The Murder of Madalyn Murray O'Hair: America's Most Hated Woman

Oct 14, 2009 - by Lona Manning - 0 Comments

Updated Sept 23, 2003

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

When atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her son, and granddaughter mysteriously disappeared from their Austin, Tex., home in 1995, 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.

by Lona Manning

"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 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.

O'Hair was always extremely secretive about the financial affairs of American Atheists, which she had founded in 1963 and dominated ever since. All financial records were kept locked up in a little room away from prying eyes. Recently, a seven- foot chain linked fence, topped with cyclone wire, had been built around the property, a fitting emblem of O'Hair's siege mentality. According to her, the world was a hostile place, particularly toward atheists. She and her family had been persecuted for 35 years for their courageous stand for the separation of church and state. But lately, as her health declined, and with it her energy and combative spirit, O'Hair had been known to talk about getting away from it all.

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.

America's Most Hated Woman

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?"

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.

To the evangelical movement, Bill Murray's conversion must have seemed -- literally -- heaven-sent. Many Christians and conservatives believe that the banning of school prayer marked the beginning of America's decline into immorality and crime and Murray, from his vantage point at the center of the drama, agreed with them. "In the three decades since this landmark case, the nation has lost its moral center," he wrote. "Violent crime has increased from 16.1 to 75.8 incidents per 10,000 population. Juvenile violent crime arrest rates have increased from 13.7 to 40 per 10,000 population. Teen pregnancy has almost tripled from 15.3 to 43.5 per 1,000 teenage girls. Almost half of these pregnancies end in abortion. For a startling 28 percent of all live births in America today, the mothers are unwed. The teenage suicide rate has increased 400 percent since 1963."

"I was part of the family that kicked God out of America," Murray tells his audiences today at his evangelical fundraising events. "I know the truth better than any man in America. That is why God picked me to tell it."

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.

A Fateful Hire

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. Meanwhile, as O'Hair explained in her newsletter:

On May 2, Mr. Waters executed an affidavit which was delivered to law enforcement officials. The Murray-O'Hairs were not advised about this affidavit for months — until August 23, 1994. Meanwhile, it had been accepted at face value by all concerned. This was, actually, an incredible document. It stated that Jon Murray had called Mr. Waters from San Diego, advised that the trial was very adverse to American Atheists, and instructed Mr. Waters to steal up to $100,000 by cashing the organizations' checks, retain $15,000 for his "services," and put $40,000 in cash in the office safe for Mr. Murray. The absurdity of the affidavit should have been immediately apparent to all; after all, the San Diego hearing had been decided favorably for American Atheists and the Murray-O'Hairs. It did, however, bring out the true nature of the police and judicial system of the city of Austin, the county of Travis, and the state of Texas. An accusation had been made against a nationally known Atheist (Jon Garth Murray) and, simply because he was an Atheist, the accusation was seen to be plausible immediately, by everyone. The defense plan…was obvious: use the hatreds inherent in a Christian political system to smear the Atheist victim of a crime — and go free...If Mr. Waters had stolen this amount of money from any church, or had invaded the home of any minister, he would have been arrested within hours, tried and convicted within days, and would even now be serving a term in the Texas state penitentiary.

And, considering Waters's extensive and serious criminal record, there seemed to be no urgency on the part of the prosecutors to bring him to trial. As Madalyn O'Hair recounted:

  • On July 21 (1994), the case was set for hearing in the 147th District Court of Travis County:
  • called, then postponed to August 22,
  • called, then reset for September 9,
  • called, then reset to September 15,
  • called, then reset to October 3,
  • called, then reset to October 17,
  • called, then reset to November 7,
  • called, then reset to December 5,
  • called, then reset to January 23, 1995,
  • called, then reset to February 6,
  • called, then reset to March 13,
  • called, then reset to April 10,
  • called, then reset to April 24,
  • called, then reset to May 18,
  • called, then reset to May 22.

On two of these occasions, Mr. Waters's attorney did not even bother to come in to court, but the trial was set over each time anyway.

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.


The Phone Contact Stops Abruptly

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 rumors, 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."

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."


Theories of the Disappearance

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 emigrating 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 heading into spinsterhood, 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."

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 some 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."

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 have 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. One of the most persistent urban legends is the story that Madalyn Murray O'Hair is petitioning the FCC to ban all religious programming. This warning is passed along by e-mail and through church bulletins and no matter how many times the American Atheists and the FCC deny the truth of the rumor, it won't die. The FCC reportedly has received millions of letters of protest and continues to receive them. (


Indifference to the Disappearance as the Months Pass

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. A Texan atheist wrote:

The disappearance of the O'Hairs in September 1995 gave hope that more positive atheist initiatives might develop...That's why atheists should worry about the revival of Madalyn's American Atheists, Inc. under the leadership of Ellen Johnson, who assumed the office of President in a questionable Board of Directors meeting. Ellen Johnson is also a die-hard Madalyn fan who continues to present Madalyn as an atheist heroine. What atheism doesn't need is a continuation of Madalyn's negativity.

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."


A Mystery Corpse

"In 1986, O'Hair wrote an essay for the American Atheist about her hopes that nothing special would happen to her body. She didn't want any "dirty Christers" to get their hands on her corpse. Instead, she advised that if the atheists lived nearer the coast, it would be better if Jon and Robin "could fling the carcass into the water," where the fish could feed on it. A dead body, O'Hair wrote, was nothing more than "a fallen leaf from a tree, a dog killed on the highway, a fish caught in a net."

-- journalist Robert Bryce

The male body found on a riverbank east of Dallas in early October of 1995, lying on its back, stripped naked and abandoned among the weeds and the garbage, was like that -- like a leaf, a dog, a fish on the riverbank. Detective Robert Bjorklund wanted to find the "cocky bastards" who killed him, mutilated him and tossed him away. "The way they laid him out was like, 'Come and find us.'" Bjorklund checked over 200 missing-persons cases, but couldn't find the corpse's identity. The corpse did not offer much in the way of clues.

There were no clothes. No tattoos. Very little blood. No distinctive scars. No hands.

No head.

So the body was photographed, sampled, and given a pauper's burial. But Bjorklund didn't forget about the mystery corpse.


A Reporter and a Private Eye Search for the Missing Murray-O'Hairs

Fall turned into winter, winter to spring, and summer returned again to the Texas plains, with no word of the Murray-O'Hairs.

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 " 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 jeweler instructed him to wire money to the jeweler's account and the order was placed on his behalf. The only time the jeweler met his customer was when Jon Garth came in on Friday, September 29, to pick up his 1,500 coins. The jeweler, 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.


Vanity Fair Duped

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.

Swartz found abundant evidence to show that the Murray-O'Hairs might have been planning to liquidate American Atheist assets and flee the scene. Some of the documents and letters she relied on were given to her by Waters, who had purloined them from the American Atheists office during his tenure there. They proved the O'Hairs had been discussing a move to New Zealand for years. For example, a 1985 letter written by Jon Garth stated: "Should it become necessary for us to flee this country, we would like to have some funds on deposit outside the United States so that we would not be leaving in an entirely destitute condition." Waters also claimed that Madalyn and Jon Garth had framed him for the theft of the money from American Atheists because he was on to their money-laundering scheme and their preparations for their flight out of the country. Waters even suggested that the Murray-O'Hairs were behind the mysterious, unsolved thefts of the computer and the bearer bonds. He was working on a book about the whole thing.

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.


The Tip That Breaks the Case

John MacCormack continued his interest in the case and came to be recognized as a leading authority on the O'Hair disappearance. In June 1998, after he'd been interviewed for a major television newsmagazine piece on the mystery, he was at his desk at the San Antonio newspaper where he worked, when he got an anonymous phone call. The caller told MacCormack that the disappearance of a small-time con artist, Danny Fry, might be linked to the disappearance of the Murray-O'Hairs. The caller was close to Fry and knew that he had traveled from Florida to Texas in the summer of 1995 to stay with none other than David Waters, then had disappeared at the end of September -- the same time as the Murray-O'Hairs.

MacCormack was intrigued. He knew that Waters, who still lived in a ramshackle apartment in Austin, had been promoting the theory that the Murray-O'Hairs had absconded with American Atheists funds.

But the anonymous voice on the other end of the phone line was telling MacCormack that Waters knew precisely what had happened to the Murray-O'Hairs -- because Waters had kidnapped and murdered them. And the caller was afraid the same fate had befallen Fry.

Fry's fiancée confirmed that her man was susceptible to get-rich-quick schemes. "Danny was not the type of person to make $300 or $500 a week. He wanted to make a lot of money, and he kept telling me there was a big, big backer, a big construction thing, (in Texas)."

Initially, Fry called his fiancée and his daughter back in Florida every day, but toward the end of September, he grew terse and evasive. His fiancée recalled, "I started wondering and asking him questions and he got real angry with me. He said, 'Don't ask.'"

"The last day he called, I said, 'Danny, please come home,' and he said, 'I've got one more thing to do. Then I'll come home,' " she said.

But he never did. Danny Fry had joined the Murray-O'Hairs to become one of the approximately 100,000 missing persons in the United States. Fear of David Waters had kept Fry's family from going public, but MacCormack's investigation had given them hope that the truth might come out.

MacCormack pondered the possibilities. Madalyn O'Hair fires an ex-con for stealing money from the American Atheists. Danny Fry, as it turned out, served prison time with Waters. Fry leaves his family and travels to Texas. He disappears the same weekend the O'Hairs do -- right after the purchase of half a million dollars of gold coins.

Things had taken a decidedly sinister twist, but there was no hard evidence. And David Waters could look a reporter straight in the eyes and say, "I am in no way connected with their disappearance, demise, relocation to a sunny clime or anything else that has to do with (the Murray-O'Hairs)." He complained that MacCormack was his "nemesis."

Meanwhile, the Austin police were still saying that there was no indication that a crime had been committed. "I'm of the opinion that they are not dead and that there was no foul play involved. I still have that feeling," said the lead investigator on the case. "If somebody wants to show me a body or a crime scene, I'll be glad to have my opinion changed."

By then, the O'Hairs had been missing for three years.

When MacCormack obtained Fry's long-distance bills he saw that Waters had been lying when he claimed that he and Fry had been casual acquaintances who had seen each other briefly in Texas. When Fry was still in Florida in the summer of 1995, Waters had phoned him and they had held lengthy conversations. Fry traveled to Austin and lived in Waters's apartment, but in September, at the same time the Murray-O'Hairs disappeared, Fry started phoning his family from San Antonio. Some calls were placed from a pay phone that overlooked the swimming pool at the Warren Inn in Northwest San Antonio. Finally, in the last few days before his disappearance, Fry was back in Austin.

MacCormack also published the fact that David Waters was in San Antonio in September of 1995, buying a white Cadillac with $13,000 cash. This was at the same time that Jon Garth and Robin's credit card records showed that they were maxing out their cards with cash advances.


The Headless Corpse Gets a Name

All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean; and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good, so is the sinner, and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.

This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

Ecclesiastes, 9:2-3

A few months after the phone call about Danny Fry, in the fall of 1998, MacCormack was reading the morning wire stories on his computer when a short item out of Dallas caught his attention. It was the third-year anniversary of the appearance on the banks of the Trinity River of a male corpse, minus head and hands. Dallas police were stumped.

MacCormack contacted the Dallas police department and explained there might be a connection between their headless corpse and three missing atheists and a pile of gold coins. The police thought the killing had all the earmarks of a drug murder, but luckily, they were willing to test MacCormack's theory. Fry's family cooperated by providing DNA samples.

A few months later, they had their answer.

"It is confirmed, "said Detective Robert Bjorklund, "that our homicide victim is Danny Fry. The probability is.... 99.99 percent."

MacCormack courageously continued to write articles about the damning circumstantial evidence against Waters, even as it became apparent to him that Waters was a cold-blooded killer and an extremely dangerous man. A third ex-con entered the picture, as well: Gary Karr was another alumni of the prison system and had also served time with David Waters. Karr, in his early 50s, was a tough-looking brute who had convictions for rape and kidnapping, and had only been out of prison a few months. He was also in Texas, staying at David Waters's apartment, at the time of the Murray-O'Hairs' disappearance. Waters continued to meet with reporters, coolly denying any involvement in the disappearance of the Murray-O'Hairs and Fry.

But, at long last, law enforcement authorities were taking notice. Three months after MacCormack published his scoop about Danny Fry's murder, federal agents served search warrants on Karr's home in Michigan and David Waters's apartment in Texas. Much of their information came from Karr's ex-wife and Waters's ex-girlfriend, both of whom had known about mysterious happenings back in 1995, but had kept their mouths shut for three and a half years. MacCormack's revelations, however, and questioning by law enforcement, had done wonders in awakening their consciences.

In short order, both Karr and Waters found themselves back in jail on unrelated charges. Rounds of ammunition were found in Waters's apartment, a violation of his parole. Karr was locked up on firearms charges as well. Using the evidence seized, including financial records and a bow saw, the FBI was able to piece together the story of the O'Hairs' last month on earth. "Initially, I was looking at Jon Murray for money laundering and I ended up with four dead people," said Ed Martin, lead agent for the IRS.


What Happened to the Murray-O'Hairs

The Murray-O'Hairs had been held for a month. There is no evidence that any of them tried to escape or summon help during that time, which mystifies some observers. Madalyn O'Hair had been the most closely confined, at the Warren Inn Apartments in Northeast San Antonio, and Robin was probably her companion. Their principal guard was Fry, who had no serious criminal record and was regarded as a good-natured charmer with a gift of gab. He must have been recruited by Waters for these qualities -- to keep the Murray-O'Hairs quiet and cooperative while Waters tried to extract all the wealth he could from them. Jon Garth had the most "freedom." In addition to various banking errands around San Antonio, he even traveled to New Jersey with Gary Karr to facilitate the money transfer to buy the gold coins. Bill Murray speculates that Jon Garth's acquiescence was purchased with threats to the safety of his mother and niece. Perhaps Jon Garth held out hope to the very end that the Murray-O'Hairs would be allowed to live.

Water's ex-girlfriend later testified that Waters was so angry when Madalyn O'Hair wrote her article denouncing him in her newsletter, that he fantasized about torturing her and pulling off her toes with pliers. For a cold-blooded psychopath like Waters, merely robbing from the O'Hairs was not revenge enough for losing his job and being exposed by the article. He probably relished telling Madalyn O'Hair, face to face, precisely how the O'Hairs contributed to their own disaster -- how he had letters, written by them, detailing their planned move to New Zealand. As the days of captivity went by, he might have mocked them. Who was looking for them? Nobody. Who cared enough about them to look for them? Nobody. Nobody at all in this world. Just as he brutalized his own mother, he probably brutalized Madalyn O'Hair. Taunting her with the fact that her own secrecy about her financial affairs, her own imperious conduct, meant that no one would question her disappearance. "I know you'll do the right thing," Robin cryptically told the American Atheists board members before she disappeared. But to the American Atheists, doing the right thing had always meant doing as Madalyn told them to do.

Madalyn O'Hair, however, must have faced Waters with her customary courage, because Waters apparently never learned about the other New Zealand bank accounts in Jon Garth's name, because they were untouched, nor about a bank account in San Antonio that contained $23,000. Waters got only the Mercedes, the cash advances from the credit cards, and half a million dollars in gold coins. In fact, there was another, second delivery of $100,000 in gold coins that was not picked up from the jeweler's.

The end of September must have been a significant deadline for Waters -- perhaps the difficulty of holding, or secretly transporting, three people in the middle of a small city was proving to be too difficult and dangerous. At any rate, the O'Hairs met their end on or shortly after September 29, 1995. They were either murdered, probably by strangulation at Waters's hands, in the motel, or were transported, either dead or alive, to a storage locker rented by another associate of Waters, "Chico" Osborne. Inside the locker, Waters and possibly Karr and Fry carried out the grisly task of sawing the bodies into pieces. Later, they were dumped into barrels, and transported 120 miles to a remote ranch. The O'Hairs were dumped into a shallow grave, where they remained undiscovered for over five years.

Fry survived the O'Hairs by one or two days at most -- then he, too, was gone, probably shot in the head, and dismembered.

After Waters cleaned out the storage locker with a spray of water and bleach, he and his girlfriend checked into a hotel for several days of serious partying. Waters and Karr bought the best suits money could buy, ordered champagne, and flashed around their newly acquired Rolex watches. Most of the money was stashed in a storage locker rented by Waters's girlfriend, but they made a serious dent in the $80,000 they had on hand.

In an atheist universe, there is no revengeful god, or even a Nemesis to exact retribution. But a few days after killing the O'Hairs and Fry, Waters returned to the locker to discover that the lock was open and the money was gone. All of it. For his months of planning and effort, all he had left was revenge and the knowledge that he had committed probably the perfect crime. Or had he? Who knew about those gold coins?



For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.

Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes, :4-6

As the final pieces of the puzzle were put together, an Austin reporter, Robert Bryce, noted that the Austin police had completely missed out on the most heinous crime of the decade: "Despite pleas from O'Hair's son, William J. Murray, several briefings from federal agents, and solid leads developed by members of the press, the Austin Police Department (APD) sat on the sidelines of the O'Hair investigation...Meanwhile, investigators from the Internal Revenue Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and the Dallas County Sheriff's Office are working together on the case....a federal agent was asked to discuss APD's actions in the O'Hair case. His only response was to roll his eyes in amazement."

Karr was brought to trial in May 2000, where the jury heard the story of a cold-blooded murder. Without any bodies, though, the jury did not convict Karr for murder, but his convictions for extortion and money laundering were enough to send the career criminal back to jail for life.

David Waters never faced trial for the kidnapping and murder of the Murray-O 'Hairs. In March of 2001, he was sentenced to 20 years (in addition to earlier sentences of 60 and 25 years). As a result of a plea bargain he revealed the location of the Murray-O'Hairs' bodies. Waters died of lung cancer in January of 2003 in a federal prison hospital in North Carolina.

In addition to solving the murders of the O'Hairs and Danny Fry, agents were finally able to track down the missing gold coins. It turned out that a group of thieves from San Antonio, who had a master key to the type of lock Waters used, came across his storage locker. To their utter amazement, they had found a suitcase full of gold coins, which they promptly fell to spending. Only one coin was recovered by police. The theft of the coins seems so bizarre, so improbable, that merely calling it "coincidence" or "chance" seems too feeble, but federal agents and the thieves themselves swear that this is precisely what happened.

The missing cocker spaniels Gannon and Shannon have not been seen since they disappeared from a locked compound at the American Atheist headquarters.

In January 2001, a full five and a half years after they were last seen, the Murray-O'Hairs were finally found on a sprawling ranch near the little town of Camp Wood, Tex. (The owner of the ranch was not implicated in their deaths.) Federal agents, led to the scene by David Waters, found skulls, scorched cloth, severed bones, and a metal hip belonging to Madalyn O'Hair. As Bill Murray told his supporters in his website:

One federal agent at the scene told me of how gruesome the situation was. The bodies had been dismembered and then burned...That same agent also told me that he had offered a prayer over the bodies when they were first discovered. He told me, "No one deserves this, no one."

The feud between American Atheists and Bill Murray continued. Johnson, the organization's president, denied that Bill Murray could possibly have any claim or interest in the remains of people he evidently despised, even if they were his kin, his own mother, half-brother and daughter. Murray countered that Johnson only wanted to use the remains as a relic for fund-raising purposes.

After the identification of the remains was confirmed, they were given to Bill Murray for burial, and he announced that, in accordance with his own beliefs and his late mother's wishes, he would not pray at the burial site.

As an evangelical, I do not pray for the dead. Baptists believe that upon death the fate of the soul is sealed. The deceased person is in Glory with God, or in Hell. In either event, prayer is fruitless at that point.... The group (at the burial site) removed themselves... (and) said a prayer for the remaining family members and for the law enforcement officers who had worked on the case and suffered emotionally as a result.

One of the law enforcement officials was close to tears on several occasions. The details of the last days and hours of my mother, brother and daughter were so brutal that even men accustomed to violence were emotionally shaken.

Of the many ironies involved in the O'Hair story, one is that Madalyn O'Hair battled the government all her life and conscientiously avoided paying taxes. She was especially suspicious of the FBI, believing Hoover's organization to be the malevolent agent of the evil theocracy that was the United States. But it was the FBI and the IRS who finally avenged her murder. And some of those agents involved in the case, those who searched for her, found her, and attended her burial, expressed the deepest sorrow over the horrors that she and her family had endured at the hands of David Waters, Gary Karr and Danny Fry.

''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

Links to Austin papers and photos:

Links to American Atheists:

O'Hairs newsletter article (the one that exposes Waters):

Archive of reporter John MacCormack's stories on the O'Hair case:

Also good – another MacCormack article

David Waters tries to persuade reporters that the O'Hairs stole the money -- including photos of Waters and the Murray-O'Hairs

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