Madalyn Murray O'Hair
(April 13, 1919 – September 29, 1995) was an American atheist
activist; a founder of the American Atheists and its president
from 1963 to 1986. She created the first issues of American
One of her sons, Jon Garth Murray, was the
president of the organization from 1986 to 1995, while she
remained de facto president during these nine years. She is best
known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which led to a landmark
Supreme Court ruling ending official Bible-reading in American
public schools in 1963. This came just one year after the Supreme
Court prohibited officially sponsored prayer in schools in Engel
v. Vitale. After she founded the American Atheists and won Murray
v. Curlett, she achieved attention to the extent that in 1964 Life
magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America".
In 1995 she was kidnapped, murdered and
mutilated along with her son Jon Murray and granddaughter Robin
Murray O'Hair, by the former American Atheist office manager David
Madalyn Mays was born in the Beechview
neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 13, 1919, to
Lena Christina (Scholle) and John Irwin "Irv" Mays. As an infant,
she was baptized into the church as a Presbyterian. In 1937, she
graduated from Rossford High School in Rossford, Ohio.
In 1941, she married John Henry Roths. They
separated when they both enlisted for World War II service, he in
the United States Marine Corps, she in the Women's Army Corps. In
April 1945, while posted to a cryptography position in Italy, she
began a relationship with an officer, William J. Murray, Jr.
Murray was a married Roman Catholic, and he refused to divorce his
wife. Mays divorced Roths, adopted the name Madalyn Murray, and
gave birth to a boy whom she named William J. Murray (nicknamed
In 1949, Murray completed a bachelor's degree
from Ashland University. In 1952, she received an LL.B. degree
from the then unaccredited South Texas College of Law; however,
she failed the bar exam and never practiced law.
On November 16, 1954, she gave birth to her
second son, Jon Garth Murray, fathered by her boyfriend Michael
Fiorillo. She and her children traveled by ship to Europe,
planning on defecting to the Soviet embassy in Paris and residing
in the Soviet Union, due to that nation's promotion of state
atheism. However, the USSR denied them entry. Murray and her sons
returned to Baltimore, Maryland in 1960.
Murray stated that she worked for seventeen
years as a psychiatric social worker, and that in 1960 she was a
supervisor at the Baltimore city public welfare department.
Murray left Maryland in 1963 after she
allegedly assaulted five Baltimore police officers who came to her
home to retrieve a runaway girl, Bill's girlfriend. In 1965, she
married U.S. Marine Richard O'Hair. Although the marriage resulted
in separation, she remained married to him until his death in
Murray filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore
City Public School System in 1960, in which she asserted that it
was unconstitutional for her son William to be required to
participate in Bible readings at Baltimore public schools. In this
litigation, she stated that her son's refusal to partake in the
Bible readings had resulted in bullying being directed against him
by classmates, and that administrators condoned it.
After consolidation with Abington School
District v. Schempp, the lawsuit reached the Supreme Court of the
United States in 1963. The Court voted 8–1 in Schempp's favor,
which effectively banned mandatory Bible verse recitation at
public schools in the United States. Prayer in schools other than
Bible-readings had already been ended in 1962 by the Court's
ruling in Engel v. Vitale. William went on to become a Baptist
O'Hair filed a lawsuit with the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in regard to the
Apollo 8 Genesis reading. The case was rejected by the U.S.
Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction. The effects of the suit
were varied: although NASA asked Buzz Aldrin to refrain from
quoting the Bible in the Apollo 11 mission, he was allowed to
conduct the first Communion service in space.
Following her arrival in Austin, Texas, O'Hair
founded American Atheists, "a nationwide movement which defends
the civil rights of non-believers, works for the separation of
church and state and addresses issues of First Amendment public
policy". She acted as the group's first chief executive officer,
the public voice and face of atheism in the United States during
the 1960s and 1970s. In a 1965 interview with Playboy Magazine,
she described religion as "a crutch" and an "irrational reliance
on superstitions and supernatural nonsense".
In the same Playboy interview, O'Hair gave a
long list of incidents of harassment, intimidation, and even death
threats against her and her family for her views. She read several
profane letters she received in the mail, with content including
one that said (referring to the conversion of Paul the Apostle on
the road to Damascus), "May Jesus, who you so vigorously deny,
change you into a Paul." In response, O'Hair told the interviewer,
"Isn't that lovely? Christine Jorgensen had to go to Sweden for an
operation, but me they'll fix with faith – painlessly and for
nothing." She stated that she left Baltimore because of
persecution from Baltimore residents, including receipt of mail
containing photos smeared with feces, the strangulation of her son
Jon Garth's pet kitten and the stoning of her home by neighborhood
residents, which she believed had caused her father's fatal heart
She filed several lawsuits on issues over which
she felt that the United States Constitution was violated by a
collusion of church and state. One was against the city of
Baltimore, demanding that it assess and collect taxes on property
owned by the Catholic Church.
O'Hair founded an atheist radio program in
which she criticized religion and theism, and a television show
she hosted, American Atheist Forum, was carried on more than 140
cable television systems.
O'Hair remained a polarizing figure into the
1980s. She served as "chief speechwriter" for Larry Flynt's 1984
presidential campaign, and continued to be a regular talk show
guest. Jon Murray succeeded her as leader of the American
Atheists; he was not liked by many in the organization, and
various chapters seceded from the main group. In 1991, the
remaining local/state chapters were dissolved.
Her son William J. Murray became a Christian in
1980. Learning of this, she commented: "One could call this a
postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess; I repudiate
him entirely and completely for now and all times ... he is beyond
In the 1990s, American Atheists amounted to
O'Hair, her son Jon Murray, her granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair,
and a handful of support personnel. (Robin, the daughter of
William Murray, was adopted by Madalyn. William had not seen nor
spoken to any of them in many years.) The trio lived together in
O'Hair's large home. They went to the office together, took
vacations together, and returned home together.
On August 27, 1995, O'Hair, her son Jon, and
granddaughter Robin suddenly disappeared. The door to the office
of American Atheists was locked with a typewritten note attached
(apparently with Jon's signature), stating, "The Murray O'Hair
family has been called out of town on an emergency basis. We do
not know how long we will be gone at the time of the writing of
this memo." When O'Hair's home was entered, breakfast dishes were
sitting on the table; her diabetes medication was on the kitchen
counter, and her dogs had been left behind without a caregiver.
In phone calls a few days later, the trio
claimed that they were on "business" in San Antonio, Texas. A few
days later, Jon ordered $600,000 worth of gold coins from a San
Antonio jeweler but took delivery of only $500,000 worth of coins.
Until September 27, American Atheists employees
received several phone calls from Robin and Jon, but neither would
explain why they left or when they would return; while they said
nothing was amiss, their voices sounded strained and disturbed.
After September 28, no further communication came from any of the
Investigation and arrests
Ultimately, the murder investigation focused on
David Roland Waters, who had worked as a typesetter for American
Atheists. Not only did Waters have previous convictions for
violent crimes, there were several suspicious burglaries during
his tenure, and he had pleaded guilty earlier in 1995 to stealing
$54,000 from American Atheists. Shortly after his theft of the
$54,000 was discovered, O'Hair had written a scathing article in
the 'Members Only' section of the American Atheists newsletter
exposing Waters, the theft and Waters' previous crimes, including
a 1977 incident in which Waters allegedly beat and urinated upon
his mother. Waters' girlfriend later testified that he was enraged
by O'Hair's article, and that he fantasized about torturing her in
The police concluded that Waters and his
accomplices had kidnapped all three O'Hairs, forced them to
withdraw the missing funds, gone on several huge shopping sprees
with the O'Hairs' money and credit cards, and then murdered and
dismembered all three people. Waters' accomplices included Gary
Paul Karr and Danny Fry. A few days after the O'Hairs were killed,
Fry was murdered by Waters and Karr. Fry's body was found on a
riverbed with his head and hands severed and missing. His body
remained unidentified for three and a half years.
In January 2001, Waters informed the police
that the O'Hairs were buried on a Texas ranch, and he subsequently
led them to the bodies. When the police excavated there, they
discovered that the O'Hairs' bodies had been cut into dozens of
pieces with a saw. The remains exhibited such extensive mutilation
and successive decomposition that identification had to be made
through dental records, by DNA testing and, in Madalyn O'Hair's
case, by the serial number of her prosthetic hip. The head and
hands of Danny Fry were also found at the site.
The gold coins extorted from the O'Hairs were
put in a storage locker rented by Waters' girlfriend. Waters had
taken out $80,000 and partied with his girlfriend for a few days,
but upon his return he discovered that the remaining $420,000 had
been stolen. A group of thieves operating in that area had a
master key to the type of lock that Waters used to secure the
locker. In the course of their activities, they came across the
locker, used the master key to open it, and found a suitcase full
of gold coins. They eventually spent all but one, which the police
Karr was arrested, tried, and found guilty of
extortion charges related to the O'Hair case. However, he was
acquitted of kidnapping conspiracy. Karr was sentenced to life in
prison in August 2000 by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks. Waters
was arrested and found guilty of kidnapping, robbery, and murder
in the O'Hair case, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison; he
was also ordered to pay back a total of $543,665 to the United
Secularists of America and to the estates of Madalyn Murray O'Hair,
Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray O'Hair. It is unlikely that any
of these debts were paid, because Waters had no ability to earn
money while in prison. Waters died of lung cancer at the Federal
Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, on January 27, 2003.
There was some criticism of the Austin Police
Department's apparent apathy about the disappearance. Austin
reporter Robert Bryce wrote:
"Despite pleas from O'Hair's son, William J.
Murray, several briefings from federal agents, and solid leads
developed by members of the press, the Austin Police Department
(APD) sat on the sidelines of the O'Hair investigation....
Meanwhile, investigators from the Internal Revenue Service,
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms, and the Dallas County Sheriff's Office are working
together on the case ... a federal agent was asked to discuss
APD's actions in the O'Hair case. His only response was to roll
his eyes in amazement."
Madalyn Murray's lawsuit largely led to the
removal of compulsory Bible reading from the public schools in the
United States, amongst other lasting and significant effects.
Until the lawsuit, it was commonplace for students to participate
in many types of religious activities while at school, including
religious instruction itself. Nonreligious students were compelled
to participate in such activities and were not usually given any
opportunity to opt out. The Murray suit was combined with an
earlier case, so the Court might have acted without Murray's
intervention. With the success of the lawsuit, the intent of the
Constitution with regard to the relationship between church and
state again came under critical scrutiny and has remained there to
this day. While students do continue to pray in public schools,
even in organized groups (and in the case of "See You at the Pole"
at the flag pole), the lawsuit disallowed schools from including
prayer as a compulsory activity required of every student. The
success of O'Hair's lawsuit led to subsequent lawsuits by Mormon
and Catholic families in Texas in 2000 to limit compulsory prayer
at school-sponsored football games.
O'Hair's notoriety lives on through a
decades-old urban legend. In one version, an e-mail claimed
"Madeline Murray O'Hare [sic] is attempting to get TV programs
such as Touched by an Angel and all TV programs that mention God
taken off the air" (the e-mail invariably misspelled O'Hair's
name). It cited petition RM-2493 to the FCC, which had nothing to
do with O'Hair, and which was denied in 1975, concerning the
prevention of educational radio channels being used for religious
broadcasting. A variant acknowledging her death was circulating in
2003, still warning about a threat to Touched by An Angel months
after the program's last episode had been aired. In 2007, similar
e-mails were still being reported, twelve years after O'Hair's
disappearance and long after her confirmed death.
A 2009 variation of Petition 2493 claims that
O'Hair's organization wants the "Removal of Joel Osteen, Joyce
Meyer, Charles Stanley, David Jeremiah and other pastors from the
air waves", and Dr. James Dobson asks petitioners to send
responses and donations to "Lisa Norman". Dobson denies any
of Madalyn Murray O'Hair
By Tori Richards
'Most Hated Woman in America' Disappears ...Again?
AUSTIN, Texas (Crime Library) — There was much
that many found hard to like about Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Loud,
brash and insensitive, she bore the title of "Most Hated Woman in
America" with pride.
Life magazine had bestowed the title on her
after she had successfully sued to abolish school prayer and then
flaunted her anti-theistic message — reveling in the sensation she
caused. Madalyn created headlines wherever she went, so it was
surprising that her disappearance in August 1995 met with little
more than a blurb in most newspapers. Madalyn's granddaughter, 30,
and younger son, 40, were also missing.
"They just wanted to stop, get away and
breathe," her spokesman for the American Atheists told The Dallas
Morning News in October 1995. "It may be a little unusual, but I
don't blame them."
Madalyn's estranged older son, Bill Murray,
wasn't so sure. She had previously vanished for weeks at a time as
a fundraising ploy for the organization she founded, American
Atheists Inc. "This family is so bizarre, you guys can't get close
to describing it. I wouldn't be surprised if she was sitting
frozen in the back of a van somewhere," Murray told The Washington
In actuality, the truth was even more bizarre
than Bill could have ever predicted. But he was right on one count
— she was very dead indeed.
A Dysfunctional Family
Madalyn was born Madalyn Mays in 1919 to a
lower-middle class Pittsburgh family. The Mays family was
Presbyterian, and Madalyn was forced to read the Bible, a book she
thought was filled with violence and a mean God. At age 22 she
married her first husband, enlisted in the Women's Army Corps (WACs)
at the outbreak of World War II, but then had a wartime affair
with a well-to-do Army officer. She became pregnant and divorced
her husband in hopes of marrying him, but he was Catholic, married
and ultimately unwilling to leave his wife.
She had a second child, Jon Garth Murray, by
another father. As the family struggled to make ends meet, Madalyn
would rail against the Catholic Church for preventing her marriage
to the wealthy Murray.
The family settled in Baltimore, which forever
changed their fate. One day while Madalyn was enrolling her son
Bill, 14, in school, she heard students reciting the Lord's Prayer
in class. This was done at the beginning of each day, before the
Pledge of Allegiance. Murray by now was well-entrenched in her
dislike of organized religion and did not believe God existed. An
angry Madalyn sued the school district to abolish this practice
and the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Four
years later, in 1963, the Court handed down a ruling outlawing
school prayer. She rejoiced, along with the atheist children she
The court victory made her a media sensation
and launched her on a national crusade against organized religion.
Life magazine gave Madalyn her famous "most hated" moniker in its
1964 story covering her campaign. She did the television talk show
circuit and gave interviews to the nation's newspapers.
Life quoted her as saying: "We find the Bible
to be nauseating, historically in accurate and replete with the
ravings of madmen. We find God to be sadistic, brutal and a
representation of hatred."
American Atheists Inc.
It wasn't long before Madalyn was living the
life of comfort that she always wanted. People from across America
were sending her cash donations for the atheist cause. She founded
American Atheists, Inc. and moved to Austin, Texas. Madalyn
married again, taking the last name O'Hair.
The O'Hair family life, however, caused Bill
anguish. He became a drug addict, an alcoholic and the unwed
father of a girl, Robin. Unable to care for the child, Bill left
her with his mother, who adopted Robin as her own daughter. Robin,
Jon and Madalyn would become the driving force of American
In the late 1970s, Bill entered a rehab program
and was exposed to evangelical Christianity. He renounced atheism
and on Mother's Day 1980 became a born-again Christian. Thus began
the second stage of Bill's life, that of a Christian evangelist
seeking to undo what his mother had done.
"I view what we did as wrong...we took the
authority of God out of the schools," Bill said. "We attempted to
replace it with the logic of man." Bill distanced himself from his
family, and they never spoke again.
"The family I come from is the mother of
dysfunctional families," he said.
Madalyn enjoyed infamy, various court battles,
and the growing membership of her organization well into the
1980s. But Ronald Reagan's reelection to the White House signaled
a cultural shift to a more conservative America that again
embraced tradition and Christianity. Her support began to dwindle.
The IRS sued Jon and Robin for using organizational assets for
their personal use, and Madalyn was sued by a rival, for-profit
organization when she tried to take over the company by claiming
ownership of its stock. By the mid-1990s it seemed that the glory
days were over.
Those who knew her well intimated that she was
making preparations to leave for New Zealand, where it was thought
she had a cache of money squirreled away.
Missing — Or Is She?
Madalyn won the fraud lawsuit, but the
plaintiffs vowed to appeal. If the appeal were successful, it
would wipe out her organization. She then liquidated most of her
assets, an attorney told The Washington Post in 2002. One of
Madalyn's former employees told the newspaper that he saw bank
statement from New Zealand Guardian Trust that showed an account
with a balance in excess of $1 million.
Shortly thereafter, on Aug. 28, 1995, employees
of American Atheists found a note taped to the front door of the
office when they arrived for work. It stated that the O'Hair
family had left town for an emergency and didn't know how long
they would be gone. The note was signed by Jon Murray. This seemed
especially strange to one employee, who went to Madalyn's home and
found her three dogs and diabetes medicine still there.
Unusual as this was, the remaining leaders of
the organization put on a brave front and told supporters that
she'd be back. The group continued to operate in her absence. "I
just talked with Madalyn herself moments ago," her spokesman Spike
Tyson told The Associated Press on Sept. 29.
"I can tell you categorically that Madalyn is
alive," a supporter echoed. "I can't tell you exactly what is
happening. She's safe and that's all I can tell you."
When she didn't show up for a planned picket of
the October visit by the Pope to the U.S., people were either
concerned or pleasantly surprised, depending on their religious
affiliation. However, no one filed a missing persons report, and
the local police didn't seem too worried.
"In the state of Texas, it's not against the
law to become missing," said Austin police Sgt. Steve Baker.
No Sign of Madalyn and Family
Bill Murray, though, wanted to resolve what
happened to his family, and so, a year after their disappearance,
he filed a missing person's report with the Austin Police
Department. They opened an investigation, but didn't come up with
any leads. It appeared superficially that the O'Hair family had
absconded with assets from American Atheists, not a high-priority
case for the police. Besides, Madalyn was 77 years old and in poor
health due to her diabetes and obesity.
However, the IRS was interested, and began a
money laundering investigation in February 1997, 17 months after
the O'Hair family had disappeared. Those who cared were of two
schools of thought: either they had disappeared with a fortune
overseas, or Madalyn had died. Madalyn had frequently told
supporters that she didn't want her death to become a national
event because it would give those "Christers" an opportunity to
pray over her.
Despite their assets, the American Atheists had
filed a 1995 tax return that showed a loss of $612,000. The family
also had left behind a checklist written by Jon that showed the
steps that needed to be taken before fleeing the country. The idea
that they had fled was promoted by David Waters, Madalyn's former
office manager, who had broken dramatically with the O'Hair family
when they had prosecuted him for embezzling $54,000 from the
Madalyn had then lambasted Waters in an atheist
newsletter, exposing Waters' criminal history. He had been
convicted of murdering a boy over gasoline when he was 17 years
old. He had been paroled 12 years later and had then assaulted his
mother, which led to more prison time. The embarrassment of
Waters' past was almost too much for him to bear: he told
acquaintances that he fantasized about torturing Madalyn by
cutting off her toes, according to an affidavit by the IRS.
At first he claimed to be innocent — saying he
withdrew money from atheist accounts at Jon's behest because the
O'Hair family planned to flee. But ultimately Waters pleaded
guilty to the embezzlement and paid back the money, and the court
placed him on probation instead of sending him to prison.
A News Reporter Uncovers Clues
John MacCormack, a reporter with the San
Antonio Express News, was assigned to cover the one-year
anniversary of the O'Hair family disappearance. MacCormack began
working with a private investigator to find out what really
happened to the trio, but it turned out to be more than just a
The result was a series of stories. MacCormack
uncovered the 1995 tax return (it was his story that actually
alerted the IRS) and discovered that Jon's Mercedes-Benz had been
advertised for sale in the Express-News and then sold at a loss in
front of a local bar. MacCormack tracked down the buyer and showed
him Jon's picture but discovered that the seller was actually some
other unidentified person.
MacCormack managed to obtain Jon's cell phone
records and noted a flurry of activity during the month following
the family's disappearance. One of the calls led him to a jeweler
who had sold Jon $600,000 worth of gold coins. The coins had come
in at intervals, and Jon had picked up the first installment of
$500,000's worth, but hadn't shown up to retrieve the final
$100,000. And after September, all cell phone activity stopped,
and the number was disconnected.
MacCormack's investigation was time-consuming.
Another year passed, and to commemorate the anniversary he was
asked to be a guest on ABC's Nightline to talk about the mystery.
It was an event that would break the case wide open, providing a
twisted roadmap for the IRS, FBI and San Antonio police to follow.
A Suspect is Uncovered
After MacCormack's television appearance, he
received an interesting phone call. It was a man, Bob Fry, who was
looking for his brother Danny, 41, who had gone missing shortly
after the O'Hair family. Danny had traveled to Texas to do a job
with David Waters, whom he had met when both were in prison.
Lured by the appeal of making a quick buck,
Danny probably had a hunch that the job wasn't completely legal if
Waters was involved. He told his brother in a letter that should
he disappear Waters was involved. When Danny didn't come home, Bob
called Waters and told him about the letter, demanding information
about his brother.
Waters responded by showing up at Bob's Florida
home the next day with another man, Gary Karr, 47. They threatened
him with a pistol, but said they didn't know anything about
Danny's whereabouts. MacCormack checked Karr's background and
found that he was also an ex-con with eight prior felonies
including armed robbery and kidnapping.
Danny's daughter, recalled that Waters had
called her father incessantly asking for help with a deal that
could make him a lot of money. Danny told her he would only be
gone a few weeks. After arriving in Austin, Danny called her
collect every day from either a motel in San Antonio or Waters'
apartment in Austin. His final call was Sept. 30.
MacCormack was now on the story of his career,
unraveling the disappearance of a famed public figure. Suddenly
the years of investigation were paying off as he now had the
makings of not one, but two possible murder cases — complete with
suspect, motive and opportunity.
The Man Without a Name
MacCormack published more stories, and the
authorities were definitely interested in his findings. But
suspecting someone of murder and proving it are two different
things. No bodies had been found and no evidence existed that
would certainly convict Waters and Karr of anything.
In September 1998, three years after the O'Hair
family had disappeared, MacCormack once again broke the case wide
open. He noticed a wire service story that mentioned the third
anniversary of an unsolved Dallas murder. The nude body of an
unidentified white man had been found in some woods near the East
Fork Trinity River on October 2, 1995.
The victim's head and hands had been missing,
eliminating any simple identification and rendering him a John
Doe. All investigators could determine was that he was about 40
years old and had been killed somewhere else, since little blood
was found in the area where his remains were discovered. The
timeline of the man's death matched up with the O'Hair and Fry
disappearances; MacCormack was suspicious. He asked the Dallas
authorities to check whether their John Doe could be Danny Fry.
Dallas investigators ran a DNA test and three
months later were able to positively identify the victim as Danny
Fry. He had reached out from the grave to provide law enforcement
with the evidence needed to solve the O'Hair case.
A Flood of Evidence
The FBI visited the motel from which Fry had
called collect. They found that both Waters and Karr had held the
room during the month of September 1995 and had also rented a
number of vans.
MacCormack continued to write stories and then
another important witness came forward. She was identified as
Waters' live-in ex-girlfriend. She told the FBI that both Fry and
Karr showed up one day and then left with Waters. Waters came home
intermittently. On one occasion, he was driving a new Cadillac.
Inside the trunk was a buzz saw and shovel.
Waters left and returned several days later
with a trash bag that contained three pairs of bloody tennis
shoes. On another occasion, Fry and Karr showed up with Waters,
and Fry was extremely upset. After that day, Fry was never seen
again but his luggage was still in the apartment. She had asked
Waters about it, but he had refused to answer.
She also knew that Waters had stashed $500,000
in gold coins in a storage locker. One day he called her
frantically, asking what happened to the coins. It seems that
someone had broken into the locker and stolen them. She added that
Waters had a second storage locker that he spayed with bleach a
month after the O'Hair family disappeared, while she waited in her
Investigators went to the second storage locker
and talked to the manager, who had seen three men matching the
description of Waters, Karr and Fry at the locker with several
large blue plastic barrels. Detectives entered the locker but
didn't see anything amiss other than a gap in the metal flooring.
They pulled up a piece of the floor and sprayed it with Luminol,
which picks up blood under ultraviolet light. It tested positive.
"There was DNA that was consistent with the
O'Hairs," said Dallas County Sheriff's Detective Steve Womack. "We
believe that unit was used to actually dismember the bodies of the
The evidence was enough to obtain warrants to
search the homes of Waters in Texas and Karr in Michigan. They
found a bow saw at Waters' home, which detectives theorized had
been used to dismember the bodies of the O'Hair family.
But it was at Karr's home that they would have
greater success. He decided to confess, detailing the crimes in an
eight-page signed document. Karr admitted to renting the cars and
hotel rooms, then helping to bury the O'Hair family. He blamed the
killings on Waters, saying he didn't have anything to do with them
A case seemed ironclad against Karr, and a
federal grand jury indicted him in December 1999 on five charges:
kidnapping, robbery and extortion, traveling interstate to commit
violent acts resulting in death, conspiracy to gain financially
from a violent act, and transportation of stolen property across
state lines. Opening statements began on May 15, 2000. Waters had
not yet been charged, but he had been jailed for violating his
probation for the atheist office embezzlement by possessing
Karr's defense attorney, suggested that the
O'Hair family fled the country because no bodies had turned up.
"It may be the simplest explanation that she did what she said she
was going to do for a year — she fled to escape the Internal
Revenue Service," Mills said.
But the prosecution's star witness testified
about the bloody shoes, shovel and buzz saw, gold coins and the
involvement of Waters, Karr and Fry. She said all three men were
staying at the apartment she shared with Waters until they
inexplicably left for about a month that coincided with the O'Hair
Prosecutors also found the men who stole the
coins and gave them immunity for testifying. Karr was convicted on
all counts except for the kidnapping charge. The conviction
carried a mandatory life sentence.
Later that year, Waters decided to plead guilty
in his probation violation case of possessing ammunition. His
original sentence of 60 years was reinstated. Madalyn had gotten
the last laugh on that matter after all.
A federal grand jury also indicted Waters on
charges similar to Karr's. But if convicted, he'd first spend 60
years in state prison on the embezzlement charge, because that
trial had occurred first. Waters didn't want that. Knowing that
he'd likely never be released, Waters wanted to spend the rest of
his days in federal prison, which he considered better
accommodations. In a deal with prosecutors, he agreed to confess
and tell authorities where the three victims were buried in
exchange for being allowed to plead guilty to extortion and being
transferred to a federal prison.
Authorities talked to Waters for four days,
and, by the time they were finished, his confession filled 300
pages. Waters admitted that with Karr and Fry he had kidnapped the
O'Hair family at gunpoint from their office. The trio was then
held at the motel and ordered to liquidate their assets. Jon
arranged to have the gold coins delivered to a local jeweler; he
went with one of the kidnappers to retrieve the first batch, which
All of this took a month, and the atheists
seemed to believe that they wouldn't be harmed if they complied.
The Waters gang nonetheless decided to kill them without waiting
for the rest of the money.
"At that point they strangled them one by one,
and it took three of them to strangle Jon Garth Murray because he
was so large and he fought back," John MacCormack said.
The bodies were taken to the storage unit,
where Karr was given an extra $50,000 to cut them up. The victims'
remains were placed in blue barrels.
Found at Last
Before the trio buried the bodies, they took a
trip to Dallas. Fry was ambushed, shot in the back of the head,
mutilated and left by the Trinity River. Then Waters and Karr took
the barrels to a ranch about 120 miles outside San Antonio. The
rest of the remains were buried in a shallow grave there.
"The first bone that we located was a bottom
portion of a femur," said Dr. David Glassman, a forensic
anthropologist. "And I could see very easily that this bone had
been severed about midway."
Jon's skull appeared to be fractured, and a
plastic bag had been placed over his head. The metal from
Madalyn's hip replacement was evident. All three victims were
unearthed, along with a plastic bag that contained the head and
hands of Danny Fry. The skull had a bullet wound that traveled
from the back to the front, Glassman told The Dallas Morning News
in 2001. It was a somber ending for four people who hadn't fit in
to mainstream society.
The remains were collected, and Bill, Madalyn's
other son, was notified. Authorities identified the O'Hair family
through dental records and were unable to determine causes of
death. Although the unfolding saga of MacCormack's investigation
and Karr's trial commanded bold headlines and frequent television
coverage, the discovery of the remains of the O'Hair family was
met with something like nonchalance. Madalyn seemed to belong to
another time, an outdated relic of a more rebellious era in
"There was a sense of now there can be a
conclusion to Madalyn Murray O'Hair," Bill said. "She can be taken
somewhere, and her remains can be put somewhere, and that can be
the end of it."
But as in life, Madalyn Murray O'Hair wouldn't
go quietly in death.
A battle ensued over Madalyn's remains between
Bill and the surviving leadership of American Atheists. Bill
wanted his mother to have a quiet, dignified burial. The atheists
thought that their fallen leader should be memorialized by the
organization she created and to which she had left all her assets.
Atheist president Ellen Johnson told reporters
that Bill had no right to the remains and threatened to sue. But
Texas law was on the side of Bill, and he took control of the
remains and ordered them cremated, which was his mother's wish.
Madalyn had also said she wanted her ashes scattered, but that
wouldn't happen. Instead, Bill buried the trio together in an
unmarked vault somewhere in Austin on March 23, 2001.
"They lived together, they were kidnapped
together, murdered together and thrown in a common grave
together," Bill told MacCormack for a story in the San Antonio
Express-News. "I just thought they should be buried together."
No members of the American Atheists were told
about the burial out of fear that they or sympathizers might
attempt to steal the remains. Instead, the ceremony was attended
by several FBI agents and a pastor who was a witness. And in
keeping with her wishes, no one prayed over her.
Johnson vowed to continue Madalyn's fight, but
the loss of the fiery leader was a blow from which the
organization took long to recover. Bill continued his work as an
evangelical Christian, preaching about his faith in God and
writing books. Waters died of cancer in prison in 2003.
As for Madalyn, it's unlikely that in her final
moments she prayed for divine intervention, deliverance or
salvation. "I think it's important to understand that once you're
dead, you're dead," she told a reporter from The Tampa Tribune in
1990. "Just as soon as the brain starts to rot, that's the end of
The Atheists' Cold Case Gets
First of two parts
By Paul Duggan - Washington Post
Monday, August 16, 1999
AUSTIN – The corpse, reposing on
its back near the water's edge, was that of an adult male, freshly
butchered by the looks of things.
Standing over the body,
Detective Robert Bjorklund of the Dallas County Sheriff's
Department noted very little blood. Whoever did it killed him
elsewhere, using a blade to make him a John Doe. The dead man's
head was nowhere to be found. His hands were missing, too.
"On October 2, 1995 at
approximately 3:30 p.m., our Department ... recovered the body of
a nude white male," Bjorklund wrote in a bulletin. "The body was
found ... in a wooded area about 50 feet from the riverbank of the
East Fork Trinity River."
For a long time, there wasn't
much more to say. Except for his approximate age (about 40) and
estimated height and weight when he still had hands and a head,
the victim was a mystery in a morgue drawer.
Until last winter, when the dead
man told a tale.
After detectives finally
confirmed his name in January, the story behind his killing began
to take shape – a tortuous story of greed and revenge, abduction
and murder, and a half-million dollars in stolen gold.
It's an unlovely tale, at turns
tragic and darkly absurd, about a once-famous woman, a '60s
iconoclast, Madalyn Murray O'Hair. She was America's best-known
atheist, its leading public blasphemer, a litigious foe of God and
religion. Four years ago, she and two family members vanished from
their Austin home. Now authorities say they're convinced the three
were kidnapped, slain and disposed of – murdered just as surely as
the victim in Dallas County.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair, The
Famous Atheist: In a 1960 lawsuit she claimed public-school prayer
was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court agreed in a landmark
ruling. To some, she was an inspiration, a doughty homemaker
bellowing the stifled sentiments of Americans who felt oppressed
by religious convention. Yet to others in that Cold War era, she
was anathema, a subversive, the Antichrist come to rot the
nation's spiritual foundation – and for years she thrived on their
enmity, exploited it, made ungodliness her livelihood.
Then one day in 1995, at age 76,
she seemed to drop off the Earth. Her son Jon Garth Murray, 40,
and adopted daughter Robin Murray-O'Hair, 30, disappeared with
her. So did a fortune in gold coins.
A mystery, like the corpse by
Until the corpse got a name.
"The most hated woman in
America," she proclaimed herself in the '60s. Life magazine
headlined the quote in a 1964 profile. But that was an anxious
America on the brink of tumultuous change. By the time Madalyn
Murray O'Hair vanished, the country had long got over her.
She was obese, slowed by
diabetes and a bad heart – a cultural leftover, dimly recalled.
She could, and did, still rail and cuss at "the Christers" and at
God-fearing piety in all its forms; she was as churlish and
foul-mouthed and contentious as ever. But almost no one paid
attention anymore. And when suddenly one morning she was gone, the
world just shrugged. Ashes to ashes.
She was working-class Pittsburgh
by birth, Madalyn Mays, Presbyterian.
At 22, she eloped. Five years
later, in 1946, she had a son. The father was a well-to-do Army
officer with whom Madalyn had an affair. She divorced her husband,
but the officer, an obedient Catholic, refused to leave his wife.
Madalyn took his name anyway, becoming Madalyn Murray, and the boy
was baptized William J. Murray III. He runs an evangelical
Christian foundation in Virginia now. He goes by Bill.
What begat his mother's anger –
her caustic combativeness in general, and in particular the
sneering contempt for religion that made her famous – may never be
clear. Bill Murray points to the poverty she endured after his
birth. "Mother came to hate the Catholic church and the pope for
preventing her marriage to a man of considerable wealth," he wrote
in his 1982 memoir.
In Baltimore, where they landed
in the early '50s, she had another son by another man. Jon Garth
Murray, she named him.
One morning in 1960, while
enrolling Bill in junior high, Madalyn Murray heard students
reciting the Lord's Prayer. The school wouldn't excuse Bill from
joining in, so she took Baltimore's school board to the Supreme
Court – and here her legacy gets tricky. Her lawsuit was merged
with a case from Pennsylvania already on the docket, and it was
the Pennsylvania case that led the court to ban public-school
prayer in 1963. Madalyn Murray wasn't the only plaintiff in that
historic ruling, nor was she even essential. She was merely the
litigant with the loudest mouth. And it made her a celebrity.
"In reality my mother did not
create the times, the times created her," Bill Murray wrote
recently on his Web site. While the other plaintiff, a Unitarian,
quietly went home to Philadelphia, Madalyn Murray set about
ridiculing mainstream America's inviolate beliefs. In lectures and
debates, she inveighed against religion. "We find the Bible to be
nauseating, historically inaccurate and replete with the ravings
of madmen," she told Life. "We find God to be sadistic, brutal and
a representation of hatred."
Johnny Carson had her on, Merv
Griffin, a dark-haired Phil Donahue on his debut show. There was a
late-'60s film documentary, "Mad Madalyn." She became The Famous
Atheist, riding the counterculture tide in a muumuu.
Of course Life's readers were
appalled. But as Bill Murray wrote, "Every misfit in America was
sending my mother letters of praise with a check enclosed."
So began American Atheists Inc.,
committed to pursuing "the total, absolute separation of
government and religion." The tax-exempt organization, with
chapters dotting the country, gave Madalyn a comfortable living
for years. She was atheist-in-chief, fund-raising whip and
financial czar in a crusade for such strict public secularism that
she wanted "In God We Trust" removed from U.S. currency. After
setting up headquarters in Austin in the late '60s, she married
and divorced again, becoming Madalyn Murray O'Hair. By then Bill
Murray was a drug-using alcoholic and the single father of a small
He drifted away from his mother,
leaving her with his child, whom Madalyn eventually adopted. Thus
her granddaughter became her daughter, Robin Murray-O'Hair, the
niece/sister of Jon. For years, Bill Murray wandered in and out of
Madalyn's orbit, until the late '70s. "I turned to a Twelve Step
Program to stop drinking," he wrote, "and there found my first
awareness of a loving God." He became estranged from his family,
and on Mother's Day 1980, he declared himself a Christian.
Meanwhile, from 1969 – when she
successfully pressured NASA to prevent astronaut Buzz Aldrin from
taking televised Communion on the moon – through the '70s and into
the Reagan era, The Famous Atheist marched to court again and
again, battling religious symbolism in the official domain. But
God made a comeback. In the '80s, while Madalyn Murray O'Hair
partied in Hollywood and wrote speeches for porn publisher Larry
Flynt, more and more people returned to church. The nation moved
right. American Atheists kept claiming a membership in the high
five figures, and O'Hair went on suing the Christers, but by 1990
all her chapters were gone. It was the Christers with their
political agendas who were getting the TV time, while O'Hair taped
diatribes for cable access. By 1993, her radio show, once on 150
stations, was off the air.
"The last ten years of her life
she became even more profane and vulgar as the demons she courted
got their final hold on her," wrote Bill Murray, who watched his
mother from afar as she slid into obscurity.
O'Hair's obscenity-laced diaries
(sold for $12,000 at a tax auction last April) confirm what some
of her ex-employees now say: that she considered them idiots –
"pimps, whores, hopheads, queers, pinkos, drunks, glue-sniffers
and freaks," she wrote. They say she sometimes stalked the halls
of her spacious headquarters, berating them. Jon and Robin,
socially clueless as adults, were Madalyn's acolytes in the
office. Reared in The Famous Atheist's image, they lived with her
in a sprawling home in northwest Austin, ate meals with her,
vacationed with her – heeled to her like overfed poodles, even
when she kicked them.
"The unholy trinity," say people
who knew them.
In the months before they
disappeared, the three were burdened with legal and financial
worries. Contributions to American Atheists had slowed to a
trickle. Jon and Robin, accused of misusing donations for personal
expenses, were being sued by the IRS for $1.5 million. And in
California, a lawsuit accused O'Hair of fraud in her failed bid to
gain control of an elderly atheist's $15 million estate.
The rich atheist, James Hervey
Johnson, ran a for-profit organization in San Diego that was much
wealthier than O'Hair's. After Johnson refused to merge his
operation with hers, O'Hair tried to wrest it from him, allegedly
by falsely claiming ownership of stock. Johnson's lawyers thwarted
her, then hit her with a $7 million lawsuit, threatening to wipe
out American Atheists.
As the November 1993 trial date
neared, Madalyn, Jon and Robin "were really expecting to lose,"
says David Travis, who worked for them at the time. "They told us
employees not to be surprised if we came to work one day and found
the building padlocked." Roy Withers, an attorney for Johnson's
estate, alleges that O'Hair ordered her most cherished asset, the
American Atheists library, with 25,000-plus volumes, secretly
packed and shipped into hiding.
"The whole library just
disappeared one weekend and we never saw it again," says Travis,
56, who was a proofreader for O'Hair's newsletter.
There was a mistrial that fall,
and a new trial was set for November 1994. Withers alleges that
O'Hair continued to conceal and dispose of assets. "They were
getting liquid," he says.
The 1994 trial ended in O'Hair's
favor – and by then Johnson was dead of cancer. But O'Hair feared
his estate would win its appeal, says Travis. One day in March
1995, he says, he mistakenly opened an envelope addressed to Jon
Murray in the office mail. He says it was a bank statement from
New Zealand Guardian Trust showing an account with nearly $1
million in it.
"I felt betrayed," says Travis,
a retired Army sergeant. "It was obvious to me they were planning
Five months later, on Aug. 28,
1995, Travis arrived for work and found a fellow employee staring
at a typewritten notice on the door of American Atheists
headquarters. "The Murray-O'Hair family has been called out of
town on an emergency basis," it began. "We do not know how long we
will be gone at the time of the writing of this memo."
Travis, among others, figured
"I actually wrote them an
indignant letter and sent it to their home address, thinking
they'd made some arrangements to get their mail," he says. "I
expressed my indignation that they'd abandoned everything they'd
"But I never heard back."
Despite widespread suspicion
that the family had skipped Austin for good, perhaps for a South
Seas climate, one of American Atheists' most devoted members
refused to believe it. Ellen Johnson, a New Jersey homemaker, was
a longtime O'Hair loyalist whom the atheist leader had appointed
to her nominal board of directors. In the leader's absence,
Johnson took charge of the group and voiced its official position.
"I was the one who kept saying,
'They'll be back! Why wouldn't they be back? Of course they'll be
back!' " Johnson, 44, recalls now.
At the big house in northwest
Austin, there were clear signs that Madalyn, Jon and Robin had
left in an unusual hurry. For one thing, their unfinished
breakfasts were still in the kitchen. Yet Johnson got a call from
O'Hair early in September, not long after the family's departure,
and got calls from Jon and Robin as the month went on – all on
Jon's cell phone. The three said they were in San Antonio. They
wouldn't say what they were doing, but assured Johnson they were
well and would be home eventually.
"People were saying to me, 'Wake
up and smell the coffee, kid,' " says Johnson, now president of
American Atheists, based in Cranford, N.J. "But I'm thinking to
myself, and telling everybody, 'Don't worry, don't worry.' "
The Austin police weren't
worried. After receiving a missing-persons report in September
1996 from born-again evangelist Bill Murray in Virginia,
detectives told him they could find no persuasive evidence of foul
play, and wouldn't spend time and money searching for three adults
who appeared to have left town on their own. The only official
agency showing an interest in the atheists' whereabouts was the
IRS. Suspecting that the family had absconded with tax-exempt
funds, an IRS criminal investigator named Edmond J. Martin began a
money-laundering probe in February 1997, more than a year after
the family was last heard from.
Not until 1998 – long after even
the most trusting of O'Hair's followers had given up on her coming
back – did the tropical-hideaway theory finally give way to the
likelihood of homicide. The realization dawned last fall when
Dallas County detectives – who knew almost nothing about the
missing atheists from Austin, 175 miles to the south – got a tip
in a local murder case that had gone unsolved since 1995: the
corpse by the river.
The tip was the dead man's name.
The name convinced an array of
law-enforcement agencies that The Famous Atheist and her kin
weren't lounging on some palm-shaded beach after all, but, like
the victim by the Trinity, had been murdered. Suddenly the case of
the vanished atheists became an odds-on triple homicide, with
evidence pointing to suspects, including a disgruntled ex-employee
of American Atheists named David Roland Waters.
Waters, described by people who
know him as bright and supremely self-confident, was 45 when he
took a job as a typesetter for O'Hair's newsletter in January
1993, having answered a help-wanted ad. "Religious persons may
feel uncomfortable," the ad warned, which didn't deter Waters. His
Illinois rap sheet shows he had been walking a decidedly unsaintly
path for much of his life.
Near Peoria in 1964, at age 17,
while on juvenile probation for a burglary, he joined three other
teenagers in fatally bludgeoning a 16-year-old boy in a dispute
over 50 cents' worth of gasoline. Prosecuted as an adult, he got
30 to 60 years, was paroled in 1976, then imprisoned for
assaulting his mother. After serving time for forgery in the '80s,
he moved to Florida, then to Austin, where he spotted O'Hair's
newspaper ad. She hired him on the morning he showed up for an
interview, and a year later promoted him to office manager.
In March and April 1994,
however, while Madalyn, Jon and Robin were out of town, Waters
took $54,415 from the group's bank accounts. He was charged with
theft – although he insisted he had withdrawn the money at Jon
Waters and a ghostwriter later
recounted the incident in an unpublished book about the atheists.
The withdrawals occurred during the period when O'Hair allegedly
was hiding assets. Waters claimed he had been told to gradually
siphon $100,000 from the accounts, keep $15,000 as a fee and stash
$85,000 in Murray's office safe. But after making several
withdrawals totaling $54,415, Waters said, he got nervous and
decided to stop midway through the scheme. He claimed he kept his
$15,000 fee and put the remaining $39,415 in the safe.
The atheists then framed Waters
for theft by secretly pocketing the money in the safe and accusing
him of stealing $54,415, says Waters's lawyer, Patrick Ganne.
An alleged double-cross by the
Yet what proof did Waters have?
He had only his word – the word of a convicted killer and forger.
If found guilty of theft at a trial, Ganne says, Waters could have
been locked up for life as a habitual offender. So in May 1995 –
three months before the family disappeared – he pleaded guilty in
a deal with prosecutors. He got probation and was ordered to repay
American Atheists the full $54,415.
Many months later – after IRS
agent Martin's money-related search for the missing atheists
turned into a homicide probe by a slew of investigative agencies –
Martin filed a 36-page affidavit requesting a search warrant for
Waters's apartment. The affidavit details what authorities believe
happened to the family.
After the theft charge in 1994,
O'Hair excoriated Waters in her newsletter, laying out choice
details of his criminal convictions, including the late-'70s
assault on his mother, in which Waters had been accused not only
of beating her with a broom handle, but of urinating on her.
According to Martin's affidavit, Waters fumed, voicing "fantasies
of killing Madalyn," of "seeing Madalyn suffer and snipping off
her toes." In the summer of 1995, after buying duct tape, rope and
handcuffs, the affidavit says, Waters phoned two old buddies in
Florida and invited them to Austin.
One of them, Danny Raymond Fry,
then 41, was a hard drinker and occasional small-time "con man,"
according to Martin. His criminal record consisted mainly of
The other, Gary Paul Karr, then
47, was a harder case, with a record of mayhem dating to the '60s.
Karr had just got out of prison, in March 1995, after serving 21
years for two armed robberies and the violent kidnapping of a
judge's daughter. He and Waters had done time together in Illinois
in the mid-'80s.
By July 1995, Fry and Karr had
moved into Waters's Austin apartment.
Although no charges have been
filed in the atheists' disappearance – and the suspects deny being
involved in it – the search-warrant affidavit alleges what
"WATERS, KARR and FRY planned
and executed the scheme to abduct, kidnap and murder MADALYN
MURRAY O'HAIR, JON GARTH MURRAY AND ROBIN MURRAY-O'HAIR for the
purpose of stealing" hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In Virginia, Bill Murray read
the affidavit and inferred a scenario from the wealth of
circumstantial evidence described in it.
On his Web site, he wrote that
Madalyn and Robin "were held for almost 30 days, probably tied and
gagged, while my brother desperately tried to obtain ransom money.
At all times my brother was escorted by the kidnappers. Should he
have run? Should he have tried to get help? I would have."
But from what the evangelist had
observed of his estranged family, Jon "was a total slave to my
mother. He saw himself as her provider and rescuer. All his life
she had talked down to him and made fun of him and now, in his
mind, he would show her his worth by single-handedly rescuing
As for The Famous Atheist, Bill
Murray imagined her at the end.
"I can see her now, looking down
the barrel of a gun, saying, 'You don't dare shoot me. I AM
MADALYN MURRAY O'HAIR.' Of course, the killers did not care who
she was, just as most Americans didn't care."
Among the Faithless, a Faith
By Paul Duggan - Washington Post
Tuesday, August 17, 1999
SAN ANTONIO – Among the famously
vanished – Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa – that vilified and
idolized secularist war-horse of years ago, Madalyn Murray O'Hair,
falls in the has-been category.
Unlike the darling aviatrix and
the mobbed-up Teamsters boss to whom she's often compared, The
Famous Atheist, at age 76, was mired in obscurity when last she
was heard from, in 1995.
Even still, after O'Hair and her
two closest relatives disappeared from Austin, seemingly
absconding with a fortune in American Atheists money, the news
spread far beyond the Texas capital. Over the months, there were
people who swore they saw her in Canada, in Mexico, in the South
Pacific. Supposedly she had taken the dough and run, slipping into
hiding with her two atheist deputies and ever-loyal kin, son Jon
Garth Murray, 40, and adopted daughter Robin Murray-O'Hair, 30.
But three men knew otherwise,
authorities now allege. David Roland Waters, a disgruntled
ex-employee of American Atheists, and two pals of his from
Florida, Gary Paul Karr and Danny Raymond Fry, are accused in a
court affidavit of holding the family captive, coercing Jon Murray
to help them steal hundreds of thousands of dollars, then
murdering the three atheists and disposing of their bodies.
"Oh, I'm sure she's with Jimmy
Hoffa," Waters's attorney, Patrick Ganne, says of the notoriously
bellicose O'Hair. "And I'm sure they're getting along well." But
Waters, 52, had nothing to do with her disappearance, the lawyer
says. An attorney for Karr, 51, says his client also is innocent.
And so far no charges have been filed in the case. The affidavit,
signed by an IRS criminal investigator, Edmond J. Martin, was used
to obtain a search warrant for Waters's apartment last spring.
As office manager at O'Hair's
Austin headquarters in early 1994, Waters got a close-up look at
how the family was handling American Atheists finances. It was
during a period when O'Hair allegedly was concealing and
liquidating assets, perhaps planning for a secret retirement with
Jon and Robin.
According to Martin's affidavit,
Waters "began obsessing about his ability to take Madalyn's
money," telling his then-girlfriend "about the O'HAIRs being able
to gain all of their money from scamming individuals, as did tel-evangelists.
Because of his office manager position, WATERS learned that [the
three atheists] had money located in accounts in New Zealand. ...
He believed the O'HAIRs had obtained the money by fraudulent
Before Waters and O'Hair had an
angry falling-out in the spring of 1994, trading allegations over
the theft of $54,415 from the organization, "WATERS made copies of
records relating to the transfer of money to New Zealand," Martin
Then in the summer of '95, the
affidavit says, Waters invited his two Florida buddies to Austin
for an ambitious undertaking – "a big score," one of them
allegedly told a relative.
Gary Karr rented a minivan in
Austin on Aug. 26, 1995, according to Martin's affidavit. It was a
new Ford Windstar with plenty of passenger space.
On Aug. 28 – the day O'Hair and
her family disappeared from their home – Karr and David Waters
were 75 miles south of Austin, checking into a cut-rate
residential motel called the Warren Inn, the affidavit says. The
Warren sits hard by a six-lane commercial drag just north of
downtown San Antonio. They told a clerk they planned to stay
through the end of September, according to the affidavit. Fry was
there, too. They paid in advance and carried their belongings to
As for the three atheists,
investigators later spoke with people who had been at or near the
motel that September – and a former Warren maintenance man
recalled seeing a woman using a walker who matched O'Hair's
description. He said he had noticed her struggling to get around,
aided by some men. Shown a photo of O'Hair, he said he was sure
she was the woman. But he couldn't identify her companions.
From late August through the end
of September, a series of financial transactions occurred in San
Antonio that authorities find highly suspicious.
Aug. 28 to Aug. 31, for
instance: "Jon Murray cashed checks on various Atheist accounts
and received cash advances on various credit cards totalling
$20,900," Martin wrote. The figure rose to nearly $71,000 by Sept.
Then there was the sale of Jon
Murray's Mercedes. Someone put an ad in the San Antonio
Express-News: "88 Benz 300 SEL $15,000 cash. Firm." The ad, which
included Murray's cell phone number, caught the eye of Mark
Sparrow, a local real estate salesman. Sparrow knew a
seven-year-old 300 SEL in good condition was worth $20,000, maybe
more. On Sept. 15 he called and asked to see the car. The man he
spoke with gave his name as Jon Murray and said the Mercedes was
parked outside the Warren Inn. He told Sparrow to drive by and
take a look. If he liked what he saw, he could ask for Jon across
the street in Bonnie Jean's Tavern.
Sparrow gave the car a once-over
that afternoon, then found "Jon" in Bonnie Jean's, sitting at the
bar. "He was cocky, arrogant," Sparrow, 47, says now. "Just his
way of talking, y'know? His whole attitude." After a test drive,
Sparrow wanted the car, and arranged for a check to be waiting at
his bank in Jon Murray's name.
"I imagine it was the real Jon
Murray who picked up the money," says Sparrow. But it wasn't
Murray who sold the Mercedes. Much later, when an investigator
showed him photos, Sparrow identified the seller as Danny Fry.
Another car deal: Rothery
McKeegan, 80, a retired Air Force pilot, and his wife, Jean, 79,
advertised their '90 Cadillac Eldorado for sale. On Sept. 16, they
say, Waters called their home in a San Antonio suburb and arranged
to come by. He took the Caddy for a spin and agreed to the price:
$13,000. He and the McKeegans drove to the couple's credit union,
sat at a desk and signed the paperwork.
"Is cash all right?" Waters
asked. The McKeegans smiled at his joke. But then Waters reached
into a pocket, pulled out what Jean McKeegan says was "quite a wad
of bills," and counted $13,000 on the desktop.
"I thought that was an odd
thing," she says.
The IRS man saw a pattern.
Noting the Sept. 16 purchase date in his affidavit, Martin wrote
that "an analysis of the bank account and credit card withdrawals"
by Jon Murray on the 14th and 15th "reveals the accumulation of
$13,000 in cash."
Meanwhile, throughout the month,
Jon and Robin occasionally checked in by phone with American
Atheists colleagues, assuring them that all was well. They said
they had been called out of town on emergency business and would
be home eventually.
So went the first half of
September 1995 – a mere prelude, it turned out, to the events of
the rest of the month, when the stakes got considerably higher.
In a strip mall four blocks from
the Warren Inn, Cory Ticknor, 42, does business as Cory's Fine
Jewelry and Rare Coins. He says Jon Murray called him in
mid-September and asked to buy $600,000 in gold. After they talked
it over, Murray decided on South African Krugerrands, American
Gold Eagles and Canadian Maple Leafs – 1,506 coins in all. Ticknor
told him he wanted the $600,000 wired into his San Antonio bank
account, and that he'd order the gold from his supplier as soon as
the money showed up.
On Sept. 15, according to
Martin's affidavit, after a flurry of long-distance calls were
made on Murray's cell phone, New Zealand Guardian Trust wired
$620,594 to atheists organization accounts at a New Jersey bank.
On Sept. 21, Murray and a man who called himself Conrad Johnson
("a fictitious name," the affidavit says) flew to New Jersey from
San Antonio. They asked for a single room with twin beds at a
Sheraton. The next day, before they flew back to Texas, Murray
visited the New Jersey bank and ordered a $600,000 wire transfer
The gold dealer and the atheist
met on Friday, Sept. 29, in a secure room at a San Antonio bank.
Ticknor, accompanied by an off-duty cop moonlighting as a security
guard, had $500,000 worth of coins with him – about 100 pounds of
gold packed in boxes. The rest of Murray's purchase had yet to
arrive from the supplier.
Murray came alone. "He kind of
didn't smell very good, like he'd been out in the heat for a while
and hadn't showered," Ticknor recalls. Murray chatted calmly with
Ticknor but said nothing to the police officer. He showed Ticknor
his driver's license and signed the dealer's paperwork. Then he
stacked the boxes of coins on a dolly, wheeled them out of the
bank and loaded them in the trunk of a big car.
For Ticknor, who does a fair
amount of business with militia types and Y2K doomsayers, there
was nothing strange about the transaction. He watched Murray drive
away, expecting to see him again after the weekend, when the rest
of the gold was due to arrive. He still owed Murray $100,000 worth
of Maple Leafs.
The coins came in the following
Monday, Oct. 2, and Ticknor tried to reach Murray on his cell
phone. He says he tried every day for two weeks. But he got no
Cellular records show the phone
was last used on Friday, Sept. 29, the day Murray picked up the
$500,000 in gold. "From that point forward," Martin wrote, "no
calls were made on the cellular phone, and the O'Hairs were not
heard from thereafter."
On Saturday, Sept. 30, Waters,
Karr and Fry were back in Waters's Austin apartment. "Waters had
thousands of dollars ... as well as a lot of new clothes" from
Saks Fifth Avenue, wrote Martin, who interviewed Waters's
The woman told the IRS man that
Waters also had a shopping bag with three pairs of bloody sneakers
in it. "Fry looked sick," the affidavit says. "It was obvious that
Waters and Karr were getting along, but Fry was not part of the
Unlike Karr and Waters, each of
whom had a long record of criminal mayhem, Fry, who had just
turned 42, was a low-rent "con man" with no documented history of
violence, according to Martin. That weekend, Fry packed his
belongings for the trip home to Florida. At some point all three
men left the apartment, the affidavit says, and when Waters and
Karr returned a day or two later, Fry was no longer with them.
Then Karr said goodbye, driving
home to Florida on Tuesday, Oct. 3, after he and Waters spent a
celebratory night with their girlfriends in a lakefront Four
Seasons hotel outside Austin. The convicted stickup man, free for
just seven months at that point after two decades behind bars, had
upgraded his wardrobe, like Waters.
"Karr bought a leather jacket,
three tailored Armani suits, $300 pairs of Johnson and Murphy
shoes, $200 ties and $90 socks," Martin wrote.
It was a nude corpse that gave
away the plot, authorities now say.
An old man scavenging for
aluminum cans along the Trinity River near Dallas discovered the
remains on Monday, Oct. 2, 1995.
The victim was male.
"The body was decapitated and
the hands were severed," wrote Detective Robert Bjorklund of the
Dallas County Sheriff's Department. To Bjorklund – who knew almost
nothing about the missing atheists from Austin, 175 miles to the
south – the killing had the look of a drug hit. "The head and
hands were never recovered," he wrote. "Because of the lack of
blood found at the scene, it is speculated the homicide and
decapitation occurred somewhere else."
No face, no fingerprints, no
clothing, no ID. The case was ready-made cold and stayed cold for
Meanwhile, 250 miles to the
south, reporter John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express-News
became intrigued by another mystery gone cold – that of the
missing atheists. He turned his attention to the case in the
summer of '96 for a year-after update story. Like many people,
MacCormack figured that the atheists, burdened by money and legal
problems, had skipped out for parts unknown after their
unexplained month-long stay in San Antonio. But the more he looked
into Jon Murray's odd financial dealings in the city that
September, the more skeptical he became.
He wound up gumshoeing the case
for nearly two years, chasing leads with the help of a private
detective. He learned that David Waters also had been in San
Antonio in September '95, and that Waters and O'Hair detested each
other. He found out about the gold and about the sale of the
Mercedes by a mystery man posing as Jon Murray.
Then last June he got a phone
tip. A caller said he had watched a TV report about the three
atheists and had been struck by the timing of their disappearance.
He said an acquaintance of his, Danny Fry, had been in San Antonio
that same month – and also had vanished. Fry hadn't been seen or
heard from since the last weekend of September 1995.
The name Fry meant nothing to
MacCormack. He kept listening, politely uninterested until the
caller mentioned another name, a familiar one.
The caller said Fry had traveled
to Texas to visit a friend, David Waters. That made MacCormack sit
up straight. Here suddenly was another missing person with a
connection to Waters. MacCormack suspected it wasn't a
Four months later, October 1998:
Scanning the Associated Press wire on his newsroom computer one
day, MacCormack noticed an article out of Dallas, a
third-anniversary story about a local unsolved homicide. The
victim, a John Doe, had been decapitated and left by the Trinity
River. "A dead white guy found on the same weekend Fry
disappeared," MacCormack, 49, says now. "It was a long shot, but
the physical description was Fry's. The age was Fry's. He had the
right size feet. No scars or tattoos."
MacCormack got in touch with
detectives in Dallas County, gave them a short course on the
O'Hair mystery and tipped them to a possible name for the corpse.
In January, DNA confirmed it was
Which made a lot of cops and
federal agents sit up straight.
"Once you have Danny Fry as the
dead guy with no head, you no longer have three people sitting on
a beach with tropical drinks," MacCormack says, referring to the
missing atheists. "You have a dead guy, and probably you have
three more dead people somewhere, and it all points to Waters."
Which put Waters, and soon Karr,
at the eye of a belatedly urgent homicide probe, and led to
Martin's conclusions about what had become of the atheists.
Dust to dust.
"Your affiant also has reason to
believe that after the fraudulent activities, laundering of money,
theft of $500,000 of gold, and murder of the O'HAIRs, that WATERS
and KARR turned on FRY and killed him," Martin wrote.
Which resulted in search
warrants being issued on March 24 this year for Waters's Austin
apartment and Karr's residence in a Detroit suburb. Based on what
investigators found, both men were jailed on weapons charges.
It's illegal for a convicted
felon to possess a gun or bullets. Among the scores of items
seized from Waters's place were 119 rounds of pistol ammunition
and evidence that he had recently transported firearms. He pleaded
guilty and could get 20 years when he is sentenced later this
week. Karr was arrested after federal agents allegedly found two
loaded handguns in his apartment. He is awaiting a trial.
In the meantime, the
investigation grinds on, including the search for more evidence in
the Fry homicide. No charges have been filed in that case, either.
As for the gold – well, here's
what can happen to the best-laid plans:
After the elaborate, month-long
San Antonio caper, authorities allege, the suspects held on to
about $80,000 worth of the coins, put the rest in a suitcase and
stashed the bag in a rented walk-in storage locker. A few nights
later, along came a trio of burglars, just three knuckleheads
hoping for maybe a stereo. They happened to hit a locker with only
a suitcase in it. "I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when
they opened it," says Rene Solinas, an FBI agent in San Antonio.
"The pot at the end of the rainbow!"
To a thief, the beauty of gold
coins is that in some ways they're better than cash. Almost any
pawnbroker or dealer will buy them. And because they have no
serial numbers, they're untraceable, like nickels and dimes. The
FBI caught up with the burglars recently, but the coins are long
gone – an estimated $420,000 worth, sold, traded, spent. "They
blew right through them," Solinas says. "No 401(k)s for these
The storage unit was rented for
Waters in 1995 by his then-girlfriend, who never saw what was in
it, according to Martin. But the burglars can testify about what
they found in the locker. Because the three have agreed to
cooperate with investigators, Solinas says, no charges have been
filed against them.
To date, of all the coins Jon
Murray wheeled out of the bank four years ago, only one has been
recovered: a gold piece that a friend of the burglars fashioned
into a brooch.
Waters's attorney, Ganne, says
his client is innocent in the O'Hair and Fry matters. "He can't
tell you anything," the lawyer says. "He doesn't know a thing."
Which puts him at odds with
Karr. At a March 26 court hearing in Detroit, an FBI agent
testified that Karr admitted being involved in "four unsolved
homicides in Texas," although he has yet to be charged in any
killings. The agent said Karr acknowledged that he "flew from
Texas to, I believe it was Newark, with one of the victims, and a
bank transaction happened, and money was wired from the bank in
Newark to Texas."
Karr's lawyer, Tom Mills, says
the agent was "taking liberties with what [Karr] told them. From
what I understand, he never admitted that he was actually involved
in those crimes, but that he did have knowledge of them from the
other guy, Waters."
As for when authorities might
file charges in the atheists' disappearance, Ganne says, "I think
they're holding out for the bodies." Absent such hard proof of
murder, says Mills, "I don't see how they're going to make a
case," given the evidence for a defense argument that the three
planned to disappear on their own.
"I'd pursue a defense that God
has zapped them," says Mills, deadpan.
Meaning long after America lost
interest in its most hated woman, the Almighty decided He'd also
had enough, and just up and smote her.
"You shoot the finger at God,"
Mills says, "and all kinds of weird things can happen. Especially
with a Texas jury."