The Mysterious Disappearance and Grisly Murder of Madalyn Murray O’Hair
She was called “the most hated woman in America” by the religious right. She became famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for her 1963 Supreme Court case, Murray v. Curlett, which was one of three cases that struck down mandatory prayers and Bible study in public schools. Over the next two decades, Madalyn Murray O’Hair continued filing suits challenging religious displays and rituals in public spaces.
But she is probably equally known for her public and media appearances throughout the 1970s, 80s, and into the 90s, where she criticized and ridiculed religion, religious people, and the entire concept of god. She was combative, outspoken, angry, and cursed like a sailor.
And she was just as abrasive off camera. Reporters and others who had the misfortune of interacting with her on a personal level characterized her as “insulting” and “deeply unpleasant.”
She reveled in the title of “most hated woman in America.” At one point, she and revival preacher Rev. Bob Harrington went on the speaking circuit together, engaging in theatrical “debates” that helped them both rake in the cash.
But the life of being the most hated woman in the country wasn’t all fame and fortune. She was routinely harassed, her home vandalized, her pets killed, and her sons bullied. She received daily death threats, and once, was shot at.
So in 1963, after winning her Supreme Court case, she and her two sons, William and Garth, moved to Austin, Texas. There she set up the non-profit American Atheists organization. She named herself CEO and president — offices she would serve in until the mid-1980s.
The family lived in a large house nearby: Madalyn, Garth, William, and, later, William’s daughter, Robin.
But in 1980, after struggling with alcoholism, William had a rather extreme change of heart. After receiving a vision of Jesus, William left atheism — and his family — on Mothers Day. He later published a memoir that was critical of his mother and atheism in general. Madalyn denounced him publicly and called the whole debacle a “post-natal abortion.”
He never spoke to his mother after that. He went on to found and lead the Religious Freedom Coalition, the largest and most powerful Christian-right lobbying group in the nation. When George W. Bush became governor of Texas in 1995, William became close with him, a relationship that lasted throughout W’s presidency.
His daughter, Robin, however, chose to remain with her grandmother, and Madalyn formally adopted her. The three — Madalyn, Garth, and Robin — remained close, living and working together at the organization.
But as the 1980s went on, and into the 90s, Madalyn and her little family became more and more isolated. Madalyn in particular was so hated, she couldn’t go outside without being accosted or yelled at. Tax problems and legal fights drained the American Atheists’ funds. Madalyn began considering leaving for New Zealand.
Trouble at the American Atheists
In 1993, though Garth and Robin were now the titular heads of the organization, Madalyn, now 76 and in failing health, retained control over nearly every aspect of its operations.
That year she hired an ex-con by the name of David Waters as a typesetter for their newsletter. By all accounts, he was an extremely talented typesetter, and he earned Madalyn’s trust with his work ethic. He was very quickly promoted to office manager, a position that included taking care of the organization’s financials — which Madalyn was notoriously secretive about. She had been engaging in some “creative accounting” with the organization’s money, stashing away funds in a New Zealand account, likely in preparation to relocate there.
But Madalyn didn’t realize how violent Waters’ background was. He had been sent to prison when he was 17 for beating another teen to death, and after he was released, he brutally assaulted his own mother.
Soon after Waters’ promotion, some expensive computer equipment went missing from the office, then bonds from the office safe. Then, when the family returned from settling some legal disputes in California, they discovered Waters had laid off all the staff, closed the office, and drained their bank accounts, making off with $54,000 dollars.
The Murray O’Hairs pressed charges, but Texas courts didn’t appear to be in any rush to bring the case to trial. When it finally did, Waters was only given probation and ordered to pay back the money.
Madalyn was furious. So she did what she did best: lashed out in public. She published a harsh diatribe in the organization’s July 1995 newsletter, not only blasting Waters for embezzling the money, but exposing his criminal background and implying that he was a homosexual.
Their Sudden Disappearance
The morning of Aug. 28, 1995, employees of the American Atheists organization arrived to find the gates locked and a typewritten note reading, “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.”
Their sudden and inexplicable disappearance raised questions. Some of the board members searched the office and the Murray O’Hair home trying to find answers. But what they found only raised more questions.
In the family home, there was no evidence of violence or struggle, but it did appear that they left very suddenly. Food was half-eaten on the table, Madalyn’s diabetes medication was sitting on the counter, and their passports were found in a desk. Most troublingly, they had left behind their beloved dogs.
But no one called the police. After frantically trying to reach them for days, one board member was finally able to get in touch with Garth on his cell phone. He assured the board member they were fine, but was vague about their whereabouts or what was going on.
Garth and Robin would answer his phone occasionally for the next few weeks, still giving strange, vague answers. The last time anyone talked to them, in late September, Robin was described as being “distraught.” But no one could get any answers, and after that troubling call, no one heard from them again.
Members of the organization continued to assert that the Murray O’Hairs were still alive and all was well. It wasn’t until a year later that her estranged son, William, finally reported her missing to the Austin police.
But since there was “no evidence” of foul play, according to the Austin police, they didn’t follow up on the report.
Secrets Begin to Surface
Around the same time that the American Atheists lost contact with the Murray O’Hairs, Dallas police made a grisly discovery: a naked, headless, handless body on the banks of the Trinity River. The remains were those of a white male, but without a head or hands, he was impossible to identify. The body was given a pauper’s burial.
A year after the Murray O’Hair disappearance, reporter John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express News was given the assignment of writing an “anniversary” story about it. MacCormack, like many, assumed the family had simply fled the country and didn’t want to be found.
In fact, one of the loudest voices for that theory was none other than Waters. He appeared on several news shows, America’s Most Wanted, and was interviewed by Texas newspapers and even Vanity Fair.
But William didn’t believe that. He said he couldn’t imagine his mother laying low for any length of time — “The most dangerous place in the world is between my mother and a camera,” he is reported to have said. Plus the three would never escape notice — they were all quite obese and Madalyn “used the F-word in every sentence she uttered,” William said. And there was the matter of their passports, medicine, and beloved dogs they hadn’t taken with them.
The spokespeople for the American Atheists weren’t talking. But MacCormack got an anonymous tip to look into the organization’s taxes, and sure enough, in their 1995 returns, it showed there had been a $600,000 withdrawal in September of that year.
Further digging showed the money had been taken out by Garth; that same month, he had sold his Mercedes-Benz through a classified ad.
MacCormack, aided by private investigator Tim Young, continued investigating. They were able to get Garth’s cell-phone records, which placed him in the San Antonio area during the month of September. There, he, Madalyn, and Robin had maxed out their credit cards with cash advances. Garth had also made several calls to financial institutions, travel agencies, and airlines, further bolstering suspicions that the family was going to flee the country. After Sept. 28, there was no more activity on his cell phone or any of their credit cards or accounts.
Their investigation also turned up another clue: right after Garth withdrew the $600,000 from the American Atheists, he called a jewelry store and arranged to purchase that same amount in gold coins. The jeweler, however, could only get $500,000 worth of coins; the other $100,000 would take longer. It had taken a month for the wire transfer, and then the order for the coins, to go through. On Sept. 29, Garth met the jeweler and exchanged the money for coins. The jeweler said he seemed disheveled and like he needed a bath. That was the last time anyone saw Garth alive.
The investigation also uncovered the man who purchased Garth’s Mercedes-Benz. When shown a picture of Garth, the man didn’t recognize him, but described buying the car from someone else entirely.
The Corpse That Broke the Case
After two years of digging, things seemed to have hit a wall. Then someone called MacCormack and told him that his brother, Danny Fry, had gone missing around the same time that the Murray O’Hairs had. Fry was last known to be in San Antonio in September doing some kind of job with David Waters, whom he had served prison time with, and an associate of Waters, Gary Karr.
Fry’s family hadn’t gone to the police out of fear of Waters.
Indeed Fry’s phone records confirmed it: there were dozens of calls between him and Waters in the months leading up to the disappearance. Fry (along with Karr) had stayed in Waters’ Austin apartment just before the disappearance, and during September, he had been in San Antonio. And Fry matched the description of the man who had sold Garth’s Mercedes that month.
One of Fry’s last calls home to his family was made from a payphone at the Warren Inn, a cheap motel in San Antonio. After that, he was never heard from again.
It was also confirmed that Waters was in San Antonio at the same time; he had purchased a white Cadillac in September from a San Antonio dealer, paying $13,000 in cash.
Then, MacCormack saw a story in a Dallas newspaper on the mysterious headless, handless corpse found in 1995. He contacted the Dallas police with his information. Through DNA testing, it was confirmed that the corpse in the Trinity River was Danny Fry.
As the investigation dragged on, Austin police still refused to open a case on “the most hated woman in America.” Without a body or a crime scene, they didn’t believe there had been a crime.
So MacCormack went over their heads — to the FBI and the IRS. Soon the BATF became involved too.
An IRS search of Waters’ run-down apartment turned up some stolen documents from the American Atheists. It also turned up 119 rounds of ammunition, which was a parole violation. Soon Karr was arrested in Michigan for similar parole violations. Waters was sentenced to eight years on the weapons charge and up to 60 years for violating the terms of his parole.
Then Waters’ ex-girlfriend, Patty Jo Steffans, a waitress at a dive bar named the Poodle Dog, told the FBI about some very interesting happenings involving Waters.
Steffans said Waters hated Madalyn deeply, and was determined to take revenge on her.
She said that in September 1995, Waters, Karr, and Fry suddenly had lots of money to throw around, thanks to some expensive gold coins they had come into possession of. The coins, she knew, were being stored in a unit at the storage facility across the street from the Poodle Dog — in fact, she had rented the unit herself.
She also said that on the night of Sept. 29, Waters had come home smelling strongly of bleach.
In a confession that was only made public after his death, Waters described the last days of the Murray O’Hairs.
The plan was put into effect Aug. 27, 1995. Waters, Karr, and Fry, all armed with handguns, used a delivery-man ruse to surprise Madalyn and Garth at the atheist headquarters. Knowing how close the family was, the kidnappers waited for Robin to appear, then they took all three to the family home.
There, they made their demands for money — first, they demanded $3 million, which Madalyn, laughing, denied they had. Finally, they settled on the contents of the secret New Zealand account — $600,000 — which would be exchanged for gold coins.
But they would have to wait 30 days for the finances to be wired from New Zealand and then the coins to arrive at the jewelers.
So the three abductors, driving Garth’s Mercedes and a rented van, drove the Murray O’Hairs to the Warren Inn in San Antonio, where they waited for the wire transfer to go through. While there, the hostages and their captors enjoyed an almost friendly relationship, playing games, watching movies, and eating Mexican take-out together — though Waters said Madalyn frequently goaded Karr into philosophical discussions.
The captors made the Murray O’Hairs max out their credit cards with cash advances, and Fry posed as Garth to sell his Mercedes.
Once Garth handed over the coins, the captors told them they needed to move to a more private hotel to finish waiting for the final shipment of coins. They all got in the van and checked into a La Quinta with private, off-street parking and entrance.
There, Waters said, they strangled Garth to death with a plastic bag. Then they strangled Robin and Madalyn in turn. They wrapped the bodies in blankets, loaded them into the back of the van, and drove back to Austin.
There, they rented another storage unit where Karr dismembered the bodies with a bow saw and stuffed the parts into 55-gallon barrels. Waters then hosed the unit down with bleach.
Then they drove to a remote area some 150 miles away to bury them.
At some point, perhaps as they were burying the remains of the Murray O’Hairs, Waters shot Fry in the head, killing him. Karr sawed off his hands and head and threw them in with the other remains. Later, they would dump Fry’s body in the Trinity River.
Afterwards went on a spending spree on drugs, expensive suits and watches, champagne, and fancy dinners. They went through nearly $80,000. They stored the rest of the coins in the storage unit across from the Poodle Dog.
Karr stood trial in May 2000, before Waters’ confession. Without any bodies, the prosecutor couldn’t charge him with murder or even conspiracy to commit kidnapping. He was, however, convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion, traveling interstate to commit violent acts, money laundering, and interstate transportation of stolen property. He was given two life sentences without possibility of parole.
Waters never actually stood trial for the kidnapping and murder of the Murray O’Hairs. In 2001, he was serving his time in a Texas prison for his parole violations. And he wanted out. In exchange for a transfer to a federal prison, Waters agreed to plead guilty to federal conspiracy charges, confess to the crimes, and lead police to the bodies.
So Waters led police to a ranch in Camp Wood, Texas. There, in a shallow grave, were three complete skeletons, along with a pair of hands and a skull with a bullet hole in it. The skeletons had clearly been dismembered. Madalyn was identified by the serial number on her artificial hip, and later, they were all identified through DNA.
But the question remained: if Waters had killed the Murray O’Hairs for their money, why did he live like he was so poor?
It seems that the criminal masterminds had stored a half a million dollars in gold coins in a storage room protected only by a $5 lock. Before they could come back and collect the rest of the coins, thieves targeting that storage facility picked the lock. When they saw their good fortune, they wasted no time in spending it. By the time police caught up with them, there was only one coin left.
As for Waters, he died of lung cancer two years after his confession. Karr continues to say that Waters unfairly placed the blame on him.
The Murray O’Hairs were buried in an unmarked grave, to protect it from vandals. William respected his mother’s wishes and allowed no prayers or religious services at their funeral.