With his latest docu-series, “The Atlanta Child Murders,” film producer Will Packer is calling our attention to the cases of more than two dozen black children who were killed decades ago.
The three-part series, which premiered on Investigation Discovery on Saturday, re-examines the murders of 29 black youth, mostly children and a few adults, between 1979 and 1981. Children were abducted and later found dead, in many cases strangled. Black parents and community leaders condemned the city for not treating the matter with urgency.
In what many suspected to be an effort to calm hysteria and racial tension, authorities identified Wayne Williams as the main suspect and linked him to many of the homicides. He was convicted of killing two adults, but was never tried for the children’s cases. Twenty-two of the deaths are now considered cold cases, and the families of at least 22 murdered children have yet to receive justice. Packer, known for producing “Girls Trip,” “Think Like A Man” and “Stomp The Yard,” among other films, wants to help change that.
“If we don’t, as a country, and if the people who’re in power and have the influence, don’t make the decision to put the resources behind protecting those that are most vulnerable, then something like this can happen again,” Packer told HuffPost.
On Thursday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and police Chief Erica Shields announced that the cases are being re-examined and that “technological advances in testing DNA evidence will be the main focus,” according to a press release.
“It would certainly be in order for us to look once again at evidence that the city of Atlanta has in its possession... and to determine once and for all if there’s additional evidence that may be tested that may give some peace ― to the extent that peace can be had in a situation like this ― to the victims’ families,” Bottoms said in a statement. “To let them know that we have done all that we can do... to make sure their memories are not forgotten, and in the truest sense of the word to let the world know that black lives do matter.” She also thanked Packer for bringing the murders back to light.
The filmmaker talked to HuffPost about helping these families find justice, how America views black children and how this could happen again if we don’t start protecting the most vulnerable.
For a lot of us who’ve been following your work, it’s definitely something different. Why is this project important for you?
It is different. It’s a little bit of a departure, but at the end of the day I’m a storyteller. I’m a filmmaker, I’m a constant producer, and so I want to put my weight of my name and my brand behind projects that I consider important. And sometimes, it’s about entertainment, it’s about coming to the theater to escape the real world and have a laugh. Other times, it’s about telling the story you may not know, or you may know and don’t know the details, and it may be about giving voice to folks who haven’t had a voice, an opportunity to tell their story on a national platform. That’s what this is. It’s about those family members of the victims who haven’t had an opportunity to tell their stories on a national platform.
This case was a bit before my time, and I’m just so baffled that I hadn’t heard of it until finding out that you were involved in this docu-series. Can you talk about how you got involved with this project?
I grew up in the South, I was aware. I didn’t know all the details that I know now. But I did know that it happened. I grew up in a time where, especially growing up in the South, where I was raised, your parents told you, “Come straight home from school and don’t let the streetlights catch you, and obey your parents. Do what you’re told, and always let somebody know where you are, or else you could get killed like those kids in Atlanta.” That was a cautionary tale for my generation.
And so what happened was, I had a relationship with another production company who produces for Investigation Discovery and does crime-type docs, and they asked if I would be interested in doing something on the Atlanta child murders. I said, “Absolutely.” I said, “It’s something I’m very interested in. It’s something that is a story that... not enough people know, and this was an American tragedy.” A lot of people just don’t even know it happened.
I reached out to Investigation Discovery, along with Jupiter [Entertainment], and we put a team together and Investigation Discovery said I could do it. Originally, it was gonna be just a one-part thing, and it ended up being a three-part doc series. So, I’m proud to be involved.
Yeah, definitely. And I agree with you, as far as it being a national emergency and tragedy. We’ve seen, during that time and in recent years, with the stories of missing black and brown kids, or black and brown kids who have been tragically murdered or taken away from us, those stories don’t always make national news. They don’t always get the proper attention from local authorities that they deserve. In working on this docu-series, what were some of the red flags that you saw in the way that it was handled then that you kind of see still persisting today?
That’s a good question. And you know what? It’s the same as it was then, and then it is now. People who are the least among us, the most vulnerable, the poor. The disenfranchised, the marginalized. Their lives are not valued the same way as those who have wealth, who have means, who have power, who have influence. That’s it. Period. And that is why this was allowed to happen and went on as long as it did in Atlanta, back almost 40 years ago, now. If we’re not careful, something like this could still happen today, because we do not value lives of those who are the most vulnerable, who need our protection the most. We don’t value their lives in the same way.
Yeah. At all. How was it working with the parents and the family members of these children who were taken?
A lot of these family members don’t have closure. There’s a perception out there that... one person who’s in jail, Wayne Williams, was tried and convicted of the murders of these kids, and that’s just not true. That’s a misperception. These cases were closed after Wayne Williams was convicted of murdering two adult men. They closed all the other cases because it was a matter of convenience. The city, and frankly the country, at that time, needed it to go away. And the murders stopped when Wayne Williams got arrested. So the combination of that meant that you have families that never got a chance to watch someone be held accountable via the American criminal justice system. They never got to say, “OK, justice was served... and this person was convicted.” They never got that, and I’ve learned that that is an important part of closure, for many victims.
How does the docu-series approach him being named as the primary suspect?
The doc doesn’t draw conclusions. It allows the viewer to draw their own conclusion, it just lays out the evidence... The doc does a really good, methodical job of painting the picture of what happened, of how it happened, and the results from what was going on during that time. It doesn’t speak to Wayne Williams’ guilt or innocence, but it does beg the question: Is it possible that one person was responsible for all these killings during that time? And I think that’s an important question you gotta ask. I really do. And whether he was or not, the fact that he never sat trial for other murders, I think, is a travesty. I don’t think that’s justice being served for those families.
It’s not a “Wayne Williams’ guilt or innocence” doc. It’s really a doc about these kids and about those families and about those affected. It’s also about a time in our country’s history. But ultimately, yeah. We do present the evidence so that you can watch it and draw your own conclusion about whether or not you think this was one single person doing this.
Was there anything surprising for you, or anything that you learned in the process of working on this?
I was actually surprised at how many people, black and white, do not know about this... If you’re under the age of 40, this is something that maybe you kinda, sorta heard about, but you don’t really know what happened. What this was. And, in my opinion, it’s one of the greatest tragedies that this country has ever witnessed. So, for people to not know about it, that is the thing that was most surprising for me. But hopefully, this’ll be able to shed some light.
What do you think this case, and the way that it was handled, says about how this country views black children?
That the value of black lives, poor lives, marginalized lives, brown, black, immigrant, it’s not the same. They’re devalued. This is not a country that values all lives the same, unfortunately. Still does not, to this day. And if we’re not careful, something like this could happen again. It may not happen on the same scale, but even one life... Even one life of the most vulnerable among us being lost, when it could have been prevented, is a travesty.
And if we don’t, as a country, and if the people who’re in power and have the influence, don’t make the decision to put the resources behind protecting those that are most vulnerable, then something like this can happen again.
I want to zoom in on Atlanta really quickly, because it is a city known for its rich culture, known for having such a vast and diverse black population. What effect do you think this case and these murders had on the city of Atlanta?
It’s a stain still on the city, to this day. It’s a secret, it’s something that’s not widely talked about, but if you’re above a certain age in Atlanta, you know that this happened. I think that it affected the way that the police departments, the GBI, Georgia Bureau of Investigations, handled cases going forward. I think that Atlanta was slow to recognize that this was an epidemic that was happening, that there was a pattern amongst these killings. I don’t think that will happen again. And I think that, as a city, Atlanta realized that it did not do justice to the victims by making this a national issue early on. By the time this got to national news, the killings were in the teens. That’s far too many lives to have lost... There were... mistakes made on the political level, on the law enforcement level, on the community level that I would hope would not happen again in the same way.
What do you hope that people take from this docu-series? Whether they knew about these murders, these cases, or whether they didn’t. What do you hope that they walk away from this docu-series knowing?
I hope they realize that... first of all, that it happened. Second of all, that it can happen. It could happen, and it can happen now if we don’t put value on the lives of those that... don’t have a voice, that are the marginalized and disenfranchised. If we’re not careful, something like this could happen again, whether it’s black children in Atlanta or immigrants at the border. We have to say that those who are the least among us, from a traditional hierarchy, socioeconomic standpoint, those that have [less than] are just as important as somebody who comes from wealth, who may be blond-haired, blue eyes, and have a particular family name. We gotta start doing that, as a country. That’s what I hope ― people will watch this and realize, “Wow, this tragedy happened. If just one of those lives could have been saved, then a horrible mistake was made. Let’s not do that again.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.