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The key to closure: Could new DNA testing help solve the Atlanta Child Murders?

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Wayne Williams

ATLANTA (CBS46) -- On a busy Thursday night, hundreds of people poured into the West Hunter Street Baptist Church to discuss the mysterious and controversial Atlanta Child Murders.

Forty years later, time has not healed the families who still want to know for sure who is responsible for the child murders and why.

“I want to know who killed my son,” said Catherine Leach. Her son Curtis Walker was found dead in the South River in 1981. He was 13 years old.

Earlier this year, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called for evidence in the cases to be retested.

“There is part of me that makes me very happy that we are giving them hope, but there is also a part of me that's terrified that we will disappoint,” said Mayor Bottoms.

Bottoms was inspired to re-open the cases for review after seeing a case out of Alabama, solved using new technology. Leach approached Bottoms about building a memorial for the slain children and launched further conversation about finding justice and closure for all the families.

Isaac Rogers firmly believes convicted murderer Wayne Williams killed his older brother Patrick. The former Grady High School track athlete and singer was killed in 1980.

“I remember they were pulling him out of the Chattahoochee River,” Rogers told CBS46’s Hayley Mason.

Isaac Rogers was just seven years old when his brother was killed. He said Patrick used to walk him to the school bus every morning. One day, they walked to the school bus, boarded for their respective schools, and Patrick never returned.

He was one of 29 African-American children, teens, and young adults who were taken and killed across Metro Atlanta between July of 1979 and the Spring of 1981. Their bodies were dumped on sidewalks and in rivers across Fulton, DeKalb, and Rockdale counties.

The Rogers family lived in the Thomasville Heights community where several of the missing and murdered children lived and visited.

“I guess my mother probably felt somehow responsible,” Rogers told said. “She went into a very severe depression. That's when I learned what a nervous breakdown was.”

Rogers said a few months after his brother was killed, a man that resembled Wayne Williams approached him and his cousins in Thomasville Heights. Rogers says he ran to get away, but the man was calm and continued to approach him. Rogers says he knows without a doubt Williams is guilty.

But, some parents like Catherine Leach are not convinced Williams did it at all.

Leach believes members of the Ku Klux Klan are responsible for her son’s murder.

“Forty years and I don't know nothing?” Leach said outside the church. “How do you think that feels? For 40 long years, I ain't heard nothing but the case has been closed and shut up on the shelf to be rotten.”

Now, as the parents grow older, in their 70s and 80s, they may be closer to answers that have evaded the entire city for decades.

Is Wayne Williams the true and only Atlanta Child Murderer?

CBS46 was granted special access into the evidence room at Atlanta Police headquarters where the murder cases are being reorganized and dissected. This time, DNA is on everyone's minds.

The cases are separated by year. Starting in July of 1979. Posters on the walls of the room label the cause of death, “asphyxiation, blunt force trauma, unknown” followed by a list of names.

The Fulton County District Attorney's office was the first in Georgia to use a private genealogy lab to examine DNA in a cold case that led to a suspect's arrest.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard is open to using a private company to possibly retest evidence in the child murders cases.

“What we've got is years of boxes and evidence that we plan to examine to see whether or not there is something in those items that merits retesting,” Howard told Mason. “You're talking about clothing items if you can find them. We are talking about any items that might have been touched by someone who had contact with those children who might be in some way responsible for the death.”

He said investigators will be reaching out to each family to go over facts and findings as well as speaking with the original detectives.

Mason contacted genetic genealogist CeCe Moore who helped solve the Lorrie Ann Smith cold murder case in Fulton County. She used the blood from a relative of the suspect to conduct genetic DNA testing which traced back to a suspect.

“We can use second, third and fourth cousins and beyond to reverse engineer the family trees of an unknown DNA contributor,” Moore told said.

CBS46 asked could this same DNA technology, linking blood to crime scenes, prove once and for all who killed the children?

“If there is crime scene DNA found, then they could certainly run that DNA against the DNA from the suspect and see if it's an exact match,” Moore said.

The possibilities today are much different from when Willie Taylor was an Atlanta Police Deputy Chief.

“In a number of cases, we found only skeletal remains of the victims,” said the former head of the missing children’s task force. Taylor has never-before spoken publicly about the case.

He showed CBS46 crime scene and investigation images he's kept stored on small slides since the early 1980s.

atl child murders police investigating

The killings didn’t stop until 1981 when Wayne Williams was arrested on the old Jackson Parkway Bridge that connects Fulton County to Cobb County. Investigators believe he had just thrown the body of 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater over the railing late one night and into the Chattahoochee River.

atl child murders crime scene

“That was the first time we had a person, a physical person, that we could try and find a link to the forensic evidence that had been recovered at the crime scenes,” Taylor told Mason.

Williams was convicted of murdering two men: Nathaniel Carter and 21-year-old Jimmie Payne.

atl child murders carpet fibers

Police found carpet fibers and dog hair evidence from Williams’ home also on many of the victims. Prosecutors linked him to the child murders using what's called the law of similar transactions.

But no charges were ever filed in the cases of the murdered children. That was a blow for many families and raised more doubt for others.

“It was almost like your loved one died in vain. Nobody's been held accountable for that,” Rogers said. “These are children who were doing nothing more than being children,” said Mayor Bottoms. “Sometimes it makes me emotional looking at their faces. They're the ages of my children. It is very heavy,” Bottoms said, wiping tears.

Rogers and several of the families are hoping this effort will bring healing, justice, and closure.

“It’s an open wound,” Rogers said. “A lot of times, when I hear people talking, I don't get my hopes up too high, but now that I see it's actually gaining some traction and something could actually possibly come of this you know. I'm just happy to be here to see it. I'm happy to be here to see it.”

Copyright 2019 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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