I shook Wayne Williams’ hand.
He extended his hand, as people often do upon meeting, and I shook it. Nothing more than that. Just a meeting. People shake hands every day. I shake someone’s hand, usually several hands, every day.
But this was Wayne Williams’ hand. The hand of the man connected to the Atlanta Child Murders where nearly 30 youngsters and young men were murdered in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
Williams was never convicted of all of those deaths and there’s been talk through the years of reopening his case. Nonetheless, he is in prison in connection with the murders, and law-enforcement considered his arrest and conviction to clear most of the Atlanta Child Murders.
And I shook his hand.
That’s not intended as bragging. It’s merely a statement of fact. Something that happened. Unplanned. Undesired, but it happened. He extended his hand, and, out of reflex, I shook it.
So how did it happen? Why did it happen?
I had been invited to Valdosta State Prison for a story a dozen or so years ago. An Atlanta television station had arranged an interview with Williams, who was incarcerated in Valdosta State Prison. The TV crew also wanted to do a story on the prison and the warden invited me, too. I wasn’t part of the Williams interview, but I met him and that’s when I shook his hand.
This, however, was neither the first nor the last time I shook a convicted killer’s hand. In a Virginia prison, there was an interview with about a dozen convicted murderers. If still living, men who still remain in prison now for their crimes.
Each one was a father. Each one worried about his children growing up without having a father there. So, they spoke to troubled kids, hoping their horror stories would straighten out these youngsters’ lives. These inmates worked with strangers’ children in the hopes that karma would send someone to keep their children out of trouble.
They were one of the most sincere groups of people I’ve ever met. No matter how many kids they helped, they would never get out of prison. Each one was a convicted killer. I shook each one’s hand, and have never had a problem with having done so, possibly because I knew little about their crimes.
Wayne Williams, on the other hand ...
If you are old enough to remember, you likely can’t forget the stories of youngsters disappearing in Atlanta, the grief on mothers’ faces as their children were found horribly murdered.
It became a national story at a time when regional crime stories rarely became national news. And Wayne Williams was eventually connected to all of that horror.
And I shook his hand.
It didn’t dawn on me at first, but it did later. A chill of the soul.
Should I have refused his hand? Maybe.
Again, a handshake is reflex in our society. You meet someone, either you or the other person offers a hand, and it is done. Usually without that much thought put into it. The handshake was finished and Williams had entered a room for his interview with the Atlanta TV crew all within less than a moment. The handshake didn’t really strike home until much later.
A chilling realization of having shaken the hand of a man many believe to be a monster.
The encounter reminded me of a passage from David Remnick’s book, “Lenin’s Tomb,” regarding a meeting with a grandson of Josef Stalin. The pro-Stalinist grandson had a tradition, though Remnick became aware of what was to transpire too late.
Stalin’s grandson poured two glasses of Russian moonshine, and offered one glass to Remnick. The grandson proposed a toast to friendship between nations. They drank. Then, the tradition was revealed: Every second toast in the grandson’s house was offered to Stalin. Remnick’s glass was already raised.
Fully aware of Stalin’s atrocities, his dictatorial mass murders, Remnick felt nauseous, weak-kneed, by what was coming. The grandson toasted Stalin, and, as Remnick writes, “‘To Stalin,’ I said. And may God forgive me.”
I don’t know if one should ask forgiveness for a handshake. Perhaps, there is nothing to ask forgiveness for. But, still, I think how quickly some choices must be made, within an instant, and then the choice, for good or bad, is part of your history and who you are.
Was it wrong to shake Wayne Williams’ hand? After all these years, I don’t know. And maybe that’s the most troubling thing about it.
Dean Poling is an editor with The Valdosta Daily Times.