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.
In 1963, the justices ruled 8-1 in her favor, and the family was vilified nationwide. While Madalyn reveled in the attention, William writhed. That, plus the high-decibel discord of their home life, drove him to seek solace in drinking and fast living. He wound up in a failed marriage that produced a daughter he had no time for. That was Robin, later legally adopted by Madalyn.
The wandering William turned to Christianity after a frightening dream of an angel pointing a sword toward the Bible. He took up the causes of religion and right-wing politics with a zeal to equal his mother's firebrand support of left-wing atheism.
But William had also become the most vocal advocate for justice in the case of his mother's disappearance, long after most of her American Atheists colleagues lapsed into an uncomfortable silence on the matter.
The drama began in August 1995, when Madalyn, 75; Jon, 40; and Robin, 29, disappeared. The following Monday, their employees at American Atheists headquarters in Austin arrived to find a cryptic note on the office door, saying the three had been called away on urgent family business and would return soon.
For the next month, the three stayed in touch with the organization by cellular phone. Phone records later showed that most of the calls were coming from San Antonio.
But after a call on Sept. 29, the line went dead. They failed to show up as planned for a picket of Pope John Paul II in New York. The attention-loving Madalyn missed a scheduled television appearance on "Donahue."
Records emerged showing that, during that September, Jon had moved more than $600,000 from a New Zealand bank account for one of American Atheists' affiliated organizations, United Secularists, and taken the money. His Mercedes was sold that month for $15,000, a cut-rate price.
Yet, not until more than a year had passed did anyone file a missing-persons report, and that job was left to William, who at first had wanted nothing to do with the attention surrounding the case. But he got no satisfaction from the Austin police, who assigned Officer Baker, whose specialty was tracking down runaway juveniles.
Murray said Baker did virtually nothing. The police responded by saying there was no law against someone's choosing to disappear.
By late January 1997, Murray was frustrated enough to write Texas Gov. George W. Bush, asking for help from the Texas Rangers. But by then, private eye Young had been drawn to the case. Intrigued by the news accounts, the Phoenix investigator had contacted San Antonio Express-News reporter John MacCormack with an enticing proposition: Pick up my expenses, and I'll work the case for free.
For the next 19 months, Young would spend roughly 30 hours a week on the investigation, and he and MacCormack would often worry that they'd reached a dead end.
"But every time we'd get to the point of 'What am I doing?' we'd get another break," said Young.
Trail of phone records
One of those breaks came when Young got hold of Jon Murray's cell-phone records -- 150 calls during the family's final month in San Antonio. Until then, he figured that the three "had absconded with some funds and were laughing their butts off."
Vanity Fair magazine, in fact, boldly stated that that was just what they'd done, claiming they'd been spotted in New Zealand, although the tally of unnamed "witnesses" fell short of the standards of most Elvis sightings.
But as Young tracked the 150 new leads and followed a trail of charge-card receipts, a new pattern began to emerge: This was a family fretfully scrambling to round up cash in a hurry, as if under marching orders, while avoiding the nice restaurants they liked to frequent.
Jon Murray, it was learned, had arranged to buy $600,000 in gold coins. He'd picked up the first $500,000 worth but never made it back to pick up the rest. These were people worried about the cocker spaniels they'd abruptly left behind, Young said: Robin telephoned an Austin kennel, worrying that "they would be away longer than they'd expected."
"And that's when it hit me," Young said. "Hey, these people are human, and I began to look at them as victims."
Jon Murray, it turned out, was accompanied to New Jersey during his roundup of cash, while Madalyn and Robin presumably stayed behind, under guard at a short-term apartment at San Antonio's Warren Inn.
Then, another name at last entered the picture, that of Danny Fry. He, too, was missing. His family last saw him in the summer of 1995 when he boarded a plane in Tampa, Fla., for Texas, telling them he was about to strike it rich in a big score engineered by a friend in Austin. He last phoned home Sept. 29, the day after Jon Murray's final call, and the same day that Murray picked up the $500,000 in gold.
The family told MacCormack that Fry's contact in Texas was David R. Waters.
Suddenly, there was a concrete link to the O'Hair disappearance.
Waters, 52, was a former office manager of American Atheists, who had pleaded guilty to embezzling $54,000 in 1994 while Madalyn, Jon and Robin were out of town.
A smooth talker who looks his questioners straight in the eye, Waters told The Sun two years ago that he pleaded guilty only because his attorney said his past criminal record, which included an Illinois murder conviction in 1965, would be held against him.
His alibi on the embezzlement -- that Jon Murray had set him up -- was convincing enough to placate several of his former co-workers. David Travis was one.
Even when faced with recent evidence, Travis said he isn't convinced that Waters is involved in the disappearance of either O'Hair or Fry.
"There are more questions than answers in this deal," Travis said. "David Waters just did not act like a guy who'd made the big score."
Fry's family told MacCormack that Fry had sent a last ominous letter home. If he went missing, the letter said, ask Waters for an explanation.
Waters' name led to that of Gary P. Karr, 50. He, too, had served time for violent crimes, and in the mid-1980s he and Waters had spent eight months at the same Illinois prison.
In July 1998, Young and MacCormack parted ways. Young felt it was time to turn over their findings to law enforcement officials and let them do the rest.
MacCormack, knowing the story was getting bigger, wanted to keep publishing their results.
Armey's aid enlisted
That's when Young went to Baker, the Austin police officer. When Young got the brushoff, William Murray enlisted the help of Texas Republican Rep. Dick Armey, the House majority leader.
"That stirred things up," Murray said.
Still, it would take one more big break to move the case along. That came last Oct. 3, when MacCormack saw a news report out of Dallas, marking the third anniversary of an unsolved murder.
The headless, handless, naked victim was found on the bank of the Trinity River in Dallas County on Oct. 2, 1995. The rest of the description seemed to fit that of Danny Fry.
MacCormack called the Dallas County police, and a DNA test confirmed his suspicions: The body was Fry's.
"Then things began to build and build and build," Murray said. He again turned to Washington for help, phoning Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, who wrote a pointed letter to the Justice Department.
On March 24, the resulting state and federal investigation simultaneously carried out searches of Karr's home in Novi, Mich., and Waters' home in Austin. Karr talked to FBI agents for 13 hours, said Special Agent William O'Leary.
The interrogation "related to four unsolved homicides in Texas. One victim was decapitated," O'Leary told a judge at a March 26 detention hearing for Karr. "He admitted to concealing property from the victims after their death; he admitted to acquiring equipment to help the victims be moved."
Karr also told investigators of the location of the burial, and, according to attorneys involved in the case, he identified Waters as the mastermind of the scheme.
That's what led to last weekend's dig near Camp Wood.
Throughout Easter weekend, William Murray awaited the telephone call that would summon him to Texas to help identify the bodies of his mother, brother and daughter.
He is in a bit of a quandary over how he would put the remains of his atheist family to rest, should they be found. His mother once instructed Jon and Robin to quickly proceed with cremation in the event of her death, lest any "Christer" attempt to pray over her body.
"But I don't know what might have happened [to them] in that time of captivity," he said. "A lot of things can happen spiritually to someone in that situation. I think the main thing is to make sure that the remains are properly interred."
Pub Date: 4/08/99