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.