Has Madalyn Murray O’Hair Met Her Maker?

God only knows. In the meantime, FBI agents dig up a ranch in South Texas, an ex-con with a violent past sits in jail, and atheists everywhere happily adjust to life without the “most hated woman in America.”

May 1999By Comments

THE ONLY THING SHE LOVED more than a good fight was a grand spectacle—with herself at the center. And this was, as she might have put it, pretty gawddamn grand: an auction barn filled with three hundred bargain hunters and antique dealers, camera crews and cops and Christians. All trying to get a piece of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Lot number two—a box of foreign coins. What am I gonna get now? Start it out now! How much? Buyin’ ’em all for one money. Ten dollars. Now twenty. Ten dollars, now twenty. Now thirty.

It was surprising how bland and middle-American the famous atheist’s earthly possessions were: rows and rows of brown furniture, dull art, and tables heaped with bric-a-brac. In the jewelry case were silhouettes of Madalyn, her son Jon, and her granddaughter, Robin. A needlepoint read, “Time for kindness, and for giving, time for friendship and happy living.” The fancy Monopoly game went for $170, the crystal decanters for $35 each, the dollhouse for $65. Robin’s 1985 Porsche went for $2,750, a sweet deal considering its low mileage and good condition. Madalyn’s diaries were up for grabs too, but bidders had to go through a bankruptcy attorney. All the money would go to pay some $260,000 in back taxes.

A 1969 U.S. one-cent coin and the G-o out of “God” have been taken off the coin. I wonder who did that? Start it out now! How much? You tell me, boys.

The auctioneer’s tones sobered abruptly when he introduced an illustrated Bible signed by a group of twelve-year-old Baptist girls from Oklahoma. The bidding stalled a couple of times before taking off, with two men going head to head, quickly past $1,000 and then $1,500. When the air finally cleared, Jimmy Nassour had paid $2,000. “I got caught up in the moment,” said the bewildered attorney, who had meant to pay one quarter that price. Was he an admirer of O’Hair’s? No, he replied, he was interested in her as a historical figure.

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 Jon, 40, and Robin, 30; when the authorities were finally notified, people seemed glad to see her go. Now O’Hair was a celebrity again, but only because of the deepening mystery of her disappearance, one of the strangest of our time.

This I really like. An atheist flask. You don’t have to be an atheist to drink from it.

Not everybody was in the giant metal Pflugerville barn last January for the bargains or out of curiosity. A few, like Rodney Florence, missed the O’Hairs. He stood sadly in the crowd, annoyed and disgusted at the auctioneer’s patter. 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 these 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.

All of Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Christmas decorations. I’m not kiddin’ you. They came right out of her house. Can’t you just picture her decorating the tree? A little eggnog… We’re gonna sell ’em all. Startin’ it out now. How much? You tell me, boys.

Standing and talking at the back of the barn was an unlikely couple, a journalist and an ex-convict. They had met only the previous September, but they knew each other well. One thought the other had killed the O’Hairs. The other knew he thought it. The journalist, John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express-News, had said as much about the ex-con, David Waters, in a story on August 16, 1998. And now he was ready to report something else, a piece of information the rest of the journalists covering the auction didn’t know yet: the identity of a headless, handless corpse found in 1995. He was confident that the corpse would tie the whole mystery together—the half-eaten breakfast, the cryptic phone calls, the shifty car salesman, the half a million dollars in gold. And the three vanished atheists.

How much is it worth? You tell me, boys.

Well, you couldn’t really say they had vanished, MacCormack might have said. Three people don’t just vanish into thin air.

Into the earth—that’s another story.

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.—Revelations 3:15

GOD, IF THERE IS A GOD, loves Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For 35 years she was the worthiest of adversaries: She made His believers work harder on His behalf. She spoke of her faith in man, in “man’s ability to transform the world by his own efforts.” She wrote that the atheist “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. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man. He wants an ethical way of life.”

She wasn’t always a heretic. Born April 13, 1919, into a working-class Pittsburgh family, Madalyn Mays was baptized a Presbyterian. She went to church and Sunday school and eventually to Ashland College, in Ohio, an institution run by the Church of the Brethren. She married at 22, went off to war in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, and had an affair in Italy with a married American officer named William Murray, Jr. Even though she got pregnant, he refused to divorce his wife because, he said, he was a Catholic. Still, she took his name, both for herself and for Bill III, who was born in 1946 and baptized a Presbyterian. Three years later, Madalyn led her son, her brother, Irv, and her parents, John and Lena Mays, to Houston, where she worked as a probation officer and attended South Texas College of Law. In 1952 they went to Baltimore, and two years after that she had another child out of wedlock, with a man named Michael Fiorillo. Jon Garth Murray was baptized a Methodist.

The origins of her disaffection with God have always been disputed. She said that at age twelve, she read the entire Bible one weekend and was “stunned with the hatred, the brutality, the sadomasochism, the cruelty, the killing, the ugliness.” Bill wrote in his autobiography, My Life Without God, that his mother hated the Catholic church and the pope for thwarting her happiness with his father. Bill is also the source of one of the most famous bits of Madalyn lore: that in 1946, while she was pregnant, she strode outside into a violent lightning storm and “unleashed blasphemies intended to provoke violent wrath from God.” Unfried and triumphant, she crowed that she had proved that God does not exist.

Madalyn drifted into radical politics and, according to Bill, tried to defect to the Soviet Union in 1960; like Lee Harvey Oswald, another moral exile, she failed. That same year, she heard students saying the Lord’s Prayer at Bill’s public school. School authorities would not excuse him from saying it, so she sued the school board for violating the First Amendment prohibition of state establishment of religion. Murray v. Curlett went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where it was absorbed by a similar suit, Abington School District v. Schempp. On June 17, 1963, in a decisive 8—1 vote, the court kicked prayer out of the schools.

During the whole ordeal, Madalyn and her family got death threats, and Bill was harassed mercilessly at school. She fought back. She sent newsletters to her followers, asking for money. She wrote a letter to Life magazine that said, “We find God to be sadistic, brutal, and a representation of hatred, vengeance.” The magazine, in turn, called her “the most hated woman in America.” In 1964 she and her family fled Baltimore—and assault charges after a row with police officers—for Hawaii, where they took refuge in a Unitarian Church and Bill, then eighteen, became a father. He named his daughter Robin. Next stop for the O’Hairs was Mexico and then, after the Mexican government expelled them, Austin. Maryland dropped its charges, and the family settled down. Madalyn met and married an ex-FBI informer, Richard O’Hair, and took his name.

In Texas, at the whip end of the Bible Belt, she found the courage of her lack of convictions. In 1964 she had admitted to the Saturday Evening Post, “I don’t really care that much about atheism, but I’ve gotten into this thing, and I’ve been driven out of the community. Atheism is all I have to fight my way back in with.” Separation of church and state was her cause, but survival by any means necessary was her true belief. She formed the Society of Separationists—and later American Atheists—and began publishing a newsletter. The money started coming in.

It was the sixties, a time to be angry, outrageous, and outside the mainstream. Madalyn hit the TV talk shows and became a celebrity. She was on Phil Donahue’s first program in 1967 and was later a hit on the Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson shows. She was funny, smart, opinionated. She was also bitter and mean. When Pope John Paul died in 1978, she wrote in her diary: “I only wish I could spit on his corpse.” She helped prevent astronaut Buzz Aldrin from taking televised communion on the moon. She sued to stop Texas from requiring that public officials believe in a Supreme Being; it worked. She couldn’t get “In God We Trust” off coins, couldn’t stop the pope from saying mass on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and couldn’t get rid of tax exemptions for churches. But she could get into Larry Flynt’s Hollywood parties. In 1984 she even became his “chief speech-writer” when he ran for president.

It was a good period for Madalyn, personally and professionally. American Atheists (AA) was the most successful national atheist group, with thirty chapters, a cable TV show, and a radio show on 150 stations. In 1987 Madalyn bought a new headquarters for more than $1 million—in cash, she bragged. The 16,100-square-foot monolith of red brick and mirrored glass in North Austin had no steeple. It was squat, hard, and earthbound, like its owner.

FROM HER HEADQUARTERS—WITH ITS PRINTING PLANT, tape duplication center, 25,000-volume library, and luxury offices—Madalyn reigned over a vast empire. She had at least seven corporations, each with a handpicked board of directors. She got exemptions from state sales and property taxes. She and her lawyers filed more and more separation of church and state lawsuits. She lost one to get “so help me God” taken out of the Texas jury oath and another to get the cross taken out of the City of Austin seal. But she won city-seal cases in two Illinois cities, Zion and Rolling Meadows. “People would say, ‘So what? It’s just a little cross,’” remembers John Vinson, Madalyn’s onetime lawyer. “Madalyn would reply, ‘What if it were a little swastika?’” There were also suits filed to generate publicity and suits filed for the hell of it. Madalyn sued Texas Monthly for $9 million in 1989 after contributing editor Lawrence Wright wrote a story about her (the suit was ultimately thrown out). She loved a fight, loved to be hated. “We got boxes and boxes of hate mail,” says David Travis, who worked at American Atheists.

Many of Madalyn’s employees were, like her, outsiders. A man who had done time in federal prison for threatening President Reagan. A brusque gay activist with a phone-sex business. A Vietnam vet who had lost his religion under fire. An Illinois ex-con with a violent past. There were also college students, Catholics, and working-stiff atheists—some just looking for a job, others eager to work for an American hero. She did not return the admiration. “We can afford lumpen proletariat employees and that’s what we get,” she wrote in her diary in 1979, “flotsam and jetsam, pimps, whores, hopheads, queers, pinkos, drunks, glue-sniffers and freaks.…I’m absolutely fed up with all of them.”

Madalyn, Jon, and Robin rode herd on the office, sometimes viciously. “They belittled everybody,” says a former staffer. “They were always telling employees they were stupid, that they didn’t know what they were doing. And you could always hear the three of them yelling at each other and doors slamming.” In 1986 Jon—then 31—became president of American Atheists, but his mother still ran the show. “He was a big doofus,” says the ex-staffer. “He had no social skills whatsoever,” says Travis. “He was always running around the office shouting obscenities.” Jon also had no management skills, and it didn’t take long for him to alienate some of the AA chapters. “No one in the organization wanted him taking over,” says Vinson. “They all despised him.”

Robin, meanwhile, edited the group’s publications and managed its library. She had a sensitive side and wrote poetry (American Atheist Press published Tweetings of a Loose Robin in 1981), but “she could be caustic and impatient with people,” remembers Rodney Florence. She learned how to treat people from her grandmother, who had adopted her when her father abandoned her. Bill, who announced on Mother’s Day in 1980 that he had found God (he was then banished from Madalyn’s life), says that years later he wrote to his daughter and tried to apologize for giving her up. He still doesn’t know if she got the letter.

It wasn’t just apostates whom O’Hair excommunicated. She severed ties with members who offended her, asked too many questions, or tried to democratize her organization—and once you were out, you were out for good. When Vinson got fed up and quit, she contested his unemployment claim. “She told them I had possibly murdered some people and that I had sex with animals,” he says. She ran American Atheists as she ran her life, bulling through everyone in her way, with Jon and Robin close behind her. The three misfits did everything together. They sat on and controlled the boards of most of AA’s corporations, rotating the positions of president, vice president, and treasurer among themselves. They worked, ate, and took vacations together and lived in the same huge house on Greystone Drive in northwest Austin. They trusted no one else, except maybe their dogs.

And they were lonely. Madalyn had no close friends; Jon and Robin fared no better. AA member Arnold Via told the Baltimore Sun that around 1987, “Jon got a little horny and got a girlfriend and let her move into the house, and that was a big mistake. Madalyn locked horns with her fast, and that was the end of that love affair. Robin thought she had a boyfriend once until Madalyn cut the bonds.” The threesome made up for their loneliness with extravagance. Jon and Madalyn each drove a Mercedes, Robin a Porsche. “We’re accustomed to good food,” Jon told Lawrence Wright, “to eating in dining rooms with tablecloths, good dishes, a good bottle of wine.…All of us have nice clothes. My suits cost a minimum of five, six hundred dollars.”

The party line, however, was that American Atheists was cash poor. Though the organization officially claimed 70,000 families on its mailing list, it only had between 2,000 and 2,500 actual members, each of whom paid dues of $40 a year. Like the televangelists she mocked, Madalyn got good at begging for money by claiming poverty or fabricating catastrophes, including a famously leaky roof. Money poured in, sometimes from the estates of dead atheists. In 1987, not long after failing to wrest Larry Flynt’s empire from him while he was in jail, Madalyn tried to take over the $14 million fortune of James Hervey Johnson, the publisher of The Truth Seeker, an atheist magazine in San Diego; she even printed stock certificates showing herself as president of the company. The Truth Seeker countered with a racketeering claim, demanding $7 million in damages.

Soon American Atheists was in crisis. The IRS sued Jon and Robin for $1.5 million in back taxes. Pleas for money weren’t going as well as they used to, and in 1993 the radio show was dropped; that was also the last year for AA’s annual convention. Madalyn secretly began to pack up the $3 million library, her main asset. “Madalyn said they were not going to get their hands on the library,” says a former worker. That August, Jon went to New Zealand. “Madalyn told me he was there to check into legal information on extradition,” says the ex-staffer, who saw a fax from a New Zealand bank that showed a $250,000 transfer to an account only insiders knew about. Madalyn eventually asked this employee to leave her husband and relocate with the family; she declined. At the end of that summer half the staff was let go. In November the Truth Seeker suit ended in a mistrial.

On top of everything else, Madalyn was suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, and dizziness. Roy Withers, the attorney for The Truth Seeker, remembers her being wheeled into the courtroom. “She was in bad shape,” he says. She would get worse.

INTO THIS HOUSE OF PAIN AND PARANOIA walked David Waters, who had served time in Illinois for murder, battery, and forgery. In the early nineties he saw a commercial on TV with the tag line “Texas. It’s Like a Whole Other Country.” He needed a change, so he ordered the brochure, liked what he saw of the Austin area, and moved there.

In February 1993 Waters, then 45, answered an ad for a typesetter at American Atheists. He later wrote how he had “visions of an environment rife with intellectual debate and youthful philosophizing . . . ” Instead he got fear and rumors—of foreign accounts, hidden assets, and U.S. Marshals coming any day now. Things got tenser when a computer containing the library’s catalog was stolen. Then, in January 1994, more than $60,000 worth of bearer bonds were taken from the safe. Waters, who says that he was trying to cover himself in case the authorities did come, began to poke around the files in Madalyn’s office. “There was a lot of information that validated certain suspicions,” he says. “There was a whole lot more going on than any of us realized.”

Madalyn and Jon had run afoul of so many AA members that they finally had to get outside help. They found it in Don Sanders, a gay activist and phone-sex peddler in Houston who was dying of AIDS. “I came across this one file labeled ‘Confidential,’” Waters says, “and I see all these fax transmissions between Jon and Don Sanders.” The faxes concerned fake IDs, sailing dates for ships bound for the South Pacific, the possibility of Robin teaching overseas, and Sanders’ efforts to help the O’Hairs move the library to Houston. Leslie Perez, a longtime friend of Sanders’, says he was privy to even deeper secrets: “Don told me they transferred somewhere in the millions of dollars abroad.”

According to Waters, in the spring of 1994, as the Truth Seeker’s racketeering trial was just getting under way, Jon approached him about helping to hide $100,000 by cashing checks and sending the money to him in San Diego, where he and Madalyn and Robin would be at trial (Jon couldn’t do it himself because he was under surveillance by a Truth Seeker private eye). Waters, who had been appointed AA’s office manager in the trio’s absence, agreed to do it for a fee of $15,000. At Jon’s behest, he says, he laid off the staff and got to work—but after he’d cashed a few checks, Jon stopped calling him. Waters panicked, thinking he was involved in something he could no longer control, and resigned. The O’Hairs called the police, claiming Waters had stolen $54,415. Waters turned himself in, took a lie-detector test (passing, according to Vanity Fair), and eventually pleaded guilty to theft to avoid the life sentence he could have received as a habitual offender. He was given deferred adjudication, ten years’ probation, and ordered to pay restitution to AA of the $54,415, a figure cut to $15,000 after the DA’s office saw the faxes Waters had taken.

In March 1995 David Travis came across a letter to Jon from a New Zealand bank, along with an account statement listing a balance of more than $900,000. A loyal soldier, Travis felt betrayed. He and the handful of remaining AA employees had been working so hard, and Madalyn had been lying all along about her finances.

The old lady was in trouble. When former AA member Keith Berka saw her that spring, “she was poring over her books, and she told me, ‘I have a lot of big problems, and I can’t get out of them.’ She was very preoccupied with something.” She was very sick too. “I didn’t think she had six months,” Berka says. Travis says that in the last few weeks he was there, Madalyn’s feet had swelled up so painfully as a result of her diabetes that she couldn’t wear shoes, and she had to use a wheelchair or a walker to get around.

More than ever before, Madalyn, Jon, and Robin were alone together. In early August 1995, they went on a vacation to Virginia. They returned to Austin and bought plane tickets for a September picket of the pope in New York. On August 28 AA employees came to work and found a note: “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 it became clear that this was no overnight expedition, AA employee Spike Tyson went to their home. He says he found Madalyn’s blood pressure medicine on the kitchen counter and a half-eaten breakfast on the table. On August 29, the Griffith Small Animal Hospital, which had boarded the family’s dogs many times, got a call from Robin, who was crying. She told the receptionist that the O’Hairs had to leave town on a family emergency, but she didn’t have time to drop off the dogs. The hospital agreed to come pick them up. Robin never returned for them.

For the next month, all communication with the O’Hairs—who claimed to be “on business” in San Antonio—was conducted via Jon’s cell phone. “They were being very cagey,” AA member Ellen Johnson told Time. “You couldn’t get a straight answer. They were lying about a lot of things, that was obvious. I was screaming, ‘What the hell is going on. Are you OK?’ And they’re saying, ‘Just calm down. Everything’s OK.’ Everything was not OK. Robin was totally disturbed. You could hear it in the way she talked.” Johnson was especially spooked after her one conversation with Madalyn during that month. “I’ve talked to her for years,” she said. “If you were to talk to your mother, you would know when something was wrong. Something terrible had happened.”

Several times, callers said, the phone was answered by an unidentified male who handed the phone to Jon. Murray’s last call to AA headquarters came just after noon on September 29, 1995. Then the phone was turned off. The O’Hairs were never heard from again.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. —2 Timothy 4:7

SHE HAD VANISHED, AND NOBODY seemed to care. The most hated woman in America had become just another celebrity has-been.

Some people close to the atheist movement figured the O’Hairs had fled their financial and legal troubles. They were living it up somewhere, most likely New Zealand, with all that money sitting in foreign accounts—“Tens of millions,” Bill Murray speculated. Others thought Madalyn had simply gone off to die, leaving Jon and Robin free to start over somewhere else. Madalyn was fond of saying, “I don’t want no gawddamn Christers ramming a cross up my ass and burying me somewhere.” She once wrote in AA’s newsletter that she had told Jon and Robin that when the time came, “put me on a pyre in the backyard.” Still others floated theories of foul play that were whimsical (UFOs) or amusingly paranoid. (“Off the wall, I think the Vatican did it,” said Arnold Via. “The Vatican or the CIA. Someone with enough clout to cover it up.”) For their part, officials of American Atheists insisted that no money was missing and that the trio was on an extended business trip. “Madalyn is just fine,” newly installed president Ellen Johnson insisted in October 1995.

The Austin Police Department seemed to agree with Johnson and showed no sense of urgency when David Travis contacted them in the spring of 1996. He was told by a detective, “You can’t report my lawn mower missing”—in other words, only a family member can file a missing persons report (the APD insists anyone can file such a report). Bill finally did so in late September 1996. The APD passed it on to Detective Stephen Baker of its Missing Persons—Juvenile Unit. A few days later Robin’s Porsche was found at Austin’s Robert Mueller airport. The APD found nothing suspicious about it or anything else connected with Madalyn’s disappearance. In early 1997 the department released a statement that read, “We’ve already given it more attention than a case of its type because of her notoriety.”

If the police weren’t interested, reporters and private investigators were. In early December 1996, when John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express-News got hold of American Atheists’ 1995 tax returns, he found forms that alleged $625,000 was missing and “believed to be in the possession of Jon Murray.” The account had been a “trust fund,” Ellen Johnson explained, the bulk of which was “generated through wills”; the interest was eventually going to be used to run AA headquarters. The forms also reported holdings of $259,013 in “New Zealand Government Stock.”

Later that month came the first hints of something darker. Evan Moore of the Houston Chronicle reported that on September 5, 1995, someone claiming to be Jon Murray sold Murray’s Mercedes to a San Antonio couple for $15,000 cash—$6,000 under blue book value. “He was in a hurry to sell it,” said the buyer, Mark Sparrow, who had responded to a classified ad listing Jon’s cell-phone number. The seller was about fifty, five foot nine, and stocky, with light, curly hair. It was not the six-foot-two, dark-haired Jon, though his signature was on the title transfer (which was signed later, after the transaction had been made). The car was parked at the Warren Inn, a motel-apartment complex in northwest San Antonio; the man told Sparrow he could contact him by asking for “Jon” at Bonnie Jean’s Cocktails, a bar in the strip center across the street. When the seller delivered the Mercedes to Sparrow’s office, he was followed by a man and a woman in a pickup truck. Sparrow later said that the couple could have been Jon and Robin.

In February 1998 MacCormack—who was working with a private investigator named Tim Young—reported that Jon had wired $600,000 from a New Zealand United Secularists of America account to a San Antonio bank via a New Jersey bank. The money was then used to buy gold coins—Krugerrands, American Eagles, and Canadian Maple Leafs—from Cory Ticknor, a San Antonio coin dealer. Ticknor had delivered $500,000 worth of coins to Jon on September 29, 1995; the rest, the dealer said, would come in a few days. Jon loaded the 100 pounds of gold into his car and said he would return for the balance. He never did. That afternoon he would make his last call to American Atheists. It was also revealed that Jon had flown to New Jersey eight days earlier, apparently to clear up a complication in the wire transfer. He had gone with another man, whose name, “Conrad Johnson,” was a wedding of the names of longtime AA members Conrad Goeringer and Ellen Johnson.

Nightline took the story national with a June 1998 show that relied heavily on the findings of Young and MacCormack. The family, it appeared, had stayed at the Warren Inn. Madalyn had even been in Bonnie Jean’s, the bar across the street. Bonnie Jean Davis told how she had helped Madalyn—who was using a walker—into the restroom one afternoon. The show also reported that Jon had bought a diamond for $6,665 on September 16 and that he had rented a car at the San Antonio airport on September 14 and returned it on September 30. Producers brought in a sketch artist to work with the Sparrows on a portrait of the shady Mercedes seller. The result looked like David Hasselhoff with a skin condition.

After the show aired, MacCormack, the bespectacled, bulldog-faced 23-year newspaper veteran who was rapidly becoming the star of the story, got a huge break. “You get a lot of goofy tips,” he says. “When the caller started talking about this guy who vanished, I didn’t take it that seriously. Until he mentioned Mr. Waters’ name. Of course, I knew who he was. That made it viable.” The vanished man’s name was Danny Fry. And he should have stayed in Florida.

DANNY FRY WAS A 42-YEAR-OLD SALESMAN, handyman, and con man, an outgoing sort whose biggest problem was that he drank too much and talked too much when he did. According to his family, he had left for Texas in July 1995 at the behest of his friend, David Waters, whom he had known when Waters lived in Florida in the late eighties. Fry’s daughter, Lisa, says her father was enticed by a job that Waters described as a “big deal.” Still, he was reluctant to go, and she says she had a “disgusting feeling” when she took him to the airport. Once Fry got to Texas he called often—from Waters’ apartment in Austin, where he lived for several weeks, and from a pay phone at the Warren Inn in San Antonio, where he said he was staying. But the calls got fewer, shorter, and tenser. “It was like he was sneaking calls to me,” Lisa says. His final call was on September 30, 1995, from Waters’ apartment, to Lisa on her sixteenth birthday.

Two days later, the headless, handless body of a man showed up on the banks of the Trinity River near Seagoville. He was on his back, legs together, arms outstretched. “It certainly was a cocky bastard who did this,” said Detective Robert Bjorklund of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department. They don’t get a lot of murders in rural Dallas County, and they almost never get a headless, handless corpse. Sheriff’s deputies found a hint of blue fiber on the body, an African-American hair, and a footprint; a white luxury car was seen leaving the scene. There were no other clues. For three years the body lay in a pauper’s grave, its identity unknown. Soon after the anniversary of the O’Hairs’ disappearance, though, MacCormack saw a wire story about the corpse. He picked up the phone and called the sheriff. A DNA test proved his hunch: The body was Danny Fry’s.

It was getting harder and harder to be David Waters. MacCormack had already reported that, on September 16, 1995, eleven days after Jon’s Mercedes had been sold, Waters bought a white Cadillac Eldorado for $13,000 cash. When Jon’s credit and charge card receipts were found, they showed several cash advances, including $3,000 on September 14 and $7,400 on September 15. It also turned out that Waters had stayed at the Warren Inn right before moving to Austin. And MacCormack wrote that the Sparrows had made the closest thing yet to an ID on the seller of the Mercedes. For two years they had perused photos and mug shots (including those of Waters and Fry) but had never found a match—until shown a new photo. “He is a very likely candidate,” said Sparrow, “the best yet, but I’d have to see him in person to be positive.” The picture was of an ex-con who had been at an Illinois minimum-security prison when Waters was incarcerated there for seven months in 1986 and 1987. The man was doing time for aggravated kidnapping and armed robbery and served more than twenty years of a thirty- to fifty-year sentence. After getting paroled on March 31, 1995, he lived in Florida for a short period and then came to South Texas that summer. If the mystery wasn’t confusing enough, now it had a third man.

It also had a witness, sort of. Fry’s brother Bob said that Danny had written him from Texas in the summer of 1995: “The letter said that if he wasn’t back by a certain date, that meant something serious had happened,” he told MacCormack. “I should contact the authorities and bring in Dave Waters’ name, that Dave Waters planned what we did.” Bob claimed that he called Waters asking about Danny’s whereabouts and told him that his brother had sent a letter that he had not opened yet. He said that Waters flew to Florida the next day with another man and demanded the letter, but he told them he had destroyed it. When he finally convinced them he was telling the truth, they left. “One thing Waters said keeps haunting me,” Fry recalled. “He said, ‘Your brother drinks a lot. He’s got a big mouth.’”

SITTING NEAR THE POOL AT HIS APARTMENT complex on a balmy February day, David Waters looked like the kind of guy who had comfortably worn a leather jacket his whole life. He had a hard face and a scar on his right lip, yet he was polite and seemed to get along well with his neighbors. He wasn’t exactly religious, but he wasn’t godless either. “I think atheism is arrogance,” he said. “I consider myself an agnostic. I don’t know that there’s not a deity. If there is no God, if it’s an invention of man, I still see a good reason for the concept of God. God and religion give a lot of people hope.” He was smart and charming, like a hustler—an imperfect poster boy for second chances.

“One reason I really liked Texas,” he said, “is that it truly is a whole new country.” Waters had a lot to leave behind. In 1964, when he was seventeen, he and four teenage friends got into an argument in a car. He and the other three passengers beat the driver to death. Waters got thirty to sixty years and served twelve. Fifteen months after getting out, in 1977, he beat his mother with a broom handle and urinated in her face. At one point during the attack, according to the state’s attorney, he “began talking very crazily and said that she was a piece of garbage and kept repeating about people being stiffs and he was going to kill them all.”

Waters speculated that he was the focus of the O’Hair investigation because of his criminal record. He said he was frustrated and embarrassed about the suggestions of guilt. Yes, he had invited his friend Danny Fry to Austin, but there was no “big deal.” “Danny essentially disappeared as soon as he left Florida,” Waters said. “Apparently he had some felony things he was looking at over in Florida. He defrauded some old people in a condo scheme. He was talking about the economic situation in Austin, Texas. I told him this is the place to be. I said the unemployment rate is nil. I said if you want to work, make a buck, I said this is the place to be.” Fry stayed at his apartment, Waters said, and spent most of his time running around on Sixth Street.

About Lisa Fry’s claims, he said, “This is the same daughter who told me that this is not the first time Danny has done this and that if I talk to Danny to tell Danny to turn himself in and do his time.”

He said the sales of the two luxury cars were coincidental: “If I had been in a situation where one had anything to do with the other, I don’t think I would run out and buy a car.” He said he used cash because his credit was bad.

He mocked Bob Fry’s claims about the letter. “You mean the one that conveniently was destroyed? If I got a letter from my brother that suggested what this letter supposedly suggested, not only would I not destroy that letter—that letter would be in my safe deposit box.”

And he said that he didn’t know who the mysterious Illinois ex-con could be. “But I’ve got a hunch that just about anybody I do know, once MacCormack finds out I know him or have had any affiliation with him, it’s somehow going to come to the forefront here.” He called the reporter his “nemesis” and accused him of tunnel vision. “I think there’s a number of things he has probably come across that he’s put out of the way because they do not coincide with what his theory is.” Waters denied any involvement in the O’Hairs’ disappearance. The truth, he said, was in the faxes: They had absconded and were living it up somewhere far away. This is the conclusion of an unpublished book he has written (with his agent, Harry Preston) based on his experiences with the O’Hairs. About his role in their lives, he writes: “Madalyn had me pegged as a fall-guy from day one.”

Was Waters the classic wrong man—a patsy convicted in the press by an ambitious reporter? All the evidence to date was circumstantial—no smoking gun or dripping knife, and no bodies other than Fry’s—and Waters had not been charged with anything. Besides, killers don’t generally write books about their victims. And he certainly did not act like a guy who was sitting on half a million dollars in gold. “Most everything I own I’ve hocked, sold, or bartered,” he said. He had had to get a cashier’s check from Illinois to pay Preston $2,500 for ghostwriting the book and still owed him another $2,500. He was at risk of being sent to prison because he couldn’t pay his $200-a-month restitution to AA. Lisa Grumbles, who dated Waters for four weeks last fall and stayed in touch with him afterward, says she never saw any evidence of hidden wealth. “He was very conservative with money. If he had a lot of money, he wouldn’t have kept that old Camaro.” The car eventually quit running, and Waters had to rely on his bicycle. He was out of work, fired from his last job “brokering cars” because, he said, his boss read about him in the paper. He was behind in his rent and would soon get an eviction notice. “I’m trying to keep a positive mental attitude,” he said in March. “But I seem to be going down the tubes. I wish I had about half a million dollars to dip into. Why does everybody think I’m gonna be arrested?”

ON MARCH 25, WATERS SAT IN U.S. magistrate judge Stephen Capelle’s courtroom. The day before, on his fifty-second birthday, federal agents had searched his apartment for more than eight hours. They found 119 rounds of handgun ammunition. “As a convicted felon,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerald Caruth told a reporter, “Mr. Waters is prohibited from possession of firearms or ammunition.” Because of Waters’ criminal history, he was held without bond.

Outside the courtroom, reporters buzzed about what wasn’t being said: Waters’ arrest concerned more than a bunch of bullets. His attorney, Patrick Ganne, said that Caruth had told him, “People are rolling over on your client, and he better get right with God and tell his side of the story.” Somebody was trying to tie Waters to the disappearance of the O’Hairs. Authorities had questioned three other people, including Gary P. Karr, a violent ex-con from Illinois who had come to Texas in the summer of 1995. (Karr would be arrested in Michigan on weapons charges the day after Waters was and also held without bail.) Ganne said that in their conversation, Caruth had used the phrases “conspiracy to solicit murder” and “death penalty.”

None of this came as a surprise to the many observers who’d been casting wary eyes at Waters ever since the revelations about Danny Fry. What was surprising, they thought, was that Waters had never flown the coop. “The guy’s got balls like this,” says one writer who has been following the case and is certain of Waters’ involvement. In addition to Waters’ violent tendencies and all the circumstantial evidence, the writer and others point out that Waters knew the personal and business habits of the O’Hairs and surely had information about some of their bank accounts—in particular, the $600,000 trust fund—but not others, such as Jon’s five untouched personal accounts in New Zealand containing $130,000. Moreover, Waters, like everyone who dealt with Madalyn, had an ax to grind: He had almost gone to jail for life because of her.

But how could anyone keep three people—especially these three people—for a month in an apartment complex? Well, Madalyn may have been “an old warrior,” as Travis puts it, but she was frail, maybe even dead. The kidnappers would have had physical access to the only two people who meant anything to her, two people who had so little experience in dealing with people not under their thumb that they would have been incapacitated with fright. In the end, a lot of Madalyn’s power came from her bluster. “Nobody stood up to her,” says Roy Withers. “She always relied on shock value. When that didn’t work, there wasn’t anything underneath.”

I do not believe in God. . . . But I believe in Man. In man’s redeeming power; in man’s remoulding energy; in man’s approaching triumph, through knowledge, love, and work.—English theosophist Annie Besant, 1887

THEIR VANISHING IS FULL OF MYSTERIES, but the biggest one may be this: How could the brilliant Madalyn Murray O’Hair—shrewd enough to take on the system and win—have been so stupid as to isolate herself and her children so completely? Despised and vulnerable, the O’Hairs were doomed. Says Roy Withers: “They’re pushing up West Texas sand.” Or Hill Country scrub. At dawn on April 2, more than thirty Texas Rangers, FBI agents, and IRS agents—acting on information provided by Gary Karr—showed up at a ranch near Camp Wood, about one hundred miles west of San Antonio. The officers brought with them dogs trained to find cadavers. After three days of searching, they seemed to come up empty-handed—at least for the moment. Karr may have gotten the wrong pasture, but authorities seem sure they have the right man. During Karr’s two-day, sixteen-hour interrogation, according to FBI agent William O’Leary, the ex-con admitted to extensive involvement in four killings in Texas, one involving decapitation and the severing of hands. O’Leary’s version of the questioning mentions no names, but Karr’s public defender, Richard Helfrick, told John MacCormack: “Given that they are talking about a triple homicide and this other body that was decapitated, I think it’s obvious they are talking about O’Hair and Fry. How many cases fit that description?” One of the details Karr offered: He had flown to New Jersey from Texas with one of the victims for a wire transfer.

At press time, attorney Ganne was unavailable for comment, as was his client, David Waters, who awaits trial on federal weapon charges. Meanwhile, John MacCormack is keeping a close eye on the story. Tim Young has opened a business in Arizona locating missing people. Lisa Fry has moved far away from her past and, in all the hubbub about the missing atheists, doesn’t want anyone to forget her father. “He was my best friend,” she says angrily. “He was my life. And some lunatic cut his head off and left him on a riverbank.”

The Austin Police Department, which in January was still claiming there was no evidence of foul play, watches as the feds grab the headlines in the city’s biggest missing persons case ever. Bill Murray and his conservative Washington political action committee, Government Is Not God, are trying to get prayer put back in the public schools. And late last year, American Atheists moved its headquarters from Austin to New Jersey. The group will be opening a new headquarters sometime this year in Cranford.

But 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.”

With its angry leader gone, atheism looks like what it basically is: humanism that embraces everything from Darwin fish car-magnets to New Age crystals. As members of the new breed sit around chattering on a Sunday morning, it’s clear how out of place the bitter, vengeful Madalyn would be here. You can still have faith in people if you don’t believe in God. In truth, you don’t have a choice.

Related Content