O'Hair mystery appears solved

Probe: Investigators say Madalyn Murray O'Hair and two family members were killed "for money and greed."

April 08, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- When the mystery first hooked private eye Tim Young, he fancied it would end in Auckland, New Zealand, 7,000 miles from home. He'd stroll down a sunny street and there they would be, the world's three most famous missing atheists -- Madalyn Murray O'Hair, son Jon Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray-O'Hair.

"Jon and Robin would be on a bike for two, with Madalyn barking orders and being pulled in a trailer," Young said. Then would come the best part: "Madalyn cursing me out. `You lucky bastard, you found us.' "

But as the months passed, the scene in Young's mind shifted to the desolate beauty of Texas hill country. The cast of characters expanded to include a rough trio of ex-convicts. And the comic relief gave way to a bleak portrait of kidnapping, robbery and murder, punctuated by a headless, handless corpse found naked on a riverbank.

"Now I think that Madalyn and Robin and Jon were murdered for money and greed," Young said in an interview this week. "My case is closed."

The FBI apparently agrees, and it now seems that Young, in collaboration with San Antonio newspaper reporter John MacCormack, has cracked the case of a disappearance that has baffled and intrigued the country for 3 1/2 years.

FBI steps in

Piggybacking on their groundwork, the FBI on March 24 obtained a confession from one of the three ex-convicts, Gary P. Karr. During 16 hours of interrogation, Karr described a scheme in which the Murray-O'Hairs were held for a month while being fleeced of $500,000 in gold coins and at least $15,000 in cash. They were then killed and hauled 120 miles west, for burial on the rugged mesquite-and-sagebrush landscape near the small town of Camp Wood.

Karr, who confessed only to being an accessory to the killings, also told agents of the role of Danny Fry, a second ex-convict, who apparently took part in the scheme only to be murdered a few days later, presumably because he couldn't keep his mouth shut. Fry's headless remains lay in a Dallas County morgue for three years before being identified in January by DNA tests.

The third former inmate, David R. Waters, was indicted Tuesday on federal weapons charges. Now in an Austin jail, he denies any involvement in the Murray-O'Hairs' disappearance, but investigators say Karr's statements and other evidence place Waters at the center of the plot.

The climax of these developments was supposed to have literally risen from the grave on Easter weekend, when the FBI began digging for the Murray-O'Hairs amid cactuses and wildflowers on the land near Camp Wood.

The timing couldn't have been more appropriately macabre. O'Hair annually taunted Christians by staging the annual convention of her American Atheists organization on Easter weekend. And once she went missing -- along with $600,000 of the organization's money -- disillusioned former employee David Kent quipped, "If Madalyn resurfaces, I will begin to believe in the resurrection of the dead."

A dead end

But after a third day of digging, the FBI had little to show but dirt, despite using backhoes, infrared scans and cadaver-sniffing dogs.

That leaves it to investigators to build a case for multiple murder without three of its four corpses, while pondering the curious twists that have occurred along the way.

Why, for instance, didn't the Austin police solve the mystery long ago? Officer Steven Baker, by the accounts of most who dealt with him, made only cursory inquiries before concluding that the Murray-O'Hairs had voluntarily disappeared.

Even when private investigator Young turned over his findings more than a year ago, he said, Baker scoffed, asking, "Where do y'all come up with this stuff?"

It was left to a born-again Christian, William J. Murray -- Madalyn's other child, and organized atheism's most famous infidel -- to attract the interest of the FBI, and he succeeded only after enlisting the help of Washington politicians.

"I have had law enforcement people indicate to me that had congressional people not gotten involved in it, nothing ever would have happened," Murray said in an interview Monday. "But by early '98, I was just absolutely certain they'd been killed. I always had a spiritual feeling that they were dead."

Spiritual feelings are rarely associated with Murray's famous -- some would say infamous -- mother.

She was the Baltimore homemaker who loudly played to the worst fears of American postwar suburbia, first by dabbling in communism, then by taking up the cause of atheism with her 1960 challenge to school prayer.

In the son's name

William was the aggrieved party in the case, a teen-ager enrolled at Woodbourne Junior High (now Chinquapin Middle School). Madalyn vowed to keep William home until the prayers stopped, and Baltimore lawyer Leonard J. Kerpelman took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

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