THE NEW SCHOOL PRAYER
Now I sit me down in school
Where praying is against the rule
For this great nation under God
Finds mention of Him very odd.
If Scripture now the class recites,
It violates the Bill of Rights.
And anytime my head I bow
Becomes a Federal matter now.
Our hair can be purple, orange or green,
That's no offense; it's a freedom scene.
The law is specific, the law is precise.
Prayers spoken aloud are a serious vice.
For praying in a public hall
Might offend someone with no faith at all.
In silence alone we must meditate,
God's name is prohibited by the state.
We're allowed to cuss and dress like freaks,
And pierce our noses, tongues and cheeks.
They've outlawed guns, but FIRST the Bible.
To quote the Good Book makes me liable.
We can elect a pregnant Senior Queen,
And the 'unwed daddy,' our Senior King.
It's "inappropriate" to teach right from wrong,
We're taught that such "judgments" do not belong.
We can get our condoms and birth controls,
Study witchcraft, vampires and totem poles.
But the Ten Commandments are not allowed,
No word of God must reach this crowd.
It's scary here I must confess,
When chaos reigns the school's a mess.
So, Lord, this silent plea I make:
Should I be shot; My soul please take!
This was written by a
teen in Bagdad, Arizona
|Photo: Madalyn Murray O'Hair, center, the atheist leader, with her son Jon Garth Murray and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, in 1988. They disappeared in 1995, Their bodies were identified yesterday in Texas. (Associated Press)|
Bodies Identified as Those of Missing Atheist and Kin
By ROSS E. MILLOY - NYTimes
Published: March 16, 2001
AUSTIN, Tex., March 15—
The five-year hunt for the atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair is over, a forensics expert hired by the government said today, confirming that bones dug up at a remote ranch were those of Ms. O'Hair and two of her family members.
Ms. O'Hair, 76, who played an important role in one of two 1960's United States Supreme Court decisions banning mandatory prayer in public schools, disappeared in 1995 with her son Jon Garth Murray, 40, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, 30.
Officials said they believed the three were killed and dismembered in an Austin storage locker and their bodies dumped at a remote ranch in Real County, 90 miles west of San Antonio. One of the men suspected of involvement in the case, David R. Waters, 53, accompanied the authorities to the grave site in January as part of a plea bargain.
At a news conference today at the United States attorney's office here, David M. Glassman, chairman of the anthropology department at Southwest Texas State University, described a grisly scene at the ranch, with bodies burned and stacked haphazardly across each other after the legs had been removed. Based on anthropological, medical and dental studies of those remains, he said, Ms. O'Hair and her family members had been identified.
''Three of the skeletons have been analyzed and a recommendation has been made to the judge of Real County that death certificates be issued for these three individuals,'' Dr. Glassman said.
A severed head and hands from a fourth body found at the ranch have not been identified, he said.
How Ms. O'Hair and her granddaughter died could not be determined, Dr. Glassman said, but Mr. Murray, who was found with his arms tied and a plastic bag around his head, showed signs of blunt force trauma to the skull that might have led to his death.
No one has yet been charged directly in the killings, but in June, Gary Paul Karr, 52, a handyman from Novi, Mich., was found guilty of extortion and other charges related to the case. He was found not guilty of kidnapping charges.
Evidence presented at his trial indicated that the authorities believed Mr. Karr, Mr. Waters and a third man, Danny Fry, kidnapped Ms. O'Hair and her family in September 1995 and extorted $610,000 from them over a month before they were killed.
Officials said they believed that Mr. Fry was later killed by Mr. Karr and Mr. Waters, his head and hands severed to prevent identification, and his body left beside the Trinity River near Dallas in October 1995.
Mr. Waters, who has a long criminal record including murder, was an office manager for Ms. O'Hair's American Atheists organization in 1993 and was fired for stealing $54,000 from the group.
He pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy charges and agreed to lead investigators to the bodies, officials said. As part of his plea bargain, Mr. Waters will reportedly get immunity for his role in the killings but receive a 20-year sentence for the conspiracy charges.
He is already serving a 60-year state sentence for probation violations and an eight-year federal sentence for weapons violations.
''This certainly brings some closure,'' Roderick L. Beverly, an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said today.
|His mother took prayer out of the American school system because of him in 1963. Now her Son, William Murray O'Hair, is now a born-again Christian. He accepted Christ as his saviour on Mother's Day in 1980. William, is now a Christian Evangelist speaking through out the United States. (Associated Press)|
After Ms. O'Hair's disappearance in 1995, some wondered whether she had fled with money from her group or whether the woman whom Life magazine had called the most hated woman in America had drifted away to die where Christians would not pray over her.
Born in Pittsburgh on April 13, 1919, to a contractor, John I. Mays, and his wife, Lena, Ms. O'Hair was baptized a Presbyterian, but, she said, came to atheism early. In World War II, she served in the Women's Army Corps and later earned a law degree, but it was her involvement in the legal fight that led to the Supreme Court ruling on school prayer that made her a national figure.
In Italy, during World War II, Ms. O'Hair, married to a steelworker at the time, met William Murray Jr., an officer who was also married. She had a son by him, William Murray III, who said he was named after his father. She divorced her husband, and took Murray's name but never married him.
After she had enrolled her son William in a Baltimore public school in 1959, she sued to end the mandatory classroom prayer and Bible reading held there. The case reached the Supreme Court, where the justices joined it to a similar one, rendering their landmark decision under the name of the other case, Abington v. Schempp, in 1963.
Still, Ms. O'Hair, an outspoken and provocative proponent of atheism, achieved a lightning rod status in the church-state debates of that era.
Being a focus of controversy suited her temperament. ''I love a good fight,'' she said. ''I guess fighting God and God's spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn't it?'' Still, she also said that she became a target of harassment and death threats.
After the decision, Ms. O'Hair moved to Austin, where she founded American Atheists, wrote books with her son Jon and granddaughter, Robin, and continued to fight against school prayer and for legalized abortion, among other issues. She also married Richard O'Hair.
Her combative style alienated even many who agreed with her, while giving critics a foil against which to express their outrage. She was past the peak of her influence by the time she disappeared.
William, her surviving child, became a Christian evangelist.
Body parts believed to be atheist O'Hair, family
January 29, 2001
By Jim Vertuno
CAMP WOOD, Texas -- Investigators unearthed a metal artificial hip and three skulls at a ranch Sunday, and strongly believe they have solved the disappearance of atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her family.
Roderick Beverly, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Antonio office, stopped short of confirming the identity of the bodies, but he said officials believe the search is over.
Investigators believe O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray and the granddaughter she had adopted, Robin Murray O'Hair, were killed, dismembered and dumped on the private, 5,000 acre ranch in 1995.
O'Hair had a hip replacement operation several years before her disappearance. "The bones indicate three sets of human remains," Beverly said. "All appeared to have their legs cut off. The remains and the ground around the bones were charred, indicating a fire at the scene.
"The likelihood of three individuals walking around here, one of which has a hip replacement, and the trauma and marks we see on the bones, it's a better than even chance" that the remains belong to the O'Hair family, he said.
Beverly said investigators also expect to find partial remains of Danny Fry, who was a suspect in the family's disappearance. His body was found in the Dallas area, but the head and hands had been severed. Beverly said they expected to finish digging by dark Sunday.
Beverly said investigators would try to match the serial number on the metal hip to O'Hair's medical records. DNA tests and dental records also will be used to confirm the identities of the victims. David Glassman, a forensic anthropologist at Southwest Texas State University, will take the remains to the university for analysis. Autopsies could take a week to 10 days.
As law enforcement officers came and went through the ranch gate Sunday, a man walked down the road pulling an 8-foot wooden cross. "I'm not doing it for her, I'm doing it for her family," said Bob Hanus, 35, a self-described Christian missionary. "I said, 'What better place to go and pray.' "
The Atheists' Cold Case Gets Warmer
First of two parts
David Roland Waters, center, was sentenced to 60 years in prison this month for skimming more than $50,000 from American Atheists Inc. (AP)
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 1999; Page C1
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 the river.
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 girl, Robin.
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 to disappear."
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 forever.
"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 worked for.
"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 Murray's behest.
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 unholy trinity.
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 drunk-driving arrests.
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 happened next:
"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 her."
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 Badly Broken
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 1999; Page C1
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 means."
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 wrote.
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 Room 11.
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. 29.
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 to Ticknor.
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 answer.
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 then-girlfriend.
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 group."
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 three years.
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 coincidence.
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 Danny Fry.
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 folks."
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."