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

"He told me it was a big deal. He would never really say if it was something bad. I'm positive it was illegal, because most of the stuff he did was. He was kind of a con artist," she says of her father.

Fry had arrived in Texas in late July, stayed at Waters' Austin apartment during August, and then moved to San Antonio during September. From San Antonio, he made occasional phone calls home from pay telephones on the northwest side of town.

While in Texas, he was close-mouthed about his work.
But his last call home had come at 2:47 p.m. on September 30, 1995, from the apartment of the man who several months earlier had induced him to come to Texas for a lucrative, if unspecified, opportunity.

The call came on Lisa's 16th birthday, but Fry was uncharacteristically tense and short-spoken on the telephone. His fiancee, who asked that her name not be published, recalls the conversation.

"He was very short with me. I said, 'Don't you want to talk to Lisa and wish her a happy birthday?' She was so psyched up for this. I remember saying to him, 'Let me put Lisa on,' and he said, 'Hurry, I've got to go.' Lisa walked away from the phone with tears in her eyes," she says.

"That last time he called, I said, 'Danny, please come home.' And he said, 'I've got one more thing to do. Then I'll come home.'"

Fry promised to be home in three days. On Tuesday.
But he never appeared or called again.
Unlike the O'Hairs' disappearance, which eventually became a national news story, Fry's remained at the level of a family tragedy. Psychics were consulted, missing-persons reports were filed in Florida and Texas, attempts were made to trace phone records, but nothing came of any of it.

Family members say they got little help from Waters when they called him repeatedly after Danny disappeared.

"I talked to this guy David many times. He ignored all my questions and said he didn't know what Danny was up to. He wouldn't give me any information," the fiancee recalls.

"Dave knew too much. To this day I think that. I wasn't there, but why would your friend come out, do business with you, stay with you, and you not have an inkling of what they were doing?" she asks.

Waters said there was nothing he could do, since he did not know where Fry had gone.

"I couldn't help her. I assured her if I had anything to alleviate her concerns, I would, but I couldn't," he says.

Perhaps, but there are inconsistencies in Waters' recollections of Fry's last days in Texas. Waters has said he lost contact with Fry at a time when phone records indicate that the pair were still in contact. Fry's family members also relate tales of veiled threats from Waters and say Waters told them he talked with Fry days after his body was dumped in Dallas County. Waters maintains his innocence, but that's a tough claim from a man with a criminal record that includes murder, a vicious assault on his own mother, and theft--including one conviction for stealing $54,000 from his former employer, the American Atheists.

A full year passed before Austin police received a missing-persons report for Madalyn Murray O'Hair. It was about that time that newspaper reporters began to sniff the air, catching the first pungent whiffs of what has become the mother of whodunits.

The report was filed by O'Hair's other son, Bill, a Washington-based religious lobbyist, who four decades earlier had been the inspiration for the seminal lawsuit over classroom prayer against the Baltimore public schools.

After a lifetime of conflict with his mother, Bill had struck the ultimate low blow by converting to fundamentalist Christianity. One of Murray's current projects is to put prayer and Bible reading back into the public schools.

"I hope she had an experience with Jesus Christ before she passed away, and maybe that is part of the reason for her mysterious disappearance," Bill Murray said on the first anniversary of his mother's absence.

"If she had the hope that by disappearing no one could pray over her remains, or she could make it clear she hadn't converted, she's done exactly the opposite. All she has done is leave room for speculation," he said.

Ultimately, Bill Murray would lose all faith in the ability or will of the Austin police to find his mother. He would conclude, as have others, that she and her two children had been kidnapped and murdered.

But none of this was apparent in late 1996.
At that time, Madalyn, who had pulled so many amazing stunts in her nearly four decades in the American public eye, was merely missing in action. Her sudden, mysterious disappearance was entirely in character.

From fleeing to Mexico to escape a charge that she assaulted 10 Baltimore policemen during a domestic brawl in the mid-'60s, to trying to heist the $300 million fortune of paralyzed porn king Larry Flynt, for whom she worked as a speechwriter in the early '80s, to the alleged attempted rip-off of the $16 million estate of right-wing California publisher James Hervey Johnson, O'Hair had proved herself capable of anything, particularly if the money was right.

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