America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)
THE TENTH PLAGUE
the ATLANTA CHILD MURDERS, 1979–1981
“It was so quick,” one teacher said, referring to the explosion that demolished the Gate-City Day Care Center in the Bowen Homes housing projects in Atlanta. “All I could think was, ‘Get to the door. Get out, children, get out.’ I got all 12 of mine out—safe and accounted for.”1
“It was terrible, really terrible,” another teacher observed. “Some of the kids were badly hurt. I saw one little boy whose fingers were missing.”2
The October 13, 1980, explosion that demolished the day care center killed five African Americans: one teacher and four toddlers. Authorities evacuated some 480 students from nearby schools, in fear of another bombing. The day care center and the schools serviced a local, predominantly African American housing project. Almost immediately, accusations against local hate groups, such as Stoner’s NSRP, flowed from Atlanta’s black community.
“It was the Ku Klux Klan,” one neighborhood resident shouted at Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, when he visited the scene.
The Reverend Joseph Lowery, head of the SCLC, asserted, “There is an organized assault on black people across the country. We are tired of our children being killed.”3
The Reverend Lowery’s reference to an “organized assault” on children came with a context. For the previous two years, a series of killings had ravaged Atlanta’s African American community, taking the lives of, among others, at least thirteen victims below the age of thirteen. The name known in history, the Atlanta Child Murders, is something of a misnomer. The victims also included several teenagers between the ages of thirteen and sixteen as well as six victims who were twenty years or older—two as old as twenty-eight.
After a year of killings with no suspects apprehended, Bowen Homes residents booed Mayor Jackson when he came to visit the site of the explosion. Many refused to accept the explanation for the tragedy provided by local authorities and endorsed by Jackson: that the explosion at the day care center had resulted from a faulty boiler. Lee Brown, Atlanta safety commissioner, who led the Atlanta Child Murders investigation, insisted that “absolutely no foul play was involved.”4 The claim seemed too convenient, designed, in the minds of some, to pacify a city described, in several accounts, as on the edge of open racial violence. The explosion at the day care center appeared to be part of a general pattern, an ongoing organized assault on Atlanta’s black children. That it came less than twenty-four hours after J.B. Stoner held a conference of international white supremacists in a neighboring county only amplified the suspicions and paranoia of Atlanta’s residents. Stoner, after all, had built a reputation for bombing black targets as far back as the late 1950s.
But experts from the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and the Atlanta Gas Light Company concluded that Jackson and Brown were right: The explosion was just an accident. Normally, cool water prevents a water-tube boiler from becoming too hot. In this instance the boiler had overheated when a safety device, designed to turn the boiler off if water levels became too low, had malfunctioned. The boiler had reached an untenably high temperature, at which point cool water rushed in, creating a sudden reaction. As the Associated Press reported, “The boiler exploded like a fragmentation grenade, tearing out massive chunks of concrete and steel from the center section of the building.”5
Yet in casting their suspicions on Stoner, Atlanta’s African American community may have, if by accident, identified a key player in the wave of child killings. A group of men who worked for the National States Rights Party likely perpetrated several of the Atlanta Child Murders. These men, members of a notoriously racist family, maintained ongoing contact with NSRP cofounder Ed Fields, and one enjoyed a close working relationship with J.B. Stoner. Due to what appears to be another law enforcement cover-up, this time by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), it is impossible to say with certainty that Stoner and Fields instigated or plotted the kidnapping–murder spree in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981. And I have made the case that the NSRP is possibly the closest one can come to an outright religious terrorist organization (one that does not hide its religious agenda from its most active members); it is also impossible to say whether the family in question embraced Christian Identity theology. But a tantalizing, if speculative, case can be made that the Atlanta Child Murders fit the pattern of Christian Identity terrorism since the early 1960s—one in which Stoner and his ilk exploited racial tension in hopes of igniting a race war.
Here, Atlanta’s African American community appeared to be right. However accurate Atlanta’s political establishment may have been about the accidental explosion at the Gate-City Day Care Center, Atlanta’s political elites desperately wanted to temper the very racial antagonisms Stoner may have wanted to inflame. The explosion in the day care center was in many ways a metaphor for a city whose reputation for being “too busy to hate” seemed in jeopardy of collapsing. The October 13 tragedy aroused national and even international attention to the ongoing crisis in Atlanta, with icons such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Muhammad Ali offering huge rewards for anyone who could help stop the killings. Now in the national spotlight, Georgia law enforcement, helped by the FBI, faced additional pressure to solve the crimes. The net result became an investigation that appears to have conflated several unrelated murders into one horrific phenomenon and to have ignored other potential killings, in hopes of finding a tidy and fast resolution to the Atlanta Child Murders. Georgia law enforcement may have identified one likely killer, Wayne Williams, but in so doing, it covered up leads that could have pointed to J.B. Stoner’s last act of religious terrorism.
The murder wave had begun in the summer of 1979, but authorities were too slow to link the crimes together or to coordinate a response. Reports of missing children and teenagers found murdered became all too commonplace in the months that followed. The great writer and social critic James Baldwin, in “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” his extended essay on the murders, wrote,
It never sleeps—that terror, which is not the terror of death (which cannot be imagined) but the terror of being destroyed.
Sometimes I think, one child in Atlanta said to me, that I be coming home from (baseball or football) practice and somebody’s car will come behind me and I’ll be thrown into the trunk of the car and it will be dark and he’ll drive the car away and I’ll never be found again.
Never be found again: that terror is far more vivid than the fear of death.6
Many of the murder victims obviously were found again. Edward Hope Smith, a fourteen-year-old high school student, last seen leaving a skating rink, vanished on July 21, 1979. An elderly woman collecting cans for deposit money found Smith’s corpse alongside another dead body in a wooded area near a dirt road in southwestern Atlanta; Smith had died from a .22-caliber gunshot wound to his upper back. The second body, dressed all in black, was decomposed to the point that authorities took nearly a year to offer a likely identification: Alfred Evans, a thirteen-year-old friend of Smith’s, missing since July 25, 1979. Evans’s cause of death was “probably asphyxiation by strangulation.” On September 14, 1979, fourteen-year-old Milton Harvey disappeared, last seen on his bike delivering a credit-card payment to a bank for his family. His skeletal remains were found on November 16, 1979, a few miles south of the previous two victims; authorities could not determine the cause of death. On October 21, 1979, nine-year-old fifth-grader Yusuf Bell did not return home after going on an errand for his neighbor. He was last seen getting into a blue sedan. A custodian found his body in an abandoned school in downtown Atlanta on November 8, 1979; cause of death: blunt-force trauma to the head followed by asphyxiation. The next victim, found on March 10, 1980, in a wooded area in southwestern Atlanta, was Angel Lenair, last seen watching Sanford and Son at her friend’s house the week before. Someone had bound and gagged Lenair and strangled her to death. One day later, FBI agents, using trained dogs, found the body of eleven-year-old Jeffrey Mathis in a briar patch; authorities could not determine the cause of death for Mathis, who like Bell had last been seen getting into a blue car, at a service station earlier that month.7
By the summer of 1980—what is now commonly called the Summer of Death—fear and frustration had come to a head. The number of missing children approached record levels, but local and state police had yet to publicly link the murders together or to coordinate their approach to the crisis. Whatever person or group was responsible for the crimes, he or they appeared to be getting bolder. In one instance, a witness described seeing an individual break and enter through an apartment window and emerge with seven-year-old Latonya Wilson in his arms. An independent citizen’s search found Latonya’s skeletal remains weeks later. Soon a group of mothers of missing and deceased children, led by Yusuf Bell’s mother, Camille, and calling themselves STOP, the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders, insisted on a meeting with local law enforcement. They presented investigators with a list of nine victims of unsolved murders. That summer, law enforcement finally formed a joint task force. Meanwhile, what came to be called the List grew to include as many as twenty-eight names—“all but two of them males; all but five of them children.”8
But in many ways the List served as much as an albatross as an aid to a legitimate investigation. Chet Dettlinger, an outside investigator who volunteered to analyze the crimes after hearing complaints from victims’ relatives, became alarmed at the arbitrary way in which law enforcement decided which names to put on the List. Jeff Prugh, an Atlanta-based journalist who cowrote a book (fittingly called The List) with Dettlinger,9 described the parameters:
To make The List . . . a victim had to be age 7 to 27, male, female, killed by stabbing, or manual strangulation, or suffocation, or bludgeoning, or “unknown” causes (changed later, in some cases, to “probable asphyxia,” which means nothing more than the victim probably stopped breathing). . . . The only constant thread of The List was that all of the victims were black.10
If filtered by a different criterion—class, age, or circumstances of death—a list of murder victims who fit some pattern or profile could, in theory, be much more extensive or much more limited at any given moment. For example, a list based on race and age would exclude a twenty-eight-year-old victim who had died under similar circumstances. A list based on another criterion, such as location of bodies, could imply a relationship between two crimes that in fact had nothing to do with each other. Dettlinger, who methodically mapped the crime scenes, including where the victims had last been seen, where they lived, and where their bodies were found, estimated that the List could have grown to include as many as sixty-three additional victims who fit a broader pattern—notably, as Dettlinger established, geographic or social proximity between victims. Police colored their investigation of the crimes with a mono-causal assumption: one group (the KKK or a homosexual sex ring) or one person (a serial killer) had murdered all the people on the List. To this day, Dettlinger, whose frustrations with the myopic focus of law enforcement became the basis for a 1985 miniseries starring Martin Sheen, questions whether or not multiple patterns of association between the crimes—multiple motives and multiple perpetrators—explain the horrible murder wave of 1979 to 1983.11
Dettlinger’s investigation uncovered the fact that several of the boys not only knew each other but also appeared to be gay hustlers, who possibly turned tricks for money. The investigator connected at least ten of the victims to a house on 530 Gray Street, believed to be a hot spot for a homosexual sex ring. The house belonged to Thomas “Uncle Tom” Terrell, a sixty-three-year-old who admitted knowing Timothy Hill, a thirteen-year-old whose body was found on March 31, 1981, dressed only in underwear. More than one witness had seen Hill, who knew several of the other victims, at the Gray Street address shortly before he disappeared.12
But Dettlinger also noticed that, as the murder spree stretched further into the spring of 1981, the pattern of the crimes began to change: “The victims were getting older and the murders were moving out of the center of the city, they were also moving eastwards.”13 Soon he began to predict where the “the killer would strike next” with such uncanny accuracy that Dettlinger himself became a suspect. Consistent with a pattern identified by Dettlinger, one of the oldest victims, twenty-one-year-old ex-convict Jimmy Ray Payne, was found by fishermen in the Chattahoochee River on April 27, 1981—almost twenty miles northeast of Niskey Lake Cove, where the first two victims (Smith and Evans) had been found in 1979. Law enforcement began to stake out nearby bridges, hoping a killer would once again dump his victims into the waterway.
Soon the strategy bore fruit. In the early morning of May 22, 1981, two police officers staking out the James Jackson Parkway Bridge over the Chattahoochee heard a splash. The same officers heard and then spotted a white 1970 station wagon, which was already being followed by another officer. Officers radioed the FBI, who detained the driver, a twenty-three-year-old African American part-time photographer, part-time radio disc jockey named Wayne Williams.
Williams’s explanations for why he was on the bridge at the time did not jibe with investigators, and within several days police found the body of twenty-seven-year-old ex-convict Nathaniel Cater in the Chattahoochee. Circumstantial evidence then began to pile up against Williams, mostly in the form of pattern evidence—fibers and hairs that appeared to connect Williams to multiple crimes. In the end, Atlanta prosecutors charged Williams with only the murders of Cater and Payne, but during the course of the trial they implied that he was responsible for at least ten other crimes. Defense attorneys raised legitimate questions about the validity of the pattern evidence, but Williams ultimately was his own worst enemy. On the witness stand, the seemingly mild-mannered Williams exploded in a fit of temper at prosecuting attorneys, changing from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in the eyes of the jurors. Jurors convicted Williams on February 27, 1982, and a judge sentenced him to two life terms for the two murders.
The joint task force ultimately closed its investigation of all twenty-eight murders on the List, on the assumption of a lone murderer and of Williams’s sole guilt. Doubts persist over this decision, but prosecutors have always pointed to one trump card: the killings stopped when Williams went to jail.
But whether or not the killings actually stopped depends on how one defines future murders—that is, it depends on the arbitrary nature of the List. In contrast to the prosecutors’ opinion, Dettlinger insists that the killings continued after Williams went to prison, citing, among other crimes, the 1984 murder of seventeen-year-old Darrell Davis, a witness whose testimony helped send Wayne Williams to prison. Famed FBI criminal profiler John Douglas, who is certain of Williams’s guilt in eleven of the murders, concurred with Dettlinger:
I believe there is no strong evidence linking [Wayne Wiliams] to all or even most of the deaths and disappearances of children in [Atlanta] between 1979 and 1981. Despite what some people would like to believe, young black and white children continue to die mysteriously in Atlanta and other cities. We have an idea who did some of the others. It isn’t a single offender and the truth isn’t pleasant. So far, though, there’s been neither the evidence nor the public will to seek indictments.14
Like Douglas and Dettlinger, some victims’ families, and even leaders of the original investigation, still wonder whether the increased public and political pressure that followed the day care center explosion led to a rush to judgment once police had arrested Wayne Williams. Even if, as it seems increasingly clear, Williams killed some of the Atlanta victims, the investigation never officially tied him to a large number of the killings on the List, much less to the other victims identified by Dettlinger. Law enforcement agents—both the FBI and the special task force in Atlanta—simply assumed that Williams was a serial killer who had murdered the other victims. Suspicions of a racist conspiracy in the killings, cast on individuals such as Stoner, seemed to subside with the arrest and conviction of Williams—at least among most of those investigating the homicides. But within two years of Williams’s conviction, data that pointed to other killers and a cover-up began to leak to reporters.
Aubrey Melton, an Atlanta police detective assigned to investigate the murders, provided Spin magazine reporters Barry Michael Cooper and Robert Keating with new evidence related to the murders. Melton’s firsthand account, and supporting documents, points to a parallel inquiry into the crime by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). With the strong encouragement of their editor, Rudy Langlais, Cooper and Keating published an exposé in a series of articles in 1986 and 1987.15
Within months of the first disappearances, both the FBI and the GBI began to receive disturbing reports from their informants. Separate lines of evidence focused attention on a family of racists as potential suspects in the murders. Members of the Sanders family often ran afoul of the law. The family patriarch, Carlton Sanders, boasted a criminal record dating back to 1951 that included “35 arrests for everything from simple assault to wife beating”16to child molestation. (That charge was dropped.) Sanders’s five sons shared similar histories. Charles Sanders dealt and used narcotics and was active in recruiting for the KKK. Don Sanders was the national secretary for the National States Rights Party; he often dressed in military fatigues when serving as a bodyguard for J.B. Stoner. Three other brothers, Ricky, Terry, and Jerry Lee, also belonged to the NSRP.
Jerry Lee bore a strong resemblance to a police sketch of a potential suspect seen in a green car near one of the child victims. His father, Carlton, closely matched the description, originally given by witness Ruth Warren, of a scar-faced white man connected with the disappearance of fourteen-year-old Lubie Geter. (Warren later changed her identification to say that Wayne Williams was the man she saw with Geter.) The bodies of several victims, including Geter, were found with dog hairs that had come from a Siberian husky. As it turned out, the Sanders family raised Siberian huskies. (Law enforcement later claimed that the hairs could have come from a German shepherd—the kind of dog owned by Wayne Williams.)17
The most incriminating evidence against the Sanders family emerged from undercover informants. The GBI first turned its attention to the Sanders clique when a longtime and reliable source for Detective Melton, Billy Joe Whittaker, reported that Geter had once accidentally backed his go-cart into Charles Sanders’s car. Whittaker relayed Sanders reaction: “I’m gonna kill that black bastard. I’m gonna strangle him with my dick.” Not long after that exchange, police found Geter’s body, a victim of strangulation. Geter, in turn, personally knew several of the other child victims, leading the GBI to consider the Sanders family as key suspects in the Atlanta murders. Fearing media leaks if this information were to spread to the much larger joint task force, a small band of GBI investigators began looking into the Sanders angle using Whittaker as well as other informants.18
Charles Sanders had once attempted to recruit Whittaker into the NSRP (then directly tied to the New Order of the Ku Klux Klan). At the behest of Melton, Whittaker asked Charles Sanders about Geter. In 1991, when Whittaker testified to an appellate court considering a new trial for Wayne Williams, he recalled Sanders saying, “Yeah I killed the little bastard. We are killing niggers, about 20 of them, and we are going to start killing young black women next.”19 Another informant insisted that “Don Sanders has direct knowledge of who was responsible” for the killings in Atlanta.20
Transcripts of wiretaps of Don Sanders’s phone went a long way toward supporting that contention. After a brief, mundane conversation in which Don Sanders (identified in the transcripts as DS) asks where his brother Ricky is, Don matter-of-factly tells Terry Sanders (identified in the transcripts as TS) what Don’s plans are:
DS: I’ll just give a buzz back, and I might get out and ride around a little bit, and I might come by there.
TS: Go find you another little kid, another little kid?
DS: Yeah, scope out some places. We’ll see you later.21
Additional tape recordings and transcripts may shed further light on the role of the Sanders family. The GBI claimed to have destroyed the remaining material after clearing the Sanders family of suspicion (and, perhaps not coincidentally, after charging Wayne Williams with the Atlanta crimes). Keating and Cooper imply that the material may be lost forever, but new documents, discovered by the author, suggest that the recordings may have been transferred to the FBI and that the FBI may have done independent electronic surveillance (ELSUR). One document says, “Body recording is being utilized to direct the course of investigation and numerous valuable lead material was obtained from this recording. Elsur cards in this matter were previously submitted to the Bureau.”22 The term body recordings likely refers to informants who wear wiretaps, hidden underneath their clothes, to record person-to-person live conversations. In other words, either the GBI or the FBI used wired sources to investigate leads in the Atlanta crimes.
Another document says that the state of Georgia was pursuing Title III authority (that is, wiretapping authority) from the Department of Justice. The Georgians were asking the FBI to process material produced in conjunction with said authority, and the FBI director instructs that “evidence maintained by the FBI, including logs and transcripts, should be filed as though FBI generated.”23 The implication here is that material collected through GBI sources, which could have included the tapes referenced by Keating and Cooper (tapes that the reporters believed were permanently destroyed), may well still exist, perhaps as duplicates, in FBI records. The author is making a Freedom of Information Act request for this material.
What we do know about the recordings comes from disclosures by Detective Melton. Besides the suspicious conversations from Don Sanders, the recordings (and informant reports) show that the Sanders family was trying to procure weapons for the National States Rights Party. The NSRP’s gun-trafficking efforts became part of a national trend of white supremacist groups creating paramilitary training camps for a potential racial conflict.
Experts trace the development, in large part, to the Greensboro massacre in 1979 (referenced in the previous chapter), when, after a decade of fragmentation and intergroup rivalry, American Nazis and KKK members joined forces to fire upon a group of protesters at a rally against the Klan in North Carolina organized by the Communist Workers Party. The joint attack in Greensboro failed to yield a single conviction, galvanized white supremacists, and brought a measure of solidarity not seen since the 1960s. Paramilitary camps drew members from a variety of groups: the Aryan Nations, the American Nazi Party, the Posse Comitatus, and various KKK organizations. In Hayden Lake, Idaho, Church of Jesus Christ–Christian and Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler began an annual meeting of leaders of such groups, which became known as the Aryan World Congress. With the newfound esprit de corps among white supremacists came a newfound faith in the prospect of a race war. Stoner and Fields helped organize camps in the woods and mountains of Georgia, and they turned to the Sanders family for weapons.
Whittaker described a virtual arsenal of material at the Sanders residence, stolen from a National Guard armory. A February 18, 1981, report filed by Melton and provided to the GBI listed: “M 16 rifles; C 3/4 Explosives (plastic in brick form); Electric detonators; handguns; bazookas; machine guns” and “approximately 100 cases of” machetes. Ominously, the men had also obtained police uniforms as well as “other well-known company uniforms” (such as Coca-Cola uniforms).24
The same report connected the weapons cache to the Atlanta Child Murders: “Source [Whittaker] advised that [Charles] Sanders told him that the KKK including himself was creating an uprising among the Blacks, that they were killing the children—that they are going to do one each month until things blowup.”25 To the credit of some, including the GBI, the race war angle became a factor in the investigation of the Sanders brothers’ involvement in the wave of killings. According to Keating and Cooper, the GBI considered it a distinct possibility that the murders were an attempt to “ignite a race war between blacks and whites in the capital of the south.”26
The desire to polarize the races and provoke a racial conflagration had rested at the heart of the NSRP’s agenda for decades. It was a manifestation of the influence of Christian Identity eschatology among the group’s leaders, such as Stoner and Fields. There is no direct evidence that the Sanders family embraced Christian Identity teachings. We must admit that there is also little to suggest that members of Eastview Klavern 13, who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963, honored Identity theology either. But, as argued above, men like Stoner and Fields manipulated rank-and-file KKK members like the Sanders family (or, in the case of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, conspirators like Robert Chambliss and Tommy Blanton) into taking steps that advanced the Identity agenda. Reports that Ed Fields engaged the Sanders family directly when acquiring weapons for his camps at the very least point to an opportunity for such exploitation to happen vis-à-vis the Atlanta Child Murders.27
J.B. Stoner’s rhetoric and activity during the crime wave also point to this theologically inspired manipulation. Stoner did not plant a bomb at the Gate-City Day Care Center, but the fact that he would hold an international conference for white supremacists at a time when ten children had been killed and at least four more were missing shows that he wanted to inflame Atlanta’s black community. As he had in his campaigns with his late friend Connie Lynch, Stoner used rhetoric to drive apart the races, openly calling for racial violence at rallies in 1980.28 Stoner chose to do this when Atlanta was becoming a racial powder keg.
The combination of the murders of Atlanta’s black children and a major spike in Atlanta’s general crime rate had created serious racial tensions in the city by the late 1970s. The separate killings of a white doctor and a white legal secretary in 1979 only worsened this dynamic at a time when the entire nation suffered through ravages brought on by the unusual combination of high prices and high joblessness (stagflation). The city that was supposedly “too busy to hate” may have experienced an easier time of integration than other southern metropolises, such as Birmingham, but Atlanta was still an epicenter for the white supremacist movement, the headquarters for James Venable’s National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and for the NSRP. In a development that must have brought a smile to J.B. Stoner’s face, by 1981 radical black nationalist groups had begun to agitate in Atlanta. Armed patrols manned housing projects, and some in the black community spoke about moving in weapons by the truckload. Two leftist groups (the Liberation League and the Movement Against Racism) argued,
The murders in Atlanta will stop when its residents organize to defend themselves, as the Black veterans and the Techwood [housing project] residents have begun to do. They must seek to shut down white supremacist military camps. They must make Stoner and the NSRP afraid to show their faces in Georgia. . . . The working and oppressed people of Atlanta, when they are organized and prepared to resist the fascists, are the one force that can put a stop to the murders, and to all fascist attacks.29
Mayor Maynard Jackson became alarmed at the growing frustration and militancy of the black community, but he also worried about paramilitary groups practicing for a race war in the remote parts of Georgia—and with good reason. Atlanta’s first black mayor found himself in much the same situation as America’s first black president, Barack Obama: having to walk the fine line between addressing the needs of his base, minority constituency without appearing as too racially partisan to white moderates. In “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” James Baldwin observed:
At the very beginning of . . . The Terror . . . it was, instinctively, assumed that this was but yet another convolution of the Ku Klux Klan. . . . But the fact, globally resounding, of a Black Administration rendered this assumption not only untenable, but craven. In the eyes of the world—to say nothing of the eyes of America—Americans behaved with honor, and altered, upward, the status of the darker brother. America had, in fact, and with unspeakable vengeance, done exactly the opposite, but the world had no way of knowing this and Americans had no reason to face it.30
Maynard Jackson kept his deep concerns about possible widespread racial tumult to himself and out of the public view. This reluctance to stoke racial tensions filtered down to the GBI. In the midst of its investigation of the Sanders family, the GBI noted in an internal memorandum that “the city of Atlanta is faced with an extremely explosive racial problem.” GBI director Phil Peters noted “how sensitive the investigation would be and how necessary it would be that the intelligence not be disseminated outside the circle of investigators who were directly involved.” Peters pointed out that if the intelligence, which the investigation was based on, leaked out, it would possibly cause “a race riot.”31 Three months after this warning, the investigation into the Sanders family closed with the arrest of Wayne Williams.
Those who exposed the possibility of criminal involvement by the Sanders family in the Atlanta murders, like Keating and Cooper, believe that with the arrest of Williams, the GBI actively buried the white supremacist angle for fear of the very race war that someone like Stoner may have been trying to stoke. Law enforcement cleared the Sanders family with surprising alacrity and then literally burned any supporting evidence that could shed light on their guilt. But even the excellent work done for Spin magazine tends to treat the Sanders family as the sole driving force behind the killings rather than consider the possibility that the family was taking orders from NSRP higher-ups. Perhaps the Sanders family did originate a murder conspiracy, and perhaps they were motivated by their own independent Identity convictions. Unfortunately, those with the greatest access to what sources still existed in the mid-1980s (including informants) all but ignored the potential influence of Christian Identity on the Atlanta murders, just as historians have failed to recognize its influence in the previous crimes detailed in this book.
At present the evidence is silent on whether the Sanders family embraced radical Identity theology. But the evidence is clear that Stoner and Fields did embrace radical Identity beliefs and that they, like their fellow travelers in other organizations, demonstrated a record of terroristic opportunism, including creating a climate for racial polarization, piggybacking on racial violence to stoke even more chaos, and manipulating people like Carlton Sanders (and his family) into provocative acts of violence.
This pattern would continue, even as Stoner finally faced justice and prison time in 1982 for crimes he had committed during the 1960s. The Atlanta Child Murders may have represented the last dying breath of holy provocation for the likes of Stoner and the NSRP, but a growing number of smaller Identity-influenced groups and individuals continued to terrorize the United States in the name of a holy race war.