. Later, he stopped again to call her, but that time the phone rang without answer.

Then Williams drove onto the Jackson Parkway bridge and went to a Starvin' Marvin to call Cheryl Johnson again. This time, Williams claimed, someone did answer but said that it was the wrong number. So then, Williams said he went back toward the bridge when the officers stopped him for questioning.


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