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Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Atlanta child murders (Added note: A mystery man identified!)

Today's post will head into some rather fringe-y territory. If that kind of exploration bugs you, stop reading now. (As regular readers know, this blog's weekend offerings occasionally veer away from "hard" news and politics.)

I have been re-reading a book called Programmed to Kill, in which author Dave McGowan offers a bizarre revisionist history of the serial murder phenomenon. Frankly, McGowan is bit of a crackpot, even by my generous standards. But he has his virtues. Unlike most crackpots, he writes well, and he offers some truly fresh material and insights. Unfortunately, a certain predictability sets in toward the end: The automatic gainsaying of consensus belief eventually becomes as tiresome as consensus belief itself.

Nevertheless, McGowan's section on the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-1981 had me hooked. All readers of a certain age will recall how the killings of some 29 African American children and young adult males caused a national uproar. The killings were ultimately ascribed to a young, locally well-known black musical entrepreneur named Wayne Williams. He was tried only for the murders of two adults; the legal system offered no closure in the cases involving children. Williams maintains his innocence to this day.

In 1985, a three-part TV movie -- starring James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Martin Sheen and Jason Robards -- dramatized the case; it's available on YouTube starting here. I saw this docu-drama when it was first broadcast; it holds up quite well, thanks in large measure to the excellent acting. Although clunky exposition mars the first segment, the script offers a gripping argument that Williams was railroaded.

Gripping, yes -- but not wholly persuasive. I'm not at all convinced of this man's innocence. It's easy to see how a young musical promoter -- someone known to be looking for the next Michael Jackson -- might well have gained the trust of young black kids. No other suspect in the case had that ability to entice the young.

Before the cops identified Williams, many black people believed that the Klan committed the murders. There was an obvious objection to this theory: How could any white person prowl the black neighborhoods of Atlanta unnoticed, especially during a time of great tension and fear? Children were repeatedly warned to avoid all strangers. How could a Klansman lure young blacks boys into a vehicle?

It is nevertheless the case that an informant named Billy Joe Whittaker told authorities that a local Klansman named Charlie Sanders had confessed to the murders. A wiretap recorded Sanders announcing his intention to "ride around a little bit" to find another kid. Infuriatingly, this recording was later destroyed by the Georgia Bureau of Intelligence.

This site offers a look at Sanders and a number other intriguing suspects.

I don't have the space here to go into all of the details of this complex case. In short and in sum: Even though I lean toward the view that Wayne Williams belongs in jail, I do not think that all -- or even most -- of the important questions have received answers.

In 2010, CNN broadcast a documentary which I should have discussed in this column years ago. Here it is. The documentary, hosted by Soledad O'Brien, addresses some of the controversies surrounding this case; other issues (such as the Sanders angle) are ignored. The presentation concludes with a bombshell interview (excerpted here) with Wayne Williams, in which he is confronted with a little-known 1992 document called "Finding Myself."

In this autobiographical text, Williams claims that -- when he was all of 19 -- he received CIA training for possible missions in Africa. This assertion is not so outlandish as many people may believe. At the time, there were several hotspots on the continent, and the Agency did not have nearly as many black field agents as it needed. And Williams was nothing if not ambitious.

Nevertheless, a number of internet commenters have scoffed at the idea. Skeptics presume that Williams is a blowhard hoping to draw attention to himself. None of the scoffers have asked the obvious questions: How did CNN acquire this document? When was it written, and under what circumstances?

Why isn't "Finding Myself" online? I have yet to find a copy. (If you know where to look, please pass along the URL!)

Our most important question is this: Does the document contain information which can be verified through other sources -- information that Williams could not otherwise have known? We cannot address the issue of credibility until we see the details.

Right now, all we have is the following:
O'BRIEN (voice-over): When we returned to prison for our final interview with Wayne Williams, we had one question he was not expecting, what Wayne had written about being recruited for espionage training as a teenager. At a secret government camp hidden in the woods near this north Georgia lake, where he was given what could amount to a license to kill.

(on camera): It's called finding myself. What is finding myself? It reads like an autobiography.

WILLIAMS: Go ahead. I'm listening.

O'BRIEN: It's an account of your CIA training.

WILLIAMS: We're not going to get into that.

O'BRIEN: Why not?

WILLIAMS: We're not going to get into that.

O'BRIEN: I have a copy of it.

WILLIAMS: We're not going to get into it.

O'BRIEN: Why not?

WILLIAMS: We're simply not going to get into it. O'BRIEN (voice-over): By his account, Wayne was fresh out of high school, just 18 years old, when he was approached by an associate of an old World War II spy living in the Atlanta area, and was initiated into a secret world.

(on camera): You're not going to answer a single question on this.

WILLIAMS: No, ma'am.

O'BRIEN: Is it fake? Is it fictional writing?


O'BRIEN: Did you work for the CIA?

WILLIAMS: We're not going to get into it.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): In these pages, he said he spent his summer weekends in those woods, learning how to handle plastic explosives, hand grenades, and something even more chilling.

(on camera): So I'll do the talking part and you can answer what part of it you want. You write how you fired rifles, sub-machine guns, handled assault weapons, grenade launchers, C-4, learned unarmed combat techniques, through this training group over weekends. Is it true or is it false?

WILLIAMS: I'm not going to comment on it.

O'BRIEN: When you were 19 years old? You're saying you worked for the CIA. You've been recruited.

WILLIAMS: I'll let the document speak for itself. I'm not going to comment on that.

O'BRIEN: Did you work for the CIA?

WILLIAMS: I cannot comment on that.
The problem becomes more confounding the more one gnaws on it. The reader should understand one key point: The "CIA training" allegation does not bolster the case for Williams' innocence. (This fact may explain why he seemed visibly surprised and upset when CNN's Soledad O'Brien brought up the document.) At trial, Williams' lawyer emphasized that his client was small and physically unimpressive, and therefore unlikely to have choked to death two larger men. "Finding Myself" calls into question the closing statement made by Williams' attorney.

Why did Williams write "Finding Myself" if the text harms his case? Never mind, for the moment, the question of whether this memoir is based on fantasy or reality: Why on earth would a man desperate to prove his innocence undermine one of the primary arguments offered in his defense?

Although the document bears a 1992 date (according to CNN), we have some reason to believe that Williams, before his arrest, had broadly hinted that he had acquired specialized knowledge of hand-to-hand combat. The aforementioned 1985 made-for-TV movie reconstructs -- accurately, I hope -- the testimony offered by various prosecution witnesses. Around 19 minutes into part three, one such witness says that Williams bragged of knowing a special choke hold which induces rapid unconsciousness. Later, this same witness says that Williams has a "split personality."

(This witness was devastating to Williams' case. Even more damage was done by Williams himself: Testifying in his own defense, he went on a tirade that alienated the jurors.)

CNN uses "Finding Myself" to demonstrate that Williams had acquired the training necessary to murder larger men with his bare hands. But if we accept the document at face value, then the Wayne Williams story veers off into very strange territory.

Who was this "old World War II spy" living in the Atlanta area? Offhand, I can't think of a possible candidate -- and I'm a bit irked that CNN has kept the name hidden. (If you can fill in the blank, please share!)

Why did CNN refuse to identify the "north Georgia lake" close to the "secret government camp"? If CNN had investigated Williams' claim and found this camp to be non-existent, Soledad O'Brien would surely have mentioned that fact, and would have named the lake.

(At first, I thought that the reference might go to the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. But that complex is located in central Georgia, and it is hardly a secret.)

We must add one other point. In 1981, none other than Vice President George Bush created a federal task force which investigated the then-unsolved series of murders. Vice presidents do not usually take on such duties; in fact, I can't think of a single parallel. Bush had once headed the CIA, the very organization which -- allegedly -- trained Wayne Williams.

Although I'm irked by Dave McGowan's more outlandish theories, I must admit that many aspects of the Atlanta story do not add up. This case deserves a new investigation.

Added note: Boy, do I feel like an idiot! A kind reader mentioned the name of the notorious Mitch WerBell, an OSS veteran then living in Atlanta. He was an amazing, larger-than-life character who perfectly matches what we know of the man described by Wayne Williams. WerBell had an anything-goes training facility called The Farm off of Georgia State Route 360, near Powder Springs, located north of Atlanta.

Jim Hougan's remarkable -- and, these days, very hard-to-find -- book Spooks offers a vivid picture of WerBell and his crew. Basically, these guys were (are?) the real-life equivalent of The Expendables. Although I lost my copy of Spooks ages ago, a new copy came into my hands quite recently. And if I had bothered to re-read the damned thing, that CNN documentary would have caused all sorts of lightbulbs to flash over my noggin.

Wayne Williams is talking about Mitch WerBell. It's gotta be him. Everything fits.

God damn. I should have seen this immediately.

Added added note: Turns out that my humble blog was not the first humble blog to identify Mitch WerBell as the man who trained Wayne Williams. See here.

Before you read that entry, I should explain that WerBell hobnobbed with all sorts of very strange people, including Lyndon LaRouche, who made the transition from left to hard right in the 1970s. Many LaRouchies received training at "The Farm."

The story gets wilder from there. Check out the link...
Interesting point you bring up Joseph, Why would he write that book while in jail? Maybe he was hoping the CIA would panic and help get him out of prison?
John Douglas, the FBI criminal profiler and author, wrote about the case in "Mindhunders." He was there and deeply involved in the investigation. He says that Williams committed some, but not all, of the murders. I think you have to take very seriously the people who were there at the time. As an aside, Bill James, the great baseball writer, said that while Rabbit Marranville did not have the statistics to justify his Hall of Fame selection, that the sportswriters of the time consistently voted him among the best of his time has to be taken seriously. As a further aside, I believe a strong case for the guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald is the Will Fritz, a veteran homicide investigator and the one who interrogated Oswald, was convinced of his guilt.
The last comment can be ignored, when you tote up the number of well-informed people who thought otherwise. I can't judge Douglas' book because I have not read it. Nevertheless, "profiling" seems rather questionable. It's a bit like tea leaf reading, isn't it?

Consider the record:
Mitchell WerBell ran a counterinsurgency training camp near Atlanta at that time. He had old CIA connections and trained some terrorists for the CIA's Central American campaign, as I remember it.
I suggest you read the chapter entitled "Atlanta" in Mindhunters because Douglas AGREES WITH YOU! As to the value of profiling, read about Dr. Brussel
And it was late at night when I sent the last comment. I should have said that while not dispositive, Fritz (the only policeman who actually had an extended interrogation of Oswald) has to be at least considered and taken seriously in the case.

Hey Joe, just FYI: that Kid Kenoma blog that you linked to has a murky connection to trickster Neal Rauhauser and other bad actors, so caveat emptor and all that.
Anon...seriously? How do you know? I know nothing about that blog.

But even if the devil himself had written that blog post, I would have had to cite it. When a writer gets there first, that fact should be acknowledged.
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