By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"His whole style was '70ish, from his acid-washed jeans to his bleached hair," Shirley Sparrow recalls.
"He looked like a barroom brawler and a heavy drinker to me. He was jittery and very arrogant," says Mark Sparrow, a former San Antonio policeman.
Despite their misgivings, the Sparrows bought the car.
Only later did they learn that their jittery Jon Murray, short and fair, did not resemble the real Jon Murray, who stood more than 6 feet tall, was dark, and spoke with a lisp.
The Sparrows believe they caught a glimpse of the real Jon Murray, and perhaps Robin as well, when they showed up to collect the Mercedes. The two were in an old pickup truck that picked up the arrogant salesman after the Mercedes was delivered.
"The one that looked like Jon Murray was driving, and the one that looked like Robin was sitting in the middle. She had to move over to let the other guy in," Sparrow says.
Since the car sale, the Sparrows have looked at numerous mug shots and photographs presented to them by reporters, but none matched.
It would be almost three years after the purchase of the car before the Sparrows saw the face of their nervous Mercedes salesman. A San Antonio Express-News reporter showed the mug shot to them last fall, and both Sparrows saw a familiar face.
"It's a very good likeness, the best yet, but I'd have to see him in person to be positive," said Mark Sparrow.
By late 1996, American Atheists officials were already weary of questions about O'Hair. Employees were discouraged from talking to the press, and President Ellen Johnson, who had replaced O'Hair as leader, ceased giving interviews.
The strategy merely fueled suspicions of a cover-up.
Late that year, the atheists inadvertently provided the first big break in the story when they filed their Form 990s, an annual disclosure required by the IRS of certain nonprofit organizations.
According to those 1995 tax statements, at least $625,000 belonging to two atheist organizations, both run by O'Hair, had disappeared at the same time as O'Hair and her two children.
"The $612,000 shown as a decrease in net assets or fund balance represents the value of the United Secularists of America's assets believed to be in the possession of Jon Murray," read the sworn 1995 tax statement.
"The whereabouts of Jon Murray and these assets have not been known since September 1995 and [are] not known to the organization at this time," read the statement.
The loss of an additional $15,500 by American Atheists, also attributed to Jon Murray, was described in a separate filing.
The admissions of huge losses contradicted repeated claims by atheist officials that all corporate assets were intact when the O'Hairs vanished.
Johnson refused to comment on the issue.
Tyson says only, "It's a very odd thing. It would appear to me they are probably not alive. Six hundred thousand dollars is a lot of reason to kill someone."
Most of the money had been withdrawn from an atheist account in New Zealand, news that further juiced the insider O'Hair bailout theory.
"Years ago, Jon and I discussed the possibility, if things got too hot and they had to skip the country, that New Zealand was the ideal place to go for the international bailout," says David Travis, an American Atheists employee.
Travis disclosed that six months before the O'Hairs had vanished, while opening the mail, he had come across a statement from a bank in New Zealand for an account containing 1.2 million New Zealand dollars.
"I don't believe for an instant there has been any foul play involved. I'm quite certain it was a voluntary disappearance. Madalyn's health was bad, and it did seem to be getting worse," he says.
But disappear where? And how?
Was it possible that these three very conspicuous people could simply vanish without a trace? Private investigators monitoring financial and telephone connections could not find a hint of activity anywhere.
As the months passed, it became harder and harder to conjure up the specter of Madalyn, Jon, and Robin serenely sipping drinks on some South Seas isle.
"You have three obese people. Robin requires two airline seats wherever she goes. My mother uses the f-word in virtually every sentence that comes out of her mouth," says Bill Murray, O'Hair's first son.
"Just singularly, they would be remembered. Together, it is just like waving a red flag in front of a bull," he says.
And where had the $625,000 gone?
The answer came in early 1998, when a collaboration between Tim Young, a private investigator, and the San Antonio Express-News bore fruit. Young, who specializes in finding people who do not want to be found, had approached the paper in late 1996 with an interesting proposal.
He offered to search for O'Hair in exchange for expense money and publicity, if he was successful. He figured that within a month or so, the job would be done.
Young proved to be an electronic alchemist at turning leaden financial, motor vehicle, and phone records into nuggets of crucial intelligence. He hit pay dirt in late 1997 when he recovered Jon Murray's cellular telephone records for September 1995.