For 36 years, Catherine Leach-Bell has had the dream.
It takes place before she walked down old Bankhead Highway in tears, praying, Please, God, don’t let nobody have my child. Please, please, God. It takes place before she shaved her head and sat on the edge of the bathtub with a razor blade, wondering how to live after she found out her boy was gone.
She can hear Curtis’ voice and laugh – that music – in the dream. It sounds like he’s in the next room playing with his brothers. It makes her happy, of course, to hear him, but there’s something horrible about this dream. She hasn’t been able to remember his face since he died. She’s desperate to remember, without the aid of her one grainy picture. But she never sees him in the dream, and she wakes up pleading, God, show me his face.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covered the disappearance and murder of young children in the city as they happened. When Wayne Williams was arrested and convicted, we were there. Read the AJC’s comprehensive real-time coverage on our Wayne Williams page.
This is what the Atlanta Child Murders did – and are doing – to a mother. But the cause of her hurt isn’t only that her son, Curtis Walker, 13, is dead. Her pain is compounded by knowing his case is still unsolved.
Curtis was one of five boys found slain in DeKalb County from 1979 to 1981, a period in which more than 20 black children, almost all boys, were killed around metro Atlanta. Authorities long ago closed the Fulton County cases, which accounted for most of them. But the DeKalb police department decided to keep its five investigations open, which leaves them in a strange limbo – considered part of the most notorious and depraved string of murders in Atlanta history, or just similar tragedies caught up in the lore.
Authorities have for decades suspected Wayne Williams was the killer who terrorized the city. He is serving life for murder convictions in the deaths of two adults in Fulton, though he’s never faced charges in any child’s death.
What DeKalb police think is unclear.
“We’re not going to give an opinion one way or another regarding Wayne Williams, whether he’s innocent or guilty,” Assistant Chief Tony Catlin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
They’re also not going to release any documents, citing fear that it could compromise the cases, which could become active at any moment with the right tip. No investigators are assigned to the cases now.
The families are left to wonder if answers will ever come.
Leach-Bell, for her part, is tired of waiting idly.
“I ain’t gonna give up,” she said the other day in her apartment, which is adorned with animal print patterns, a portrait of Nelson Mandela and a sign that says Hope. “I got to stay focused.”
She’s writing a book, which reads more like an indictment, to raise the noise level. She’s lobbying Atlanta for a monument to the victims. Or at least a plaque. Anything to show that the boys’ lives mattered, that someone still cares.
A fading face:
The book, “A Voice That Was Made Silent,” begins with a pronouncement:
“Let it be known, now and throughout history, so there will be no doubt, I Catherine Leach-Bell (have) always been a soldier.
“First: A soldier for the Almighty God.
“Second: A soldier for my own child …
“Third: A soldier for all the slain children.
“Fourth: A soldier for justice and equality for all people alike.”
Her war began Feb. 19, 1981.
Curtis was a homebody who loved “Sanford and Son.” He promised to make his mom rich. But on that winter day, he never returned to his apartment in Bowen Homes after toting groceries for cash at a nearby store. Leach-Bell was a struggling unmarried mother of four boys, ages 2 to 14, living in public housing in northwest Atlanta. Curtis helped her most. He changed the toddler’s diapers and told his brothers to do their chores, to not be too wild.
On March 6, firefighters spotted a body snagged on a log in South River, some 20 miles from Bowen Homes. Leach-Bell watched on the news as workers pulled it out.
She went running out the front door, screaming in grief, when Mayor Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, came with a representative from the city police to tell her it was Curtis.
He’d been asphyxiated, like most of the other victims.
The mother couldn’t stand to go identify the body. Her sister did it for her and reported that his face was decomposed beyond recognition.
Leach-Bell couldn’t look at the funeral either. She could just close her eyes and try to see him as he was on the last day he walked out of her apartment, but the vision was already gone.
‘The Snatcher’ and the KKK
Those days, it was hard to know what to believe. No one was talking about Wayne Williams yet. Tensions were high and rising with each body found. Curtis’ was the 20th.
Hundreds of residents volunteered for a community watch program at schools, playgrounds and shopping centers. Others took up baseball bats and patrolled the streets.
Children spoke of “The Snatcher” and teased each other about getting caught in his grasp. This was the assumption, that there was one killer, but officials at the various local, state and federal agencies working the cases couldn’t agree.
They were investigating dozens of suspects, including some who confessed but were eliminated because police believed they were more likely mentally ill and lying. Tips also came in about brothers who were purportedly tied to the Ku Klux Klan, and a judge approved a wiretap on them.
But all other theories began to fall away after a May 1981 police stakeout by a bridge over the Chattahoochee River. Officers heard a splash, thought to be a dropping body, and spotted Williams driving by.
After a body was found, Fulton prosecutors charged Williams, a cocky young freelance photographer, with the deaths of two adults who’d been recovered in or near the river.
The state earned his conviction in 1982 by using new technology to connect Williams through hairs and carpet fibers found with the bodies. Prosecutors also presented evidence from 10 of the child deaths, including three from DeKalb, as “pattern” cases to strengthen their argument that Williams alone terrorized Atlanta.
Curtis’ death was not one of the pattern cases.
‘You can’t solve every case’
While serving time in a South Georgia prison, Curtis’ uncle, Timothy Murray, met Williams.
I ain’t killed your sister’s son, he told Murray, according to Leach-Bell.
Murray wrote letters to his sister, and Williams would ask him to include notes about his innocence. Williams also sent her Christmas cards.
She had never believed Williams did it, anyway. Like other critics of the prosecution, she saw him as a scapegoat; a black man who could put to rest the idea that the deaths had been racially motivated.
Ronald M. Kuby, one of Williams’ attorneys, said he believes the prosecutors genuinely thought Williams was guilty. He just thinks they were hasty and wanted to find a way to “end this national nightmare,” which had thrust a grim spotlight on the city.
“I don’t think one person killed all of those children. But I think there was an institutional sort of tunnel vision that developed, that this was all the work of a serial killer,” Kuby said recently.
In 1987, Lewis Slaton, the Fulton district attorney, declined demands by relatives of 13 young victims to either charge Williams or reopen the cases. Slaton said he didn’t have enough evidence for convictions, though he believed Williams was guilty.
In DeKalb, DA Bob Wilson deferred to county police and Slaton, a friend. Wilson felt confident Williams had done the DeKalb murders that were brought up in his trial. In the others, including Curtis’, Wilson recalls the police having little evidence to use to tie the deaths to Williams — or anyone else.
Wilson said he saw cops who were dogged, who were checking out every lead, but who ran into something even the best cops can’t escape: “You can’t solve every case.”
An autopsy report, burning
Curtis’ mom thinks the KKK killed her son, though she has no evidence to prove it.
She knows 1981 wasn’t so far removed from the Civil Rights era and times of regular racially-motivated violence against black people in the South. She knows it must’ve angered racists to see Atlanta change and get more black leaders.
The police investigated Charles, Terry and Don Sanders, the brothers with alleged Klan ties.
In April 1981, Don Sanders was heard saying on a wire tap that he was going to get “another little kid,” according to a 1986 article in SPIN. Charles Sanders told a police informant the murders “wiped out a thousand future generations” of black people, The Associated Press reported. (Black wasn’t the word he used.)
Police investigated the men for seven weeks but moved on after they passed lie detector tests.
Leach-Bell pored over the medical examiner’s report obsessively, reading about how the body was ravaged after long days in the river, how his face was unrecognizable. She had only one black-and-white, worn picture of Curtis’ face because she gave some to police and others went missing.
She read the autopsy so much her sons took it away and burned it.
“It shook the whole house to see her hurting like that,” Curtis’ older brother, William Murray, said. “Just to see her go through that type of pain, that type of hurt, as a young man, I felt like I had to be strong.”
At the same time, the brothers were scarred. William Murray, 14 at the time of Curtis’ death, started having a dream a year or two later. He could hear Curtis’ voice, but could never see his face.
A new investigation, then a problem
Louis Graham had worked the child murders as a police investigator and held firm to his opinion that Williams wasn’t guilty. In 2005, as the DeKalb police chief, he announced that detectives would reopen the five investigations.
This was a huge assignment.
Even after decades of scientific advancement, fully one third of the homicides in the United States go unsolved. The age of a case can hurt, too, and these were more than 20 years old already. And Graham was at the outset eliminating Williams as a possible suspect.
Graham said he wanted closure for parents like Leach-Bell. She came to a press conference and hugged his neck.
“I have always felt their pain,” the chief said.
But Leach-Bell said she never heard from the chief after that.
A year later, he resigned amid an unrelated controversy.
Nick Marinelli took over as interim chief and signaled a change.
“Nothing has panned out,” he soon said. “So until something does or additional evidence comes our way, or there’s forensic feedback from existing evidence, we will continue to pursue the (other) cold cases that are in our reach.”
Remembering, at least
Leach-Bell’s done what she could since then.
She went to the library to research. She started the book, with the help of husband Larry Bell, in hopes it will get enough attention, if anyone will print it, to nudge authorities.
But what resolution could come now?
A viable case would need evidence, which may or may not still exist. It would need time, which isn’t easy to find in DeKalb, a county with an understaffed police department and dozens of new murders every year. It would require suspects and officials with intimate knowledge, who may or may not still be alive.
For instance, if the police wanted to revisit the KKK-linked brothers, they’d have to go to a graveyard. Louis Graham and the old Fulton DA are also dead.
Leach-Bell, now 69, remains.
When she lies down and prays to see Curtis’ face each night, she does so in an apartment off Bolton Road, less than a mile from Bowen Homes, which has been torn down, and Bankhead Highway, which has been renamed to Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway.
The annual remembrance ceremonies have stopped. She sees everyone moving on and wonders how she ever could.
If she can’t see charges filed, she would at least get comfort from a monument, or plaque. It would give a place for the parents and relatives to go to honor their children together, she hopes. It would remind a city bent on shaping its future to remember the past.
Atlanta got a new mayor this Tuesday, Keisha Lance Bottoms. Asked a day later if she’d support the idea, a spokeswoman said: “Mayor Bottoms will consider a monument to the victims of the Atlanta Child Murders.”