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Probe reopening into Atlanta child slayings

Convicted killer, parents voice hope

DECATUR, Ga. -- When Wayne Williams was arrested and declared responsible for a two-year killing rampage that terrorized Atlanta's black community, Catherine Leach saw no reason to hold her three remaining boys any less close.

Even after the diminutive, bespectacled freelance television cameraman was convicted of two killings and blamed for nearly two dozen more, Leach could find no rest.

The implication was that Williams, who is black, strangled her 13-year-old son, Curtis Walker, and dumped his body into Atlanta's South River in 1981. But neither Williams nor anyone else was ever tried for Curtis's death.

Now, Louis Graham, a newly ensconced Dekalb County police chief who was never convinced of Williams's guilt has reopened investigations into five of the so-called Atlanta Child Murders, including Curtis's death. Graham hopes his cold-case squad can either confirm or put to rest his gut feeling that Williams is an innocent man.

Leach shares Graham's belief in Williams's innocence, but to her this is not about Williams. This is about her son, the boy who once said he wanted to go to Hollywood and make his mother rich, the boy who snuck off one afternoon to earn money carrying elderly people's bags at a local Kmart and never came home. ''I'm not doing this or nothing for Wayne Williams," the 55-year-old woman said. ''I don't know if he's innocent or not on those other crimes. All I want is justice for mine."

While the killings raged, a climate of terror gripped greater Atlanta from 1979 to 1981.

Back then, Graham was an assistant police chief in neighboring Fulton County. He worked on the task force that investigated the string of killings, which police say eventually numbered 29 -- mostly male victims, ranging in age from 8 to 27.

Williams had attended Frederick Douglass High School, where Graham's wife taught, and Graham had met the young man. He knew him as brash and spoiled but saw no harm in him.

When the serial killing task force focused in on Williams, Graham had deep misgivings. How, he said, could a puny, nerdy guy overpower so many people -- some bigger than he -- and not ever be seen?

''To me, he's just not the kind that would do something like this," Graham said. ''He wasn't that smart."

But the pressure to find a suspect was enormous. State Representative Tyrone Brooks remembers former vice president George H.W. Bush coming to Atlanta and telling local officials that if they could not do it, federal authorities would happily take over.

''I think [Williams] was too close to the scene too often with his camera," said Brooks, who sometimes helped get civil rights luminaries to appear on the radio show that a teenage Williams broadcast from a station in his garage. ''I just think he was a convenient scapegoat."

In 1982, a jury -- acting largely on testimony about Williams's alleged contempt for poor blacks as well as on fiber evidence that was cutting-edge at the time -- convicted Williams of murdering Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, and Nathaniel Cater, 27, and sentenced him to two consecutive life terms. After the trial, officials declared Williams responsible for 22 other deaths.

The cases were closed. But for many, there was no closure.

Five years ago, Graham visited Williams in prison. At the end of the visit, he told Williams to look him in the eye and say he was innocent.

'' 'To God almighty, I swear . . . I didn't do it,' " Graham recalled Williams saying. ''And I believe him."

But over the years, as appellate courts repeatedly upheld Williams's convictions, Graham did not act on his misgivings. Even last winter, after he became chief of the jurisdiction where some of the killings occurred, he waited.

It was not until February, when Williams granted an interview to local hip-hop radio talk show host Frank Ski, that things began moving. Ski knew of Graham's long-held beliefs, and he contacted the new chief.

Graham said that was the push he needed.

Three of the cases Graham has reopened are among the 10 so-called ''pattern cases" prosecutors used to convince the jury that Williams was the serial killer.

''Wayne wasn't defending himself against two murder charges," said defense lawyer Michael Lee Jackson, who is now fighting Williams's case in federal court. ''He really had to defend himself against 12. But the state only had to prove two of them."

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