An Investigative Reporter’s Inside Story Untangling The O’Hair Vanishing by John MacCormack (December 1999)

This speech was delivered on Nov. 6, 1999, at the 22nd annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in San Antonio.

Introduction by Anne Gaylor:

“Our speaker, a journalist, majored in English literature at a liberal arts college, and learned his craft, as so many good writers have, on the job. He worked for newspapers in Oregon, New York, and Florida before coming to Texas where he spent seven years writing for the Dallas Times Herald covering South Texas and the Mexican border.

“In 1992 he joined the staff of the San Antonio Express-News, covering the same beat.

“He has written more than 60 news stories on the disappearance of the O’Hair family since 1996, including reports that documented their time in San Antonio, their purchase of $600,000 in gold coins, and the circumstantial evidence linking a former employee with their disappearance. He also documented the disappearance of a Florida con man involved in the case, and his reporting led to identification of the con man’s body three years after his death.

“Without this investigative reporter’s skill and determination, the ‘perfect crime’ very probably would have been committed. He persisted, when others, including police, ignored the unfolding story. Although credit, he tells me, also is due to his editor for approving of the assignment and an investigator for assisting, our speaker’s excellent writing and diligent reporting is deserving of special acclaim.”

By John MacCormack

I should mention at the outset that that unnamed liberal college I went to was in fact Houghton College, Houghton, New York, a fundamentalist Wesleyan Methodist institution. However, I’ve overcome that, so let’s proceed!

I’m going to tell you about this case of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. To me, I’m out here to talk about reporting, and whodunits, and the chronology of solving a case. It could easily have been Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. I was simply a bloodhound on the trail.

What’s the lay of the land as we speak? We’re talking about Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a person whom many of you knew personally, all of you knew of her. She’s a much bigger person in your world than she was in the greater world, of course.

A little over four years ago, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray and Robin [her granddaughter], vanished. They’re still vanished, but we do have two men arrested and accused, in an affidavit if not in a court charge, of murdering them. We have a third man who ended up without his head and his hands, who was also murdered in the same time frame as the O’Hair’s disappearance. He’s been identified. And we have about half a million dollars worth of gold missing. That’s where the case stands.

I’m going to introduce the characters, then go through a broad chronology of how this story unfolded from my point of view as a reporter. I’ve been a reporter about 25 years. I’m very much a generalist: I do whatever comes my way. But of course, every reporter dreams of a story where, when you get hold of it, it slips away, then you get a greater chunk of it, and then you keep pushing, working your way through the murkiness and the fog, and every time you push, you see a little more. That doesn’t happen very often in reporting. Usually the fog just stays put, and you end up writing what little you find out.

In this instance, in over four years I’ve gone from a state of complete ignorance–from the point where I really couldn’t have told you in an intelligent fashion who Madalyn Murray O’Hair was or why she was important–to where I think we have about 95% of the puzzle in place.

There are two central characters, besides Madalyn. The man who I think organized the plot to kill her is named David Waters. He is now in prison and has been convicted of gun charges. He, in my story, emerges as the person who organizes this plot to kidnap them, take them to San Antonio, take their gold, and kill them.

The other guy who is important, who is really the key to the case, was an old buddy of David Waters, named Danny Fry. Danny Fry’s the one who ended up without his head or his hands. Danny was a con man from Florida. He and David Waters had worked down there together, and he’d come to Texas in the summer of ’95 and then vanished the same week the O’Hairs vanished. He’s crucial because it was through the intervention of his relatives that we actually finally pushed through the last layer of fog and saw a coherent picture of what happened.

I’m going to take you back to where I started. This is going to be kind of amusing, because take yourself back to August of ’96, newsroom of the [San Antonio] Express-News. I have a good editor, and I usually take his advice. In this instance, he asked: Have they ever found Madalyn Murray O’Hair? And I’m thinking: Is she missing?

That’s how tuned in we were. It wasn’t by accident, because American Atheists had really downplayed it. There were no cries of help or alarm. Nothing. Just silence.

So my editor said he remembered that a year or so ago she had vanished, and check it out. I’m thinking: Right, a loser story. But if you’re my age and in the reporting business, you always aspire to a respectable job. Also, I have the fatal weakness of something grabbing my interest, once I get involved in it. It doesn’t hurt to be a little simple, in my line of work. Anything can interest you if you pay a little attention.

The following is the first of five important stories that I wrote. The first story was the anniversary story. We do these all of the time. If something happened a year ago, and it’s a slow news day, it’s worth noting that it happened a year ago, even if there’s nothing more to it! This is funny, too, because I actually got the date wrong. I had her disappearing eleven months after she disappeared, not a year. I beat the competition! That was an accident; I wasn’t that sharp.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair vanished late summer/early fall of ’95. So I roll up to Austin, the usual drill, go to the American Atheist headquarters, talk to whomever, run the traps, check clips, and try to write a respectable story that, basically, covers my ass, and if it advances the story, great. And if it doesn’t, great, because a lot of stories aren’t going anywhere.

I wrote a story and this kind of planted a seed in my mind that this was something to keep track of. I’ll read you the line that I’m sure will amuse all of you the most, fourth paragraph:

“It was O’Hair’s lawsuit that led to a 1963 Supreme Court ruling that ended prayer and bible reading in public schools, and in her words, made her the ‘most hated woman in America.’ “

We know there are a couple of errors in that sentence, which I later tried to correct. She got more credit over the years in the press than she probably deserved. But, in any event, this was the first story, and it basically said they disappeared, no one knew anything, there was a quirky transaction involving a car shortly before they disappeared.

All that anyone knew at that point, or was telling, was that the O’Hairs had left Austin, the three of them, in a hurry, left a note on the door of the American Atheist headquarters, came to San Antonio, stuck around for a month, kept in touch by a cell phone, and in the course of that month, someone, who was not Jon Murray, sold Jon Murray’s Mercedes to a local realtor. It wasn’t really much to go on. Basically you have “famous atheist is gone,” and there’s nothing more to say.

The first story basically opened things up. Madalyn’s gone. Did she go to New Zealand? Hawaii? Is she hiding out in the Hill Country? Who knows? And there wasn’t much sense of why anyone should care that a formerly famous person vanishes.

Things kind of coasted. I kept in touch with it because there was another reporter from the Houston Chronicle who was paying attention to it. I didn’t want to be embarrassed by him getting ahead of it.

Then I was the beneficiary of a good tip. The plot thickened about three months later, when I got some friendly advice from someone who knew I should check the 990 forms that are filed annually by nonprofit organizations, and in particular check two of them that pertained to O’Hair’s atheist organizations. When I checked that out, I read this from the United Secularists of America. It said: “the $612,000 shown as a decrease in the net assets or fund balance represents the value of the United Secularists of America’s assets believed to be in possession of Jon Murray, former Secretary. The whereabouts of Jon Murray and these assets has not been known since September of ’95 and is not known to the organization at this time. At such time as when the United Secularists of America locate Jon Murray . . .” and blah-blah-blah-blah.

Now you have $600,000 plus three missing atheists, which is a lot more potential for a good story. So that was the story that really opened things up. You could smell something. It was going to be one of several things. The most logical was that Madalyn took the money and ran. The more I delved into Madalyn, the more I learned about her–that she took care of herself, was very good at getting money, and that there was talk of a “retirement” involving the three of them for years, and so on. The other option was foul play. But there was no scenario for that, just some missing money.

Then you skip ahead. At this point I’ve got to introduce another character. The reason I’m standing here looking like the skilled journalist I’ve been introduced as is in part because of a private investigator who came to me back right after the missing money story ran. His name is Tim Young; his specialty is finding people who don’t want to be found. He usually finds people who have bought a Lexus, make one payment, and disappear. Tim figured, reasonably enough, that if he could put on top of his resume, “I found Madalyn Murray O’Hair,” that that would be quite a plum. And he was right.

The fellow and I worked together for 19 months, and he was fantastically talented. We worked together in a very intimate collaboration–sometimes we’d talk 6-8 times a day on the phone. It was 100% sharing. But for Tim, not only his encouragement but his skills, I wouldn’t be here, and David Waters wouldn’t be locked up, and Danny Fry’s body would still be sitting in a pauper’s grave with no name attached to it.

If you’re mapping a story or history, there are crucial breakthroughs. Getting the 990’s was easy. The next task was to get Jon Murray’s cell phone records for the month that Jon Murray was in San Antonio. Tim got them from above-board means, meaning private investigators have all kinds of ways of getting things (reporters are limited to certain legal and above-board ways).

The cell phone records for Jon Murray’s last month opened up the next breakthrough. We found out Jon Murray was in San Antonio calling financial institutions, pharmacies, airlines, travel agencies, and also jewelers. To move things along fast, we got the cell phone records, and we went door to door to all the places that he called. We knocked on one door, and found where the $600,000 went.

Obviously, I’m compressing weeks and weeks of heroic effort into a couple of minutes here, but we found out Jon Murray had purchased $600,000 worth of gold coins with this money, from a little dinky jeweler up on Fredericksburg Road, a really nice guy. The biggest account in the world ever walked in his door, he sold him $600,000 worth of gold coins, took delivery of $500,000 on September 29, and Jon Murray never came back for the last shipment. So now there’s even more confusion. We also learned at this point that the IRS was doing a money-laundering investigation on the same material that they also knew about.

Now we have missing atheists, missing gold coins, and last, coins not delivered. Someone sarcastically said that the best proof that Madalyn is not alive is that she never came back for the last $100,000.

That could be so.

Go to June 1998. We’ve got three missing atheists, missing money, no explanation. We still don’t have a clue whether they’re in Germany, Canada, Mexico.

Mr. Young is a very bright guy, and he can tell pretty much if someone is alive, simply because even if you’re sitting in a cabin like Kaczynski was up in Montana, you’re mailing letters, you have a phone in some cases, email, people are calling you. You can’t really just disappear in this day and age–unless you’re dead.

The interesting thing about the O’Hairs is that since their disappearance, we had found no sign that they were alive anywhere. We had means of trying to detect if they were in touch with their friends. There was nothing. But we weren’t anywhere nearer the answer. Just the three missing atheists, missing gold, any theory was as good as any other.

Then comes the big tip. In June of 1998 I was sitting at my desk. We get a lot of goofy calls. I’ve had Madalyn all over the map. Reporters listen to everybody: you’ve got about 30 seconds, and after that if you haven’t really established yourself as someone, then you’re history.

These are the notes I took when the guy called me. I operate with a computer, and as soon as the phone rings, my hands are on the keyboard. This is what the person says. The phone rings.

“Are you John MacCormack?”


He says, “It was a kidnapping. I have a person’s name who organized it. He’s from Austin. His name is David.”

I’m not really taking this seriously yet.

“I was told by a third party who is involved. That person has disappeared now. What happened was, he put together a group of people to do this. This David did this. They all bought hand guns and they trained at a range in Austin. I don’t know the name of the range. They kept the hostages at a place called the Warren Inn Park in San Antonio. He kept them there.”

At this point, my interest is much, much greater.

He says, “This David is the one who did all the planning. He infiltrated the organization. The money was the motive. They took them at gunpoint from Austin to San Antonio.”

So far the guy’s got me very interested, but he hasn’t told me anything with breakthrough information. He said they got cooperation from them by threat of violence. Then he said the guy’s name was “David Waters,” or “Walters.” He couldn’t remember.

Well, if you’re a student of the O’Hair matter, and you spent two or three years looking at everyone they were involved with, back there in the third or fourth row of people was a guy named . . . David Waters. We all know now who he is, but at the time he was just a fringe figure, a former office manager. He’d gotten into trouble by stealing $50,000 from them. Suddenly, Waters leaps to the forefront.

The tipster went on to tell me about how Waters had gotten Danny Fry to come from Florida with this big kidnapping plan, and they’d held them at a certain place. The tipster was a friend/relative of a person interested in Fry’s welfare. He told me that Fry had disappeared.

This was the crucial tip that really opened it up, because now we had a second disappearance. He went on to tell me some things: he wanted his name off the record, he couldn’t be quoted, but he sent me in the right direction.

Now we have somebody else disappear in the same time frame. With a lot of investigating, we figured out that they disappeared within 24 hours of each other, and that they basically had paralleled. They left Austin at the same time, they stayed in San Antonio for a month, they stayed in the same general part of town, and poof, they’re all gone.

Whatever happened to Danny Fry? We’ve got a missing guy; he’s kind of a low-life, alcoholic, lays carpet, from Florida. Could he be in Mexico? Did he go to Kansas City? Did he run out on his girlfriend? It’s not much–you can’t make a case with that. All you can do is write a story that says “Florida man disappears the same time as the O’Hairs, and they both knew David Waters.” That’s if you can get it past your lawyers and your editors, and in this case, it did, although we moved that little packaging of coincidences down from about the second paragraph to midway in the story. It’s called lowering your liability.

We wrote the story about Danny Fry, when we were really writing the story about David Waters.

It’s now August 1998, a little over a year ago. Now we’re getting to the point where the TV people would love the story. At this point, Mr. Young and I split company. He felt, and I felt, very clearly that we’re dealing with four dead people, murderers, that it wasn’t New Zealand and tropical drinks, it wasn’t Jon Garth and his mother and Robin sitting in some bungalow somewhere. We felt that the story had really taken a sinister and ugly turn. We really were convinced of that. We knew enough so that we no longer entertained any “took the money and run” scenario.

We were very sure that they were all very dead. Mr. Young felt this was a matter to be handled by police, and I felt that this was a matter to be handled by me.

The Austin police basically from the word go had treated this like a voluntary disappearance. (Until Danny Fry showed up, that was as good a theory as any.) The Austin police have come out of this looking really dopey, because even after this other disappearance showed up, they basically ignored it. It ended up the FBI and a couple of other agencies look like the hero in the crimebusters, because the Austin police just ignored it.

So Mr. Young and I quit company. This story once again hits a dead end.

So you’ve got three atheists missing, and an alcoholic from Florida, and $600,000 in gold, and you’ve got Mr. Waters in the picture. Mr. Waters denies knowing anything. Mr. Waters is a really intelligent man, very well-spoken. He writes well, and he’s got, to put it politely, very high testosterone levels, very bold. He’s not easily intimidated. Every time I talked with him, he was able to handle the questions. It didn’t bother him in the least to talk to a reporter.

The next is the serendipity breakthrough, probably where luck plays as big a role as hard work and all those other elements that go into a successful story. In early October of ’98, the Dallas Morning News wrote a story about the third-year anniversary of the discovery of a headless body, also minus hands, at a riverbank 20 miles east of Dallas.

I was sitting there surfing the waves, as we call it, and you pretend to be working but you’re really sitting there reading all the wire stories. I hit this story. It was just an AP summary of the Dallas Morning News story. It was 6-8 graphs and it said police were still baffled by this horrendous crime, this white guy ended up without his head, his clothes or his hands on this riverbank.

So I’m thinking, maybe Danny Fry? It’s the same weekend. But I’m not a beginner, so I’m thinking let’s try to exclude it. That’s the way you do these things. You don’t try to make sure it is Danny Fry, you try to eliminate him. So I check it out. I call the detective. Give me a torso description. The guy had heavy hair on his chest, even had hair on the top of his feet, his fiancee told me. There were no tattoos, no scars, no marks, nothing. You basically had the all-time anonymous white body without a head and hands. Back and forth between the cops and the relatives. The fiancee, the ex-wife, the daughter, everybody. I couldn’t exclude Fry. I even tried to get pictures of him on the beach, so we could compare chest hair patterns. That wasn’t possible. But the punchline was, after about a week of this, I said, why not? The same weekend. Someone really didn’t want him identified.

It’s only five hours from San Antonio, so I flew up to Dallas and we compared notes. The Dallas sheriff’s office, to their eternal credit, took me seriously, although they found the whole story that led up to this virtually incomprehensible. You know, the O’Hair disappearance, the ins and outs, the intrigue. They had retained genetic material from the body. I knew where all of Fry’s relatives were, so to make a really complicated, long story short, between October and late December, we managed to get blood samples of three of Fry’s relatives. In January, guess what? It’s Danny Fry.

So now we’re in the ninth inning. You’ve got one dead guy, and whoever killed him didn’t want him identified. This kind of hints to me, what happened to the O’Hairs? After that, it was like rolling down a hill. We printed the story, and we also printed a timeline that showed all of the coincidences of phone calls made by Danny Fry, and phone calls made by Jon Murray, both for time and location. In this period from the fall through January, I’d managed to win the confidence of one of Fry’s brothers, Bob, and he provided me with Danny’s phone records, and he also told me that the day after Danny disappeared and Bob worried about it, David Waters had come to Florida and basically said: Don’t worry about it, or you’ll end up the same way.

We published a story that said this headless guy is Danny Fry. That gets the attention of the FBI. In the next three or four months, there’s furious action. The FBI raids these guys’ apartments, they find guns, they put them in jail, they release an affidavit describing this whole plot where Waters and his buddies kidnapped them. They put the pieces in the puzzle that kind of confirmed our suspicions.

As we stand here now, we’ve got two people in prison: Waters and Karr. Gary Karr is an accessory–he’s a minor figure. We’ve got Madalyn still missing and Danny Fry still dead, and everyone still waiting. The feds are still waiting for this second guy, Karr, to break and rat on Waters.

That’s among the only missing parts on the forensic side. I have a lot of questions about the case in a larger sense.

I’m sure Madalyn is dead. The feds think she was chopped up and stuffed in blue barrels and dumped somewhere in the Hill Country, but they haven’t been able to find them. Waters isn’t talking, so it’s kind of reached a stalemate. But I think very soon there will be developments with Mr. Karr, where the pressure will be mounting and he’ll be forced to cooperate. We have the death penalty in Texas.

Let me share with you a few things I’ve selected from my notes. These are the words of David Waters, very bright man. He says when he was hired by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, back in ’93, to be a typesetter, he said: “I kind of thought it would be a hotbed of intellectual debate. But there was no debate allowed, that’s for sure. It was her way or the highway. Madalyn to me was the most hateful individual I’ve ever met. I can’t say I’ve ever heard her say without reservation something good about anyone at any time.”

This is a rare case where the accused killer wrote a book about the alleged victim! That would be Mr. Waters. Mr. Waters wrote a 200-page book describing how the O’Hairs were in New Zealand. Of course, if he were right, he’s going to sell a lot of books, and he’s also going to live. But no one found her there. Here’s the beginning of Mr. Waters’ book. It’s called “Good God, Madalyn”:

“To simply label Madalyn an atheist, racist, homophobe, anti-Semite, etc., would be a tremendous misnomer. To her dubious credit, Madalyn Mays Murray O’Hair is an equal opportunity bigot, whose loathing of humanity is evenly dispensed without partiality.”

I’ll give you a little more. Here’s what he thinks of Jon, paraphrased. Jon was a lisping, anal-retentive, foul-mouthed boor. Robin was a screeching shrew. Madalyn was the unquestioned ruler of all that passed beyond the tinted glass windows of the atheist headquarters. This is truly insightful for a guy who never got past high school, and is a sociopath. Listen:

“She was truly an enigma. She would discuss current events, history, law, art, stamp-collecting, literature, and many other subjects, in a most knowledgeable and scholarly manner. Yet she exhibited a profound and almost sadistic glee in using the vilest of language, often making a casual obscenity take on more revolting overtones simply in the way she phrased her words, and in the tone of voice she used.”

If you look back on this quickly sketched picture, there’s two big mysteries to me, one I actually think I know the answer to. The first mystery is why did this all happen? Obviously, you could say I just mentioned $600,000 in gold. Well, I believe, after spending a little time with David Waters and a lot of time with Madalyn vicariously, this really happened because when Madalyn Murray O’Hair hired David Waters back in ’93, that was the beginning of some profoundly bad chemistry.

Mr. Waters was a guy who didn’t do well with women. He had a murder conviction when he was 17, a teenage male thing. When he got out of prison, he beat his mother up, he urinated on her, beat her with some objects. He beat up his girlfriend, and she later testified against him.

I think when Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a very dominant female figure, hired this guy, that therein lay the seeds. It wasn’t so much the $600,000 as it was a very personal thing. David Waters wanted to get even with Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

The feds sort of agree. I’ll read you an excerpt from an affidavit that led to the arrest of Waters. It accuses him throughout of murdering them, but it doesn’t charge him with it.

Now Madalyn made one mistake. About a month and a half before she disappeared, she published a newsletter in which she devoted the whole issue to the David Waters affair, where he had been her office manager, had taken all this money, and she got deeply into his personal history, which was better off left alone. And David Waters’ girlfriend, who’s known to the feds as CS2 (that’s “confidential source number 2”) says this:

“CS2 stated that after Waters pled guilty, Madalyn printed an article about Waters in the American Atheist newsletter, which related Waters’ past criminal history. Madalyn characterized Waters as a scumbag. At this point, Waters had a serious change of attitude toward the O’Hairs.

“Waters mentioned he would like to get revenge for what had been written, and expressed fantasies of killing Madalyn. He spoke about seeing Madalyn suffer and snipping off her toes.”

Well, to me there remains one big mystery.

This is what we absolutely know with certainty, because Mr. Karr has spoken in a limited fashion about what happened in San Antonio during the month of September 1995.

Waters, Karr and Fry got the O’Hairs up in Austin, took them down here [to San Antonio], they spent a month with them. Jon wasn’t supervised; he was driving all over town. He had a cell phone. He even flew to New Jersey to clear up a little bank transaction from New Zealand. But he wasn’t, shall we say, “kidnapped” in the normal sense of the word.

Madalyn and Robin apparently stayed at a place called the Warren Inn. They were publicly seen in a little bar in a place nearby. The big question is, what possibly could David Waters have told the O’Hairs or done to them to lead them to believe that this was going to come out with them alive? Karr says that Waters and the O’Hairs were all very much on a friendly basis, and that they weren’t prisoners. That’s the great mystery. What in the world–what plot or scheme–did David Waters come up with or contrive, to convince these very intelligent and suspicious, tough people, at least one of them, that this was going to work out, and it was in their best interests to cooperate? That’s the only thing I really don’t know. If Mr. Karr comes clean and cooperates, we may know that.

That’s the outline. Now I’ll take some questions.

Question about the legal status of David Waters.

MacCormack: Waters got 60 years for violating probation on some other issue, and eight years for the federal gun charges. The feds are not snoozing; they’re analyzing blood, they’re waiting for Mr. Karr to eliminate his appeals up in Detroit. He’s facing grave consequences. So everyone’s waiting for Karr to deal with his gun charges.

Question about the sale of the Mercedes.

That is one of the things that made it stink. Ms. Gaylor called this nearly the perfect crime. Well, if you’ve ever done anything wrong in your life, you know the perfect crime is just the one where you don’t get caught. You can make all kinds of mistakes, you can be sloppy, you can be stupid, but if no one finds out you did it, it’s a “perfect crime.” In this instance, there was some sloppiness. One of the stupidest things they did was they had an impostor sell Jon Murray’s Mercedes here in San Antonio, where there was no reason, if they wanted the money, that they couldn’t have had Jon sell it himself. You had a short blond guy say he was Jon Murray, who of course was tall with a lisp, and dark. Even the dullest cop or reporter can sense that there was a problem. That was one of the screw-ups.

Question about the degree of cooperation Mr. MacCormack got from American Atheists, and was there ever any evidence that Madalyn Murray O’Hair had taken money from her organization?

I got zero cooperation from the brass. I don’t know how to put this diplomatically. I got more extensive cooperation from the rank-and-file. As far as Madalyn Murray O’Hair taking money and salting it away in Swiss banks, I never really developed any good leads that that happened. There could be $5 million sitting somewhere. I don’t know, and I don’t know anyone who does know.

Now the American Atheists were in denial, both literally and figuratively for a long time, because a month after Madalyn was really gone, Ellen Johnson was still saying she’s away on a business trip and everything’s great. I almost feel, not so much in defense of American Atheists’ president, that inadvertently, some of these people were complicit in this, and thought it was going to come out differently. They thought they were doing what Madalyn wanted. But it came out in a very different way.

So there’s probably some guilt there, and they don’t want to talk about it. They weren’t very cooperative at all. I mean, can you imagine a great big evangelist disappearing and dead silence for almost a year?

Question about the number of sightings, and why did the FBI care about the disappearance?

You’ll be amused by this. Vanity Fair sent a reporter down to New Zealand, Mimi Schwartz, a good writer, good reporter. Now this was way back a year or so after Madalyn vanished. The reporter searches for weeks. What does the reporter have to report? “She’s not here, boss”? So basically Vanity Fair wrote a story that had an Elvis sighting at the end of it. Madalyn had been dead for 15 months before that. But I guess they couldn’t go all the way to New Zealand and spend $10,000 or $20,000 writing this story, and come up with nothing. Now the twist is that Mimi Schwartz, the reporter, got a lot of help from David Waters, who had a lot of internal documents that are entirely legitimate, and that painted a picture of them planning to go to New Zealand. I’m sure Mr. Waters steered Mimi to New Zealand, and the only thing missing was Madalyn.

Why did the FBI get interested? Well, remember the front page of the Express-News. The FBI came from sort of a casual interest, trying to help the IRS with the money-laundering side of this. There was nothing to go on. They didn’t get the tips; I got the tips. So when the Express-News runs a big story, “ID of headless man may clear up O’Hair case,” it’s time to dive in. The FBI to their credit put a lot of manpower into this, as did the Dallas Sheriff’s Office. They blew the case apart.

Question about whether Jon Murray flying to New Jersey had anything to do with Ellen Johnson, who lived in New Jersey.

Jon Murray flew to Newark, went to a bank fairly near where Ellen Johnson lives. Obviously the question is did Ellen Johnson go down to the bank and help Jon withdraw the money? I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know that Ellen’s ever answered the question, because no one can get near her. I don’t know if Ellen Johnson was even aware he was in New Jersey, if she met him at the bank, if it was a dual signature account, I simply don’t know.

Question about how it is known Jon Murray was doing all these things in September 1995.

He was talking to people who knew him. He was talking to Ellen Johnson, to American Atheists, to people up in Austin. When they called back, he would answer in most instances, although curiously enough there were several times when an unknown male voice answered the phone and handed the phone to Jon, so we think that’s Mr. Waters, Mr. Karr or Mr. Fry. Madalyn and Robin both talked to people who knew them during that month on the cell phone.

Question about where the $500,000 in gold coins is.

Good question! Listen to this. This is going to make you weep if you have a penchant for crime or you ever felt like ripping someone off. They get Jon Murray to get the $600,000 from atheist funds in New Zealand. They wire through to New Jersey. It made the bankers there wonder why does this guy need $600,000 wired through New Jersey to a jeweler in San Antonio? The money gets to the jeweler. The jeweler orders the coins: Krugerrands, Canadian Maple Leaves, American Eagles. The coins come in in staggered shipments. The jeweler gets $500,000 in his shop and calls Jon Murray on his cell phone. He’s never met Murray yet. He knows the money is in his account; that’s the condition, obviously. You don’t do business unless you know the money’s in your account. He takes the $500,000 in gold coins to Jon Murray at a bank on the north side. They count it up. Jon Murray disappears. End of story. The other $100,000 comes in a little later. It sits there for two years and is finally turned back to American Atheists.

Now what happens to the half million in gold coins? Go to the FBI affidavit. All of these girlfriends and hangers-on say the bad guys took the money up to Austin, they rent two or three different storage lockers. They stuck the gold coins in one or two suitcases in these lockers. David Waters had the key. They went home. Waters comes back a couple of days later. The door was open, no coins, the lock still hanging there. Okay. Where did the money go? We thought David Waters had buried it.

Two or three months ago, the FBI held a big press conference in San Antonio and said they found out what happened to the gold coins. This gang of ne’er-do-well bums from San Antonio whose career was breaking into storage lockers had gone up there, raided it and took the money.

Being a reporter, I called up the storage place and asked: how many lockers did you have broken into that day? None. How many that month? None. I called the Austin police. How many reports of break-ins or burglaries did you have at the so-and-so storage lockers that month? None. I called the FBI back and said: Look. You’re telling us these guys just walked up there and found the right one and went home? They said they couldn’t tell me the rest of the story, but that’s what happened, basically.

OK, it’s preposterous, right? Nobody’s that lucky. Here’s what happened. The guys who were doing this were specialists. They had a master key for a certain type of lock. They didn’t just go crowbarring doors. They went down the road till they’d match a lock to the key. Poor Mr. Waters in his infinite bad luck, bought the wrong lock! So he lost $500,000 in gold coins in the nearly perfect crime. These guys from San Antonio hit the jackpot, came back and spent two years spending the money. The feds recovered one Kruggerand. That’s what happened to the money.

That’ll make you an honest man. If we’re right, Mr. Waters conspired to get rid of Mrs. O’Hair, pick her off and everything, and did it all, and ended up with nothing except a 60-year jail sentence. That’s a really sad story.

What about her other son, Bill Murray? Is he implicated?

He’s not implicated. He’s got clean hands. This whole crime put Madalyn Murray O’Hair back in the spotlight for the first time in twenty-some years, and it also put Bill back in. Bill was legitimately worried, I think, about the fate of his mother, his daughter and his brother. He was very valuable to me and helpful to me. The fact that the name “O’Hair” was in the paper a lot, I’m sure, didn’t hurt Bill Murray.

Comment from audience member who said she would be eternally grateful to Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

If you work on a story as a crime story, you tend to lose sight of the humanity of the principals. If you’re working on a crime story on dead or disappeared people, they tend to become abstractions. But the private investigator, Tim Young, could not get away from the fact that no matter who they were, whether Madalyn was a real monster or a nasty person or uncouth, no matter what their bad characteristics, that fundamentally and at the root of this, you have three people kidnapped, and in some way, shape or form held prisoner or duped, and then they were in all likelihood brutally murdered by some really ugly, vicious, sociopathic-type personalities. Beyond all the reporting and the whodunit, and the crime stuff, if what I think really happened happened, this was a very horrific crime that no one should be subjected to.

Question: did you meet with David Waters in person and did you ever feel you were in danger?

I spoke to Mr. Waters, as I always referred to him, probably half a dozen times. I was face to face with him three or four times. My policy was: here I’m dealing with a guy whom I think killed four people, and one for reasons of expediency. That would be Mr. Fry. The way I handled this was, I kept it very professional. He was always Mr. Waters. No Wise Guy questions. Keep it short, simple and show respect . . .

The answer to the question was, I never felt afraid of Mr. Waters, but I was always aware. I have three sons. Fortunately, I have three dogs, too. I was always aware that if the guy wanted to kill me, he could easily do it. Now I also felt he would never come to the conclusion that that was in his interest, because he was a very intelligent man. But from the time I first named him in my paper, which was a year ago last August, until he was arrested, I took care to see who was driving down the street in front of the house. I listened when the dogs barked at night.

I believed the guy was a killer, and I didn’t think he could find any good reason to kill me, but then, he’d been wrong before!

Latest Development In O’Hair Case

Since reporter John MacCormack’s Nov. 6 speech on the status of the O’Hair disappearance, there has been a new development. On Dec. 7, a federal grand jury in Austin, Texas, formally charged Gary Karr, a suspected accessory to David Waters, with conspiring with others to plan and carry out the 1995 kidnapping and extortion of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son, Jon Garth Murray, and granddaughter Robin Murray O’Hair.

Karr, who is in custody in Detroit, is accused in the indictment of stealing more than $500,000 in gold, vehicles and money from the O’Hairs. Karr faces up to life in prison if convicted.

These are the first charges directly related to the disappearance of the O’Hair family, but “not the final chapter of this investigation,” said U.S. Attorney Bill Blagg, of San Antonio.

Freedom From Religion Foundation