Atlanta child murders: Parents never gave up vigil for missing children

4:58 p.m Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017 Homepage
AJC FILE PHOTO
Atlanta police officers remove the body of a child from the Chattahoochee riverbank in this 1980 photo. Most of the Atlanta Child Murder victims were young male children or teens. So many children disappeared in 1980 it was called the "Summer of Death" in Atlanta.

When Willie Mae Mathis decided to move last summer, she knew she couldn't go far.

So she packed her belongings and moved into a house right next door to the Atlanta home in which she had lived for 30 years. 

And she kept the same phone number --- just in case.

"I have been thinking about my son every day since he left the house, " Willie Mae Mathis said. "That is the reason I haven't moved [from the neighborhood]. If someone got him after all these years, maybe he can find his way home. That is why I have never changed my phone number."

(BEN GRAY/AJC)
Willie Mae Mathis's son Jefferey was killed during the child murders. Her oldest son Ronald sits in the background on the porch of the family's West End home in this May 2005 file photo.  

Mathis' son, Jefferey, is among the victims of the "Atlanta Child Murders, " which stretched from 1979 to 1981.

"I lived through the horror, but I still have nightmares, " said Venus Taylor, the mother of 12-year-old Angel Lenair. "Twice I tried to kill myself. I was gone. I was lost. I wanted to die."

Catherine Leach, the mother of Curtis Walker, also tried to kill herself, she said. 

And when she couldn't stop tugging on her hair when she talked about Curtis, she shaved it all off.

"I still have been dealing with hell, " said Leach. "I haven't been able to sleep like I want to because of the nightmares."

Family members took all of Curtis' pictures away from Leach to help her with the grief. Today, only one known photo of Curtis exists.

It's a faded file photo used in newspaper stories about the killings, and it's difficult to see the faint smile of 13-year-old Curtis, in a dark three-piece suit with a wide collar. 

"I would sleep with his picture. Wake up holding it. I cooked with it in my bosom, " Leach said. "All the material things I had of Curtis are gone now. He is just in my heart."

Venus Taylor and her children moved to Atlanta from Chicago seven weeks before Angel disappeared.

"Angel loved it here. She loved the tall trees, " said Taylor, who still keeps a picture of Angel on her dresser.

"Atlanta wasn't crime-ridden like it was in urban Chicago. I wanted to raise my children in Atlanta."

On March 4, 1980, Angel walked to a friend's house to help her with homework.

She was only to stay an hour because Taylor was taking her to pick up a belated birthday gift --- tickets to the Prince concert the following day.

But Angel didn't come home. She was found six days later, tied to a tree off Campbellton Road in Atlanta.

When Angel's body was found March 10, 1980, Willie Mae Mathis watched those events on the news with her son Jefferey. She remembers warning him of what could happen if he talked to strangers.

"He said, 'Mama, I don't do that. I don't talk to strangers, '" his mother recalled.

The next day, Jefferey walked to the corner to get a loaf of bread, but he never arrived at the store.

As hours turned into days, weeks into months, Mathis suffered.

"You just got a missing child that isn't supposed to be missing, " Mathis said. "Every time the phone rang, I thought it was him, " Mathis said.

Eleven painful months passed before Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's mayor at the time, knocked on Mathis' door to tell her Jefferey's remains had been found.

George Clark / AJC File
1981: During the 'Missing and Murdered Children of Atlanta' years (1979-81), Mayor Maynard Jackson offered reward money for the capture of the murderer.

When she saw the mayor, Mathis ran out the back door. Her son's body was badly decomposed, but he was identified through dental records. Yet, Mathis holds out hope.

A quarter century later, DeKalb County Police Chief Louis Graham has decided to re-examine five cases in DeKalb County, including Curtis Walker's.

"This is not about Wayne Williams, " Catherine Leach said of the man convicted with two murders and implicated in the others. "These cases were just set up to rot."

In the meantime, Mathis continues to hold out hope.

Sitting on her porch, she flips through old photos of her Jefferey. Mugging with his brothers. On a pony with his sister Wanda. Opening presents at Christmas.

"I think about him every day, " Mathis said. "What would he be doing? What would he have been? What would he have looked like?

"When will he come home?"

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