By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Some thought the vanishing act was just a twisted publicity stunt. Her enemies were quick to pile on.
"I think what you see is the flip side of the television evangelist scheme. They've been ripping off their membership for years, pleading for money and receiving millions, and this money is essentially unaccounted for," says Roy Withers, a San Diego lawyer and O'Hair antagonist.
Withers represented the estate of Johnson, founder of Truth Seeker Magazine, which, after years of litigation, fought off O'Hair's attempt to take control of the conservative atheist organization.
"I don't think there is much romance in her disappearance. I think you'll find money and illness at the root of it. They had a contingency plan, and they executed it. This is probably Madalyn's final act, to take care of her kids. They are lost without her, figuratively and literally," Withers said in late 1996.
There was more than just good lawyerly spin to this theory.
For years, Madalyn, Jon, and Robin had run their atheist organizations in Austin as a troika, maintaining complete control over the various atheist boards and organization finances.
Rumors had long circulated of vast sums secreted in overseas accounts for the trio's eventual retirement. After their disappearance, evidence showed that the family had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in New Zealand, both in their own names and in organization accounts.
It was known among inner atheist circles that the O'Hair family had examined various options for a permanent overseas retirement, with New Zealand and Australia the favored destinations.
"It doesn't surprise me at all. They made statements in the past. 'Fuck this government. Fuck this country. Fuck the IRS. We're taken care of,'" said John Vinson, an Austin lawyer, after the anniversary of the O'Hair disappearance rolled around.
"They mentioned New Zealand a number of times--also Germany and the Cayman Islands. It was not surprising. It was expected. When the government was going to come down on them, they were going to leave, and they had a lot of money stashed away," said Vinson, a former American Atheists lawyer.
"Madalyn suffers from what we call 'founder's syndrome.' She founded this organization and treated it like her own, and she thinks she deserves whatever money she wants. She can hide it for her retirement or give it to her children," he said.
At the time of her disappearance, Madalyn, 76, was in poor health, suffering from diabetes and heart problems. On top of that, there was a long-running battle with the IRS over unpaid back taxes.
Ultimately the IRS would enforce a claim for $250,000 against her.
But without proof of her fate, any theory worked as well as any other back in 1996, from aliens to abduction to foreign exile.
"My theory is, they were kidnapped and are being held prisoner somewhere in this country," says Arnold Via, a longtime O'Hair loyalist, who hosted the three at his Virginia home in August 1995. "Off the wall, I claim the Vatican did it, the Vatican or the CIA. Someone with enough clout to cover it up."
Another school suggested that Madalyn, like an ancient ailing mastodon, had slipped off into the deepest jungle for a private death and cremation.
In 1986, O'Hair had discussed her own death in an article in American Atheist magazine and outlined her fear of posthumous revenge by her religious enemies.
"I represent atheism to the world. Wouldn't the religionists love to get their filthy paws on my corpse? And so, I have told Jon and Robin, 'no funeral parlors or mortuaries,'" she wrote.
"What I don't want is for the religious to get the satisfaction of corpse mutilation or activities that would encourage them to assume that they have wrought revenge for their god...I don't want any damned Christer praying over my body or even putting his hands on it," she wrote.
But after one year, there was no proof that Madalyn was alive or dead. There was no proof of anything. But for a strange episode in San Antonio during September 1995, the disappearance of America's most famous atheist might easily have become just another surefire gag line for Conan, Jay, and Dave. Eventually, Madalyn could have joined Judge Crater, Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, and aviator Amelia Earhart in the book of unsolved American celebrity disappearances.
But because of one event, the O'Hair chapter is not yet ready to be written.
It began with an advertisement in the San Antonio Express-News on September 3, 1995, for a bargain-priced Mercedes. The classified ad appeared just days after the O'Hair family had left Austin for San Antonio.
It read: "88 Benz 300 SEL, $15,000 cash. Firm. 512-461-4478."
The number was for Jon Murray's cell phone, and when San Antonio real estate agent Mark Sparrow called, a man who identified himself as Jon answered.
He said the car, priced $5,000 under market, could be seen at the Warren Inn, a 300-unit complex of low-rent efficiency apartments on Fredericksburg Road in northwest San Antonio.
Jon said that he could be found at Bonnie Jean's Cocktails, a lounge in an adjacent strip center. Sparrow and his wife found Jon Murray peculiar when they came to see the car.