Yusuf Bell may have been just 9 years old, but he had made his mark on his community.
Adults would often stop the bright and ambitious student at the corner market to get his help balancing their checkbook or solving a problem.
“If you wanted to know how to spell something, you’d just ask him, and he’d tell you,” George Freeman told The Washington Post in 1981. “He knew math and history, what was what and how to do it. He was somebody like Abraham Lincoln.”
It was Yusuf’s desire to help others that prompted the 9-year-old to run an errand on Oct. 21, 1979. His elderly neighbor had asked that he go to the store to buy her some snuff and Yusuf was happy to oblige, according to a 1980 article in PEOPLE.
But Yusuf would never return.
“He wasn’t the kind of little boy who would run away,” his mother, Camille Bell, said in a news interview re-aired in the new HBO docuseries “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children.” “He’s in the gifted program at [school]. He’s um, involved in boy’s club, he’s involved in a karate class, running for treasurer for the school.”
Bell said it was as though her son had “dropped off the edge of the world,” but 18 days after the 9-year-old mysteriously vanished, his body would be discovered shoved into the floor boards of an abandoned school building. He had been strangled to death.
“I was angry, I was hurt, I was relieved, and I know relieved sounds weird, but up until that point in my head someone had stolen my little boy and he was alive some place and they are torturing him and at least I know that’s not happening,” Bell said of learning her son’s body had been discovered in an earlier interview included in the HBO docuseries, which airs beginning April 5.
Yusuf was not the only young boy to disappear in Atlanta. Months earlier, 13-year-old Alfred James Evans was found strangled to death lying face down and barefoot in a trash dump not far from the fairgrounds, according to The Washington Post. Nearby, the body of 14-year-old Edward Hope Smith was discovered with the pockets of his pants turned inside out. He had been shot to death.
Then just three days before Yusuf’s body was found, 14-year-old Milton Harvey was found strangled to death.
After Yusuf was found, more bodies of other missing children continued to surface — but the response from law enforcement was initially slow.
“The reaction of the police was that we were overreacting and that there was no serial killer,” Bell told Soledad O’Brien in the 2015 CNN special “Atlanta Child Murders.”
Bell decided to join forces with the parents of two other victims to form the Committee To Stop Children’s Murders.
The grieving mother said the reason they started the group was to be “supportive of each other,” but also to increase awareness of the crimes and demand that police thoroughly investigate the deaths.
“So, you could have several killings go on, and, if the people were poor, then no one discovered there was a serial killing,” Bell said in the CNN special. “If you were black and poor, then, really, nobody looked, especially the black and poor and Southern.”
Bell soon became a fixture on the local news and a regular presence at city hall.
“She would just show up and demand to see the mayor whether he was there or not. She’d show up at city council meetings,” Angelo Fuster, the director of communication for former mayor Maynard Jackson, recalled in the HBO docuseries. “From the time that she came on the scene, every time that another child was found dead, she would be the headliner. The constant, constant pounding on it.”
She was an unrelenting presence demanding answers as the death toll continued to rise: An estimated 29 African American children, teens and young adults were kidnapped and murdered in the Atlanta area between 1979 and 1981, according to the FBI.
“They did a good job, a great job in fact, of creating an organization and then keeping that organization in the public eye as this calamity progressed,” journalist Clem Richardson said in the docuseries.
Bell came from an educated Philadelphia family. Her father was an engineer and her mother was a high school teacher, PEOPLE reported in 1980.
A National Merit Scholar herself, Bell attended Morristown College in Tennessee for two years. She later left school to move to Atlanta to become part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and marry John Bell, a laborer. The pair divorced shortly before Yusuf disappeared.
After Yusuf was murdered, Bell devoted her time to the Committee To Stop Children’s Murders, selling cleaning products and cosmetics on the side to earn income for her family.
Then on June 21, 1981, authorities arrested Wayne Williams, a man who had wanted to create the next boy band, and charged him with the slayings of two adult men, Nathaniel Carter and Jimmy Ray Payne.
Williams was found guilty of the murders in 1982, and authorities soon announced that with the guilty verdict they were closing the other children’s murder cases as well.
“With the conviction of Wayne Williams, we have reviewed all of the evidence that’s present today and as a result we’ve cleared 23 cases,” Lee Brown, who was serving as the Atlanta Public Safety Commissioner, said at the time, according to the HBO docuseries. “Effective one week from today, we will officially close down the task force operations. The decision that was made today was based on evidence.”
But Bell never believed Williams had carried out the murders and was unsatisfied with the response from authorities.
“I am convinced Wayne Williams is innocent. I am convinced that this was a political, more of a political thing than it was a trial about guilt or innocence,” she later said in an interview. “I don’t think he killed anybody.”
The Committee To Stop Children’s Murders also soon fell under scrutiny after the state government launched a committee to investigate why the organization had not registered as a fundraising organization.
“It was also very clear that the city saw the mothers as troublemakers,” Natsu Taylor Saito, a law professor and activist, said in “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children.” “They were being loud. They were not shutting up and sitting down and going away.”
She said authorities “did everything they could to discredit Camille and to drive her out of the city.”
“You know Atlanta is funny because I really, really love Atlanta in a lot of different ways but I guess Atlanta is like a bad spouse, you know, like you don’t stop loving ‘em, but you can’t keep staying there with them,” Bell would later say in an interview.
When Bell spoke to CNN in 2015, nearly four decades after the murders began, she was still hoping formal charges would be filed against the perpetrator or perpetrators who killed Atlanta’s children.
“Even if it takes 30 trials, I don’t care, you know. Prove it,” she said.
In 2019, current Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced authorities planned to re-examine evidence in the murders to determine a definite killer to provide the families closure. The investigation remains ongoing.
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