Atlanta Child Murders—Part II: “Psychics”

October 26, 2010

During the 22-month period that Atlanta children and young men disappeared or were found murdered beginning in July 1979, so-called psychics tried to insinuate themselves into the case that ended with the arrest and subsequent conviction of Wayne Williams.

As Soledad O'Brien reported, the Atlanta Homicide Task Force was inundated with sketches of the alleged serial killer—no two alike—many of them offered by psychics. For instance, skeptic Henry Gordon told of appearing on a television talk show in Montreal with self-styled Ottawa intuitive Early Curley. Curley boasted he had been called in on the child murders case by the FBI for whom he provided a composite drawing and descriptive profile, implying that his input resulted in the apprehension of Wayne Williams shortly thereafter.

In fact, Gordon called the FBI's Press Information Office and was told, "Mr. Early Curley contacted our Atlanta office (voluntarily) in 1980 and 1981. He sent in some kind of write-up of what he thought the subject would look like, and he sent in some kind of drawing. However, there was no impact on the case as a result of what he sent in." (See my Psychic Sleuths , 1994, p. 24.)

The psychics added to the circus atmosphere that prevailed in Atlanta at the time. Along with Williams's bold, defiant antics, "psychics were swarming around, all giving their own ‘profiles,' many dramatically contradicting each other," according to pioneer criminal profiler John Douglas (co-author with Mark Olshaker of Mind Hunter , 1995, 211).

In her day the most famous "police psychic" in America, Dorothy Allison traveled to Atlanta in 1980 and, while riding around in a limousine, made numerous pronouncements in the case. Nothing she said was of any help, however, and one mother complained that the clairvoyant failed to return her only photo of her missing son. According to forensic professor Walter Rowe (in Psychic Sleuths , 1994, 238), Allison "provided police with 42 different names, none of which was Wayne or Williams." Although some sources claim she did include the name Williams, the chief of police denied it, and anyway there were 6,913 persons of that surname in the Atlanta phone book at the time (see Psychic Sleuths , 1994, 51-52).

In cases in which psychics like Allison do appear successful—aside from making generalizations or actually having inside information (as from a tip)—they are usually relying on what is called "retrofitting" (or after-the-fact-matching). For instance, as a New Jersey Police captain said of Allison, her predictions "were difficult to verify when initially given." He added, "The accuracy usually could not be verified until the investigation had come to a conclusion" (qtd. in Psychic Sleuths , 1994, 46). To see how this works, suppose the psychic saw "water" and "the number seven": After the facts are in, some stream or body of water can usually be associated with the case, and the number linked to a highway, distance, number of people in a search party, or some other possible interpretation. Then again, some psychics falsely claim successes, while others have engaged in attempted bribery or impersonation of police to seek information they could pass off as mystically acquired.

But as we see with the Atlanta Child Murders, psychics were of no help whatsoever in identifying the killer or providing any break in the case. Serial killer Wayne Williams was stopped and brought to justice due to diligent police work-primarily the strategy of staking out bridges and the application of forensic science (fiber comparison and more recently DNA analysis) . Of course, there was another factor: a jury was able to understand and assess the evidence, using critical-thinking skills.


#1 benjamin (Guest) on Friday October 29, 2010 at 1:04am

Hello my name is Ben: I need to know what is so hard about telling the truth about what happen in the Atlanta Child Murders. Everytime you see any commentary about the Atlanta Child Murders you hear the same Old Story. Never the truth, I think 30 years
is long enough to keep this secret from the public.
You might ask what am I talking about. I can say this
with confidence and can back up everything with the
evidence I have. I am always told this; The public is
not ready for something like this. I begggg the
difference. People have the right to know what happen
in the Atlanta Child Murders. When you see the truth
in the ATL CHILD MURDERS, you will also know that the
City of Atlanta was not alone. I challenge any news
agencies to try and prove me wrong. It so easy to
just say I am some nut case and move on. The truth is
hard to except when you know it will not be Kind.
I ask you Mr Joe Nickell to accept my challenge. If
you have any-one in the San Francisco Bay Area that
you know. I will be more than willing to give them a
presentation. When they report back to you; I promise
you will have a change of mind about the Atlanta
Child Murders. Thank you Benjamin

#2 Andy (Guest) on Saturday October 30, 2010 at 11:51am

Hard to refute what Benjamin says above.

#3 jbpatlanta on Sunday October 31, 2010 at 10:44pm

I lived in Atlanta and remember hearing stories about the murders on and off over the years.

What I wonder is has there ever been a case of physics actually being right and correctly identifying suspects?

#4 Andy (Guest) on Sunday October 31, 2010 at 11:05pm

“Physics” or “psychics”?  Not to sound like the spelling police, I hope, but I wanted to make sure I understood what you were asking.

#5 jbpatlanta on Monday November 01, 2010 at 1:58am

I meant psychics.

I guess I really need to take the time to proofread my comments.

#6 Annabelle (Guest) on Friday November 05, 2010 at 4:49pm

What the heck is Ben talking about??

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