Photo of the Day

WASHINGTON DC–Feb 27, 1963–Mrs. Madalyn E. Murray, and her sons, William J. Murray III, 16 (center), and Garth Murray, 8, are shown as they left the Supreme Court. The High Court began hearing arguments today on Mrs. Murray’s attempt to get a court order discontinuing the use of the Lord’s Prayer and the reading of the Bible in Baltimore schools. William, who is being raised as an atheist, attends one the of the schools. MANDATORY CREDIT: UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN

“The Most Hated Woman in America”

Madalyn Murray O?Hair took on the Supreme Court to get prayer out of schools, started a culture war, and was murdered for it

“There is no God. There’s no heaven. There’s no hell. There are no angels. When you die, you go in the ground, the worms eat you.”

— Madalyn Murray O’Hair

When atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son, and granddaughter mysteriously disappeared from their Austin, Tex., home the police didn’t lift a finger to find the family that had taken God out of America. Five years went by before a determined reporter would unravel the mystery of her disappearance.?From 1995 to 2003, this incredible tale of kidnapping, extortion, murder, double-crossing and dismemberment played out in Central and South Texas.

In 1995, O’Hair, her son Jon, and her granddaughter Robin disappeared from Austin, Texas; they had been kidnapped, murdered, and mutilated by David Roland Waters, a convicted felon out on parole, fellow career criminal Gary Karr and a third man, Danny Fry. Waters had been an employee of the American Atheists from February 1993 to April 1994, first as a typesetter and later as office manager.

Madalyn Murray O?Hair had not made history in a long time. In fact, the godless radical?who took great, tedious pleasure in calling herself ?the most hated woman in America??had fallen far off the cultural and political radar screen since her cantankerous heyday in the sixties, when she had picked noisy fights with the system: helping to push prayer out of the public schools, trying to get ?In God We Trust? taken off coins, suing the pope. It was a measure of the hollowness of her life that few people noticed when the 76-year-old disappeared in September 1995 along with son Jon, 40, and granddaughter Robin, 30; when the authorities were finally notified, people seemed glad to see her go.

When pleading her case in public forums, be it on Phil Donahue or Johnny Carson?s talk shows, or in a televised debate with Preacher Bob Harrington, she attacked the religious, ridiculed their beliefs, and provoked with a mischievous glee. At one point she claimed that the Bible was written by ?faggots,? saying that, ?Jesus was as queer as a $3 bill.?

If she had been terribly polite and quiet about it, Maybe she would?ve been heard. So then she?s abrasive, perhaps. Loud, perhaps. Foul-mouthed, for sure. Does that help her cause? Not really! But it gets her heard. Madalyn had a larger-than-life personality and way of speaking. And then, macabre as it is, the dramatic and violent way that she died?kidnapping, mystery, ransom, and grisly murder.

What?s that saying? Well-behaved women seldom make history?

A few, like Rodney Florence, missed the O?Hairs. He was one of the true believers who had followed Madalyn, worked for her, believed in her. For more than thirty years she had spoken and written to people, often elegantly: ?We have to live now. No one gets a second chance. There is no heaven and no hell.? They believed in her as other lost souls believe in prophets like Jesus or Muhammad. ?You either make the best or the worst of what you have now or there is nothing. Laugh at it. Hug it to you. Drain it. Build it. Have it.? Some believed in her because they had lost their faith in themselves. That was never her problem. Her problem was, she didn?t believe in them.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair (n?e Mays; April 13, 1919 ? September 29, 1995), also used multiple pseudonyms (her most preferred being M. Bible), was an American activist, founder of American Atheists, and the organization’s president from 1963 to 1986. She created the first issues of American Atheist Magazine. One of her sons, Jon Garth Murray, became the nominal president of the organization from 1986 to 1995, but she remained de facto president during these nine years.

O’Hair 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. The 1963 case came just one year after the Supreme Court prohibited officially sponsored prayer in schools in Engel v. Vitale.

After O’Hair had 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.?

Madalyn Murray’s lawsuit largely led to the removal of compulsory Bible reading from public schools in the United States, amongst other lasting and significant effects. Until the lawsuit, it was not uncommon for students to participate in a variety of religious activities while at school, such as Bible reading and prayer recitation, sometimes including religious instruction itself. Nonreligious students were expected to participate in such activities, and were not consistently given an opportunity to opt out, as state-level policies varied. While students may pray in public schools, even in organized groups, the lawsuit disallowed schools from including prayer as a compulsory activity.

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 minister.

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.

Years after the lawsuit, O’Hair moved from the Northeast to Austin, Texas, founding the American Atheist Center where she waged “often profane warfare” against religion.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She holds a copy of the Bible in her office in this Dec. 3, 1969.

When David Travis arrived for work on Aug. 28, 1995 at the headquarters of American Atheists in Austin, Tex., he knew something was wrong: The door was locked and a note was posted on it: “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.”?As Travis, a 50-ish former Army sergeant, stood there reading the note, he felt the anger welling up. He couldn’t say he was surprised that his employers were gone, and by the looks of things, so was his job as a proofreader. He’d been suspicious that the Murray-O’Hairs were up to something ever since he had opened a letter from New Zealand last spring and discovered a bank statement for an account he had never heard of, for almost a million dollars. And this was when Madalyn Murray O’Hair, his cantankerous boss, was always crying the blues about money and warning him that she might not be able to meet payroll.

In reality, O’Hair, her son, Jon Murray, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O’Hair, had been kidnapped by three men and taken to San Antonio. The disappearance, though sudden, was not initially viewed as strange by those close to the family.?The captors had taken the O’Hair family to the Warren Inn on the Northwest side of San Antonio, where the group lived for a month in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom rental. While in captivity, the O’Hairs played card games, Monopoly and had philosophical discussions. Murray and a captor would leave to pick up Mexican food at La Fonda, often staying for beers or margaritas.

In September 1995, Murray had $600,000 wired to the U.S. from New Zealand, which was then used to buy gold coins. On Sept. 29, Murray picked up $500,000 worth of coins from a small jeweler on Fredericksburg Road. He never returned to get the remaining $100,000.

That same day, the O’Hairs were moved to a La Quinta Inn on Culebra Road and Loop 410. In the hotel room, the captors strangled each family member.

After they were killed, the bodies were rolled up in a bedspread and the captors swept the hotel room, finding notes Madalyn had hidden for someone to find, and the bodies were stuffed into a van and taken to Austin.?In Austin, a captor later told the FBI, they chopped up the bodies and loaded the pieces into three 55-gallon metal drums, then drove the haul to Camp Wood in Real County, Northwest of San Antonio, where they were buried.

Before disposing of the bodies, two of the captors turned on the other. They shot him then dismembered him, cutting of his hands and head and burying the severed parts with the other victims.The headless, handless body was disposed of along the Trinity River in Dallas days later.

In the year following the disappearance and killings, authorities, and the public, did not suspect foul play in the O’Hair case. But that all began to change, albeit slowly.

As August turned into September, there was still no sign of the Murray O’Hairs: the grandmother and matriarch of the clan, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, 40, and her granddaughter Robin, 30. (Robin was the daughter of another son, Bill Murray, who hadn’t spoken with his mother, brother or his daughter in years.) The American Atheist organization was headed by a five-person board of directors, but the day-to-day operations had been entirely in the hands of the O’Hair trio of mother, son and granddaughter, who were lifetime members of the board and who alternated the roles of president, secretary and treasurer. When board members Spike Tyson, a Vietnam veteran, and Ellen Johnson, a Vermont housewife and O’Hair loyalist, visited the offices and the O’Hairs’ home, the mystery deepened.

At the house the Murray-O’Hairs all shared, there were no signs of violence, no burglary, no forced entry — yet it was clear that they had left abruptly. Breakfast dishes were sitting on the table. Madalyn O’Hair’s diabetes medication was on the kitchen counter. And most telling of all, their three little ankle-biting dogs, to which they were devoted, had been left behind with no one to care for them.

The Murray-O’Hairs’ lives revolved around the atheist movement and each other. They lived together, ate together, vacationed together, and worked together. Now they had disappeared together.

Of all the media descriptions of Madalyn O’Hair written when news of her disappearance came to light, she would have been most angered by the suggestion that she had slid into “obscurity” since her heyday in the early ’60s. The reports noted that O’Hair was brash, profane, and vulgar, that she had a reputation for being abrasive and turning friends and allies into enemies, that she was notoriously tight-fisted and always looking for ways to enrich her empire — all of those things she might have agreed with. But the idea that she had been passed over, forgotten, returned to anonymity after her brush with fame and destiny, that would have rankled. She was “America’s most hated woman,” as she liked to remind herself and others, and she preferred being hated to being a forgotten has-been.

She became America’s most hated woman in 1963, when her lawsuit protesting school prayer reached the U. S. Supreme Court. Photographs show Madalyn standing on the steps of the high court with her two sons, Jon Garth, then 9, and Bill, 16. She is smiling, hovering lovingly over her boys, and respectably attired with a demure hat and gloves. But the conventional-looking matron was — unthinkably for the early ’60s — a divorcee and an avowed Communist with two illegitimate sons, sired by two different fathers.

The Supreme Court decision banning prayer in school enabled Madalyn to throw off the bondage of poverty and anonymity and gave her life a direction and a purpose. First though, she had to settle that bit of legal trouble with the Baltimore police. She was accused of assaulting five officers when they came to her home to retrieve a runway teenager. (The teen was a girlfriend of Madalyn’s oldest son, Bill). Madalyn and her family escaped to Hawaii, then Mexico. After successfully resisting an extradition order to Maryland, she settled in Texas, where she preached the gospel of the separation of church and state.

Along the way, she created her own persona — the atheist crusader who suffered persecution at the hands of Christians and the government. She blamed her father’s fatal heart attack on the constant vandalism, the threatening phone calls, and the abusive mail the family received. But her fame brought her a platform and an unexpected source of income. Her admirers and supporters started sending her checks and she became a provocative talk-show guest, her radical utterances causing Johnny Carson’s jaw to drop.

Atheists, she explained, believed in the rational powers of mankind, not in some superstitious mumbo-jumbo that taught people to be content with the status quo. An atheist, O’Hair said, “accepts that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist accepts that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said.” She knew the Bible better than many Christians and enjoyed pointing out the cruelty and caprices of the Old Testament Jehovah, as well as the sideshow carnival nature of Jesus’ supposed miracles. Why did the Christian God, she asked, merit anyone’s respect or reverence?

But Madalyn, always combative, didn’t stop there. She delighted in insulting Christians and Christianity and preaching free love and open sexuality for all. She described nuns, for example, as “poor old dried-up women lying there on their solitary pallets yearning for Christ to come to them in a vision some night and take their maidenheads. By the time they realize he’s not coming, it’s no longer a maidenhead; it’s a poor, sorry tent that nobody would be able to pierce — even Jesus with his wooden staff. It’s such a waste.” Her unabashed vulgarity was too much for some of her fellow atheists, who preferred a more diplomatic approach. But not Madalyn. “I love a good fight,” she said. “I guess fighting God and God’s spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn’t it?”

There were pioneers in atheism, and they weren?t all burned at the stake. ?The most hated woman in America? was the sobriquet Life magazine bestowed on Madalyn Murray O?Hair, whose suit against the Baltimore Public School System went all the way to the Supreme Court and ended prayer in public schools in 1963. Her success there led to other challenges; she protested when American astronauts read scripture during space launches, and when a nativity scene was mounted on the rotunda of the Texas Capitol. She sued to have ?In God We Trust? taken off U.S. currency and to have ?under God? removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. In the relatively god-fearing America of the ?60s and ?70s, she was like a villain in big-time wrestling. Big, loud and often obscene, O?Hair was a natural on television, starting with the Phil Donahue show (where she debated evangelist Bob Harrington, ?The Chaplain of Bourbon Street?) before finding a seat on Johnny Carson?s Tonight?Show ?Couch.

But in 1980, on Mother’s Day, there came a horrible blow — her oldest boy Bill “came out” as a Christian. And not a nominal, go-to-church-at-Easter Christian, either, but a foursquare, evangelical, come-to-Jesus, pass-the-plate, full-gospel Baptist. As a child, he wanted what all children want, his mother’s love and approval. As an adult, battling an alcohol and drug problem, he realized that Madalyn was unfortunately one of those people who couldn’t even conceive of her children as separate human beings in their own right. Her children were merely extensions of her ego, and her regard for him, or for anyone, depended on how completely they obeyed her every command.

For years, Madalyn had referred to Bill as the reason she picked up the cudgels to banish prayer from the schoolroom. She wrote heart-rending articles about how the other kids beat Bill up at school and ostracized him because of his beliefs. But looking back, Bill Murray felt that when he stood there on the Supreme Court steps, he was just being used as a prop in his mother’s battles against everything she hated in bourgeois America. It took all of his pent-up anger to wrench himself free of her orbit and having done so, all communication between them ceased. His prediction that his mother would sever all ties with him was abundantly fulfilled — O’Hair cast him into the void with this cutting remark: “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 human forgiveness.” This denouncement demonstrated how she almost viewed herself as the god of her own universe; it was her prerogative to grant her children absolution, or even life itself.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair (center) is seen with her son Jon Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray O’Hair in this undated photo.

In an atheist universe, there are no gods to roll around on the floor of Olympus or Valhalla, laughing at irony. Madalyn Murray O’Hair carried on without her son Bill and relied on her younger son Jon Garth Murray and her granddaughter Robin to carry the atheist torch. Unfortunately, Jon Garth Murray was not well liked by the American Atheist headquarters staff or others he came into contact with. Some diplomatically recalled that he lacked social skills. The undiplomatic said he was a neurotic, immature, mama’s boy with a penchant for screaming abuse at people, and that he was generally despised.

“I almost quit my first week there when I heard Jon screaming at his mother with a bunch of profanity,” employee Travis recalled. “I just wasn’t brought up to talk to my mother that way, but I later came to realize he talked that way because that’s the way she taught him to talk.”

Robin, too, lived in her powerful grandmother’s shadow. She had been given up by Bill Murray (her mother was never mentioned) when he was a drug addict, and O’Hair had legally adopted her. Observers say that although Robin was more pleasant in general than her Uncle Jon, she was seldom happy and that she, too, tended to belittle the staff, just like O’Hair. This is one reason, her estranged son Bill Murray suggested, that Madalyn O’Hair sometimes hired ex-cons to do the office work; they were anxious to find work anywhere and therefore were more liable to put up with the sarcasm, the verbal abuse, and the low pay.

Or maybe O’Hair, a rebel herself, was drawn to those who lived outside the law. Whatever the reason, she hired ex-con David Waters in 1993, and at first it looked like a good choice for both of them.

Waters, in his 40s, was a slick-looking man with the piercing eyes of a fox. O’Hair knew he had a criminal record but she later claimed she didn’t know just how bad it was. At first the O’Hairs only knew that their new office manager was obviously intelligent and well spoken and capable of more than working as a $7 dollar-an-hour typesetter. By the spring of 1995 he served as their office manager. During his tenure, an expensive computer went missing. Later, some valuable bonds were stolen from the office safe. The O’Hairs suspected that the thefts were an inside job, but still, they entrusted Waters with the bank accounts and the keys while they went to California for a long-running legal dispute with another atheist organization.

When they returned, they discovered their office manager had laid off all the staff, closed the office, and emptied their bank accounts — over $50,000 dollars. Furious, the O’Hairs pressed charges, and waited impatiently for the case to come to trial.

Unhappy with the lenient sentence Waters ultimately received — probation and an order to pay back the money — Madalyn O’Hair decided to expose him by writing a lengthy article in her atheist newsletter (quoted in part above). She indulged her anger with a lengthy diatribe, laying out Waters’s criminal record and revealing him to be a cold-blooded animal. She reported that while he was still a teenager that he had killed another boy by beating him with a post and leaving him in a ditch. Once out of jail, he turned on his own mother, beating her, screaming abuse at her, and finally urinating in her face. More convictions for theft, assault, and fraud followed. O’Hair concluded that Waters was a dangerous person and that the courts were indifferent to prosecuting him, as he deserved to be — because he had stolen from atheists.

When American Atheists board members Spike Tyson and Ellen Johnson finally made contact with Jon Garth Murray in San Antonio via his cell phone in early September a few days after their disappearance, he repeated that the family had been called away on urgent business, but refused to provide details. Robin then got on the phone; she was worried about the family dogs but reassured Johnson that all was well. Johnson could tell that on the contrary, something was horribly wrong. During the next few weeks, more phone calls passed between the O’Hairs and various members of the organization. Finally, during her last phone call, Robin was so distraught she could barely speak to Johnson. Her last words were, “I know you will do the right thing.”

Then, on Sept. 28, they stopped answering the phone.

No one phoned the police and in fact, the American Atheists sought to dispel the rumours, already in circulation, that O’Hair was dead.

“I can tell you categorically that Madalyn is alive,” an American Atheist spokesman was quoted as saying the same day the cell phone went unanswered. I can’t tell you exactly what is happening. She’s safe, and that’s all I can tell you.”

Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her granddaughter Robin relaxing in Virginia in August 1995, shortly before they disappeared. Photo: Arnold Via /Special To The Express-News

The months went by. Ellen Johnson and the remaining American Atheists picked up the pieces of the organization. They started to fill the backlogged book orders, revive the members’ newsletter, expand the cable-access television show, plan for a national convention, and continued to deny that anything was wrong. Johnson, who had assumed the president’s position at AA, told reporters that no organization funds were missing. “We just don’t suspect foul play,” she added. “And I cannot tell you all the reasons why. We just — we just don’t.”

Several theories were in circulation. One was that the Murray-O’Hairs had taken the money and run. This was what David Travis, the disgruntled former employee, believed. He knew about the New Zealand money and suspected there might be other offshore accounts. But there was more. He and another employee had seen letters and notes from Jon, going back several years, in which Jon wrote about immigrating to New Zealand. The main reason the Murray-O’Hairs wanted to get away is because of a lawsuit that had gone sour and eaten up a lot of money and what remained of their reputations, as well. Madalyn had attempted a strong-arm takeover of another atheist organization called The Truthseekers. (Her son Bill Murray accused her of printing up phony stock certificates as part of the takeover ploy.) Truthseekers fought back vigorously, and the Murray-O’Hairs feared that they could lose their entire organization in court. (Eventually, after a costly legal struggle, Truthseekers maintained its autonomy).

Another possibility that was seriously discussed was that Madalyn had disappeared to die in peace. She had frequently expressed the fear that when she died, Christians, or “Christers,” as she called them, would try to pray over her and she wanted no part of a deathbed repentance scene.

As for Jon Garth and Robin, they might have grown tired of their utter dependence on the imperious?grande dame?of the family and the suffocating lives they led together. Jon had complained that he was sick of the “family business” and wanted to chuck it all and start over somewhere else. Robin, sensitive, shy and single, doubtless wanted a lot of things that she would never achieve as long as she lived in the shadow of her formidable grandmother. (When Gannon and Shannon, the cocker spaniels belonging to Jon Garth and Robin, disappeared in December 1995 from the fenced compound behind the Atheist building, it added fuel to the speculation that Jon and Robin were alive and well and in hiding — with or without their mother.)

Another theory was that they had met with foul play. It had to be admitted that O’Hair had made a lot of enemies in her career. Reporters covering the case found many ex-supporters, ex-allies, and ex-employees. “She went through people like popcorn,” said one. Her son Bill accused her of preying on the lonely, the confused, and the misfits — as long as they had money — with the same kind of remorseless hypocrisy that some evangelical Christians are accused of. She was the atheist flip side of the religious con artist: “She was just evil. She stole huge amounts of money. She misused the trust of people. She cheated children out of their parents’ inheritance. She cheated on her taxes and even stole from her own organizations.” But what to make of the month of September, during which the Murray-O’Hairs made and received numerous phone calls? If they were kidnapped, why wasn’t there a ransom demand or something?

Finally, there were whispers that perhaps the Christian and government persecutions that O’Hair had complained of for years had turned out to be more sinister than anyone imagined. “If you think we are being paranoid,” opined a Canadian atheist newsletter, “the religious and government harassment suffered personally by this founding family of American atheism is well recorded, along with FBI and CIA infiltration of their organizations.” “Off the wall, I think the Vatican did it,” said a supporter. “The Vatican or the CIA. Someone with enough clout to cover it up.”

American Atheist’ founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair during an interview with host Johnny Carson on October 12, 1972 — Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

O’Hair herself told?Life?magazine back in 1963 that it would only take one crazy person to end her life: “These death threats are no picnic…I think sooner or later one night some nut is going to get a message from Jesus Christ and I’m going to have had it. But as long as I’m still round I’m going to keep on being a squeaking wheel.”

In life, Murray O?Hair was funny, foul-mouthed and abrasive; she once said her favourite pastime was ?thinking and beer drinking?. She described herself as a ?militant feminist? (in, ironically, an interview with Playboy; she also wrote articles for pornographer Larry Flynt?s Hustler magazine, and wrote speeches for his presidential bid). She went on to call herself ?an anarchist ? and an integrationist and an internationalist ? and all the other ?ists? that people seem to find so horrible these days. I embrace all of them.? She wasn?t a communist, although she was regularly accused of being one. Her response? She named her dogs Marx and Engels.

When the Murray-O’Hairs disappeared, they left several projects hanging. They had planned to picket the Pope when he visited New York City. They had just ordered a new printing press. Was this proof that they had been abducted, or was it all part of an elaborate scheme to distract their board and employees while they disappeared? Were they just pretending to carry on with business as usual while spiriting money out of the country and quietly packing away their chief asset, a large library of atheist literature? As a bewildered Ellen Johnson put it: “the Murray-O’Hairs left behind the entire contents of the office building, one car, all their personal belongings, their pets, their own bank accounts (which they had not touched) and the remainder of the office bank accounts and trust fund moneys. This is hard to reconcile with the idea that they were robbing the till so they could escape to Shangri-La.”

In addition to the rumors, there were also sightings: O’Hair or her children were said to have been seen in Texas, in Mexico, in New Zealand, and elsewhere. Their presence could be felt haunting the empty halls of American Atheists headquarters, and in cyberspace as well.

Not every atheist was horror-stricken at the O’Hairs’ disappearance. Frankly, some — those who disapproved of Madalyn O’Hair’s combative and vulgar style — were relieved that she was no longer atheism’s most visible and vocal spokesperson.

By the time Bill Murray learned that his mother, estranged daughter and half-brother had vanished, board member Tyson was living in the O’Hairs’ home. Instead of sharing their concerns and assisting each other in the search, Madalyn’s son and the American Atheists traded insults in the media. Each accused the other of caring nothing for the O’Hairs, and seeking only to make hay out of the disappearance for the publicity it would bring. “One of my mother’s employees moved into her house?and began to sleep in her bed. Her close “confidant,” Ellen Johnson, immediately flew to Texas from New Jersey and set up a new board of directors to take over the property and bank accounts of the family’s atheist organizations. Not a single “friend” reported any of the three missing to the police,” said Murray.

Bill Murray predicted, correctly, that when he filed a missing-persons report on his own family, that he would be accused of “fortune-hunting or ghoulish opportunism.” That’s just what happened when, a full year after the disappearance and because of the mounting public clamor, Murray filed a report with the Austin police. “He has said over and over and over again that he wants nothing to do with them. Why is he doing it now? Publicity. He needs money for his organization,” Tyson said of Murray. “He hated his mother with a passion.” And the filing accomplished little, anyway. The Austin police said there was no evidence of foul play, and “it is not against the law in Texas to be missing.”

As the Atheists delved into the secrets of Madalyn’s empire, it was not to their advantage to publicize what they learned. O’Hair had always claimed that her American Atheists organization had over 50,000 members or more. There were in fact fewer than 2,400 addresses on the mailing list. The Murray-O’Hairs were in trouble with the IRS for non-payment of income taxes, and there were also questions about whether the Murray-O’Hairs had treated the organization’s money as their own. Questions about financial credibility were bad news for the organization, and the remaining directors tried to put the best face on things. Johnson, an attractive blonde, was a considerable contrast to the lumpen-looking Murray-O’Hairs. Spike Tyson continued to deny that anything was wrong: It was “absurd,” he said, to suppose that the Murray-O’Hairs had stolen money. “We know where every bank account is. Every penny is accounted for.”

David Waters pleaded guilty on May 27, 1999, to two federal weapons charges unrelated to the atheist leader’s disappearance. Photo: Express-News File Photo

In the summer of 1996, a San Antonio reporter by the name of John MacCormack was assigned the Murray-O’Hair story for the one-year anniversary of the disappearance. MacCormack had more than 20 years of journalism experience and the face of a friendly bulldog. If a story interested him, he would lock on to it and not let go. He interviewed the American Atheist board members but found them to be tight-lipped, even denying that anything was amiss.

A few months later, a tip led McCormack to one of the few indisputable facts he could work with: The American Atheists finally admitted, in its 1995 tax returns, that a large sum of money was missing, and all the evidence pointed to Jon Garth Murray as the thief. He had arranged for the transfer and withdrawal of a large amount of money — over $600,000, last September, shortly before his disappearance. In addition, he had sold his Mercedes through a classified ad.

This is the kind of information that captures the interest of the IRS, who revoked the American Atheists’ tax exempt status pending an investigation, and finally the wheels started to turn on the O’Hair case. But it was not death that interested the federal agency; it was that other inevitability, taxes. The Murray-O’Hairs owed a considerable tax bill. In February 1997, the IRS seized the Murray-O’Hairs’ house and property, evicting Spike Tyson. The American Atheists had a vested interest in whatever the Murray-O’Hairs had left behind, as President Ellen Johnson told the members, so the organization also was “active…in legal proceedings to recover missing funds taken by Jon Murray.”

Significantly, when the revelations about the missing money came to light, no one who knew the O’Hairs came forward to say, “They couldn’t possibly have done this. I know them. They couldn’t have stolen this money.” Instead, Arnold Via, who described himself as a friend of the O’Hairs said, “If they misled us, abandoned us and stole money, they are crooks.”

Reporter MacCormack hitched up with a private investigator named Tim Young, who had decided that the search for one of America’s most famous women and her family looked intriguing. Young obtained Jon Garth’s cell phone records for that last, mysterious month in San Antonio. Together, MacCormack and Young started checking every phone number on the phone logs. Before September 1995, Jon Garth didn’t use his cell phone much, but during that last month, over 200 phone calls were made to financial institutions, jewelers, overseas long-distance services, travel agencies — all tending to confirm the idea that the O’Hairs had been planning to flee the country.

McCormack explained, “We went door-to-door to all the places that (Jon Garth) called. We knocked on one door, and found where the $600,000 went.”

During that mysterious month of September 1995, Jon Garth had contacted a jewelry store in San Antonio and asked to purchase $600,000 worth of gold coins. The jeweller instructed him to wire money to the jeweler’s account and the order was placed on his behalf. The only time the jeweller met his customer was when Jon Garth came in on Friday, September 29, to pick up his 1,500 coins. The jeweller, Cory Ticknor, remembered that Jon Garth was inexperienced at handling gold coins and seemed like he badly needed a shower, but did not appear nervous or distraught. He was escorted to his car by a police officer moonlighting as a security guard. Then he was gone. Ticknor was the last person known to have seen Jon Garth Murray alive.

MacCormack’s discovery only deepened the mystery and the speculation, but the evidence continued to point to some dishonesty on the part of Jon Garth, if not all of the Murray-O’Hairs.

Ex-con David Waters, the former office manager, was as willing as anyone to speculate on their disappearance. In fact, he had been a principal source for an investigative article in?Vanity?Fair?magazine, published in the spring of 1997, in which reporter Mimi Swartz concluded that the Murray-O’Hairs had absconded to New Zealand.

Although more than one reporter was tantalized by Waters’s documents and his theory — he enjoyed talking to reporters — Bill Murray grew increasingly skeptical as the months turned to years, that his mother, half-brother and daughter were still alive. For one thing, his mother would be unable to resist the publicity her disappearance had generated. The most dangerous place to be was in between Madalyn O’Hair and a camera, he pointed out.

Murray also stated flatly that the world, big as it was, was not big enough to hide the O’Hairs. “You have these three obese people. Robin requires two airline seats wherever she goes. My mother uses the f-word in virtually every sentence that comes out of her mouth. Just singularly, they would be remembered. Together, it’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” By the second anniversary of their disappearance, Bill Murray was convinced that his family had been murdered, and murdered for money. While he did not pretend to be grief-stricken at his loss, Murray did conscientiously attempt to interest various law enforcement agencies in investigating the disappearance, to little avail, and always against the unvarying hostility of the American Atheists.

In 2001, their bodies were found, dismembered and hidden on a ranch in Texas, not murdered by one of the many enemies Murray O?Hair had made (death threats were common and she had been physically attacked), but by a former employee at American Atheists and two accomplices. It was a horrific end for one of the most interesting women of the second half of the 20th?century.

Ultimately, the investigation focused on David Roland Waters, who had worked as a typesetter and later office manager for American Atheists. Not only did Waters have previous convictions for violent crimes, there were also several suspicious burglaries at the organization during his tenure, and he had pled guilty earlier that year 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. O’Hair also reported on his murder of another teenager at the age of 17, meaning that Waters was already a convicted felon. This, in conjunction with his public use of firearms, was enough to sentence Waters to prison for eight years before he could kill again.

Waters’ girlfriend later testified that he was enraged by O’Hair’s article, and that he fantasized about torturing her in gruesome ways and snipping off her toes. Federal agents for the FBI and the IRS, along with 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 were Gary Paul Karr and Danny Fry. A few days after the O’Hairs were killed, Fry was murdered by Waters and Karr. What turned out to be Fry’s body was found on a riverbed with the head and hands missing, and remained unidentified for three and a half years.

A search warrant was executed on the apartment of David Waters and his girlfriend. The apartment was across the street from the Headquarters of the Department of Public Safety. The search produced various calibres of ammunition. Waters, a convicted felon, was arrested, and the contents of his apartment were examined and seized. At the same time, Gary Karr was contacted in Walled Lake, Michigan, and interviewed. As a hardened criminal who had spent the last 30 years in prison for the kidnapping of the daughter of a judge, Karr would not talk. After being read his rights, Karr was asked to listen to the information being discussed. Karr decided to talk and implicate David Waters in the death of the O’Hairs. Karr went so far as to sign an affidavit and to draw a map of where their bodies could be found. Karr was arrested for possession of two firearms and taken to jail. He lingered in Detroit, awaiting trial. The weapon seizure was dismissed, and Karr was transferred to the custody of the United States Marshals in Austin to stand trial for the death of the O’Hairs.

After a three-week trial, Karr was found guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion, traveling interstate to commit violent acts, money laundering and interstate transportation of stolen property charges related to the O’Hair case. However, he was acquitted of kidnapping conspiracy, since the bodies of the O’Hairs were not found at the time.Karr was sentenced to two life sentences 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 sentenced to 80 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 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.

In January 2001, after his conviction and imprisonment, Waters informed the federal agents that the O’Hairs were buried on a Texas ranch, and subsequently led them to the bodies. When law enforcement excavated there, they discovered that the O’Hairs’ bodies had had their legs dismembered with a saw. The remains exhibited such extensive mutilation and decomposition that identification had to be made through dental records, DNA testing and, in Madalyn O’Hair’s case, records of a prosthetic hip from Brackenridge Hospital in Austin (the product number identified her body). ?The head and hands of Danny Fry were also found at the site.

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, 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.

There are still atheists in Austin. Not long after O?Hair disappeared, a small bunch began gathering weekly at the Hot Jumbo Bagel Shop on Fifth Street. You can find 25 to 30 members of the Atheist Community of Austin (ACA) there every Sunday morning, chatting, gossiping, and planning group events. There is an insistent democratic spirit?a constitution, bylaws, elected leaders?as if to correct the errors of the past. ?The best thing that ever happened to Free Thought in America was that Communism died,? says Keith Berka. The second best is that O?Hair is gone. ?A lot of us were in American Atheists but dropped out, became offended,? says ACA co-chair Don Rhoades, his daughter bouncing on his knee. ?There was a big collective sigh of relief when she left.?

”I hope I live my life in such a manner that when I die, someone cares – even if it is only my dogs. I think I want some human being somewhere to weep for me.”

— Madalyn Murray O’Hair

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