Re-Reading Mindhunter: John Douglas’s Secret Theory of the Atlanta Child Murders

“The truth isn’t pleasant.”

The most mysterious passage in John Douglas’s 1995 memoir Mindhunter appears near the end of his chapter on the Atlanta child murders.

Firstly, he admits that Wayne Williams can be conclusively linked to only eleven of the roughly thirty murders of children and young men that were committed between 1979 and 1981. That’s troubling, because 24 of those cases were closed after Williams’ trial. “He did all of them,” was the general consensus of investigators and prosecutors.

Secondly, he drops this bombshell:

We have an idea who did some of the others. It isn’t a single offender and the truth isn’t pleasant.”

I have been attempting for roughly 18 years to figure out what Douglas is talking about in this passage. There are only a few credible theories about the Atlanta child murders, and Douglas rejected one of them (the white supremacist theory) earlier in the chapter. What does that leave? The organized-pedophilia theory, the theory that the boys were killed by members of their own families and the theory that Williams had an accomplice who remained hidden.

There are screwy theories, as well, such as comedian/activist Dick Gregory’s assertion that the government could be kidnapping African-American children to use as subjects in interferon experiments, or the conspiracy theory that the murders were part of a CIA operation. I doubt Douglas subscribes to any of those theories.

So what was he talking about? He does mention, early in his Atlanta chapter, that evidence in a couple of cases pointed to relatives of the missing and murdered boys. But a “couple of cases” certainly wouldn’t account for more than 20 unsolved murders. Also, if Douglas was willing to address the family issue directly, he wouldn’t be shy about embracing it as an explanation later in the same chapter.

That leaves the organized-pedophilia theory. I believe this is the theory to which Douglas is alluding.

For one thing, it would explain his cryptic comment that he believed most of the strangulation murders were linked. This is a bizarre thing to say, because  in some instances boys whose bodies were found together had been killed in dramatically different ways. For instance,  the remains of Edward Smith and Alfred Evans were both discovered in the woods off Niskey Lake Road. Evans had been strangled. Smith had been shot. Smith’s murder is still classified as unsolved.

Patrick Baltazar, an 11-year-old, was bludgeoned and strangled. 9-year-old Anthony Carter and 28-year-old John Porter were stabbed. Eric Middlebrooks, found near a motel dumpster, had been bludgeoned and stabbed – and on his shoe, police found one of the telltale green shag carpet fibers that would link him to Wayne Williams. Could Douglas be hinting that Middlebrooks wasn’t killed by Williams?

All of this suggests there could have been at least two killers: One who preferred “soft kill” strangulation, and one who preferred more brutal methods. Douglas acknowledges that “aspects of the evidence led us to believe we weren’t dealing with a single killer.”

I am hoping that some of these enigmatic passages in Mindhunter will be addressed in the Netflix series.

Update: After season two of Mindhunter premiered, Douglas was interviewed by Payne Lindsay, the producer of the Atlanta Monster podcast. They directly addressed the question of other killers, and Douglas made it clear that he believes family members were involved in some of the murders (not as a group, but on a case-by-case basis). He rejects the notion of a group motive of any kind, so that eliminates white supremacists and a well-organized pedophile group that wanted to eliminate its victims.

After all these years, mystery solved.

This still leaves the enigma of Edward Smith. Why was he and he alone, of all the victims (unofficially) linked to Williams, shot? Williams was not known to be a gun enthusiast, and nothing deadlier than a leather “slapjack” was found in the home he shared with his parents.

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