The Case of the Headless, Handless Corpse

A reporter's tip helped detectives identify a mutilated body dumped along the Trinity, but finding the man's name led to a deeper mystery -- the disappearance of atheist gadfly Madalyn Murray O'Hair

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The Case of the Headless, Handless Corpse
A reporter's tip helped detectives identify a mutilated body dumped along the Trinity, but finding the man's name led to a deeper mystery -- the disappearance of atheist gadfly Madalyn Murray O'Hair

By John MacCormack
An old man prospecting for aluminum among the junk couches, tires, and brush beside the Trinity River found the body, the one without a head or hands, on an overcast fall afternoon more than three years ago.

The nude, mutilated corpse was that of a freshly killed white man, tanned, circumcised, well manicured, and quite hairy. The corpse reposed on a rough bed of litter and poison ivy, chest up and legs together. The truncated arms flopped at rough angles to the torso, a few degrees off perpendicular. Someone, perhaps using a cleaver or heavy fishing knife, had crudely severed the head flush with the shoulders and cut off the hands unevenly at the wrists.

The body was dumped in far southeast Dallas County, just beyond Seagoville, and by the time a representative from the medical examiner's office arrived from Dallas several hours later, the flies and ants had already begun their work.

In their haste or arrogance, the killers had left the body in plain view, not far from the roadway and just yards from the river channel, something that came to both fascinate and anger the police.

"It was almost like they were daring us to discover this thing. Why didn't they dump it in the water?" asked Dallas County detective Robert Bjorklund in an interview last fall.

But if the killers were cocky, they were also fastidious.
"They took all the clothes. There was no evidence at the scene and very little blood. He was killed somewhere else," he said.

The can picker and another witness mentioned seeing two vehicles in the area along Malloy Bridge Road, one a dark Suburban, the other a white luxury car, possibly a Pontiac Gran Prix or a Chrysler New Yorker, with two men inside.

Dogs were brought in and snuffled up and down the riverbank for the missing body parts. Police in boats dragged hooks through the shallow, murky water of the East Trinity, but pulled up nothing but debris.

An autopsy performed October 3, 1995, in Dallas added little.
It noted narrowing of the coronary arteries, yellow fat on the liver, often consistent with heavy drinking, and a probable blood type of A. There were no tattoos, scars, or identifying marks on the ant-bitten body, but technicians did find a bit of blue fiber and an African-American hair.

"Based upon the autopsy findings and history as available to us, it is our opinion that this 34-46-year-old, 5'5" to 5'8" unknown light-skinned male, with no identifying marks or scars, died as the result of unknown homicidal violence," the autopsy report concluded.

The Dallas County Sheriff's Office averages a handful of homicides a year, and for the first two months, Bjorklund worked the case of the headless, handless corpse every day, searching missing-persons and crime reports for a match or a motive.

Police theorized that only a big-time drug killing could inspire such calculated savagery. Or, they joked in dark cop humor, a really bad fishing accident.

By last October, on the third anniversary of the can picker's grisly find, the case was right where it had begun. Nowhere.

"We've followed numerous leads, any leads we got. We checked NCIC missing-persons files. We exhausted that. We're at square one," Bjorklund said last fall.

That would soon change. Following a tip from a reporter, investigators identified the headless man late last month as a Florida hustler named Danny Fry, who told his family in late 1995 that he was coming to Texas to work on a big score. But coming up with a name only deepened the mystery, revealing shadowy links between Fry and another equally strange case--the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheist agitator and the self-described most hated woman in America.

What was Fry's big score, and how did it relate to O'Hair's vanishing and the disappearance of more than $600,000 from the coffers of the atheist organization she founded? Lines of coincidence and conjecture bind the two cases. Trace those lines, and a murky picture of murder, theft, and scandal begins to emerge. Trouble is, the people who most likely could make that picture clearer either aren't talking or can't be found--except possibly in New Zealand.

On the Monday that the headless body appeared on a riverbank near Dallas, the plot of a celebrity whodunit was beginning to take on some complexity in San Antonio, some 275 miles to the south.

October 2, 1995--the day Fry's body was found--marked the third day since officials of American Atheists in Austin had heard from their founder and leader O'Hair, the country's best-known and perhaps most belligerent unbeliever.

O'Hair had come to prominence more than three decades earlier in the pivotal federal court battles over compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. O'Hair's side won, although her role would become exaggerated over the years. But back then, in the post-war Eisenhower era, atheism ranked with Communism as ideological perfidy in the popular American mind.

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