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

An examination of the more than 150 calls made by Murray that month showed numerous calls to financial institutions, pharmacies, and jewelers, among them Cory Ticknor, owner of a store on Fredericksburg Road in northwest San Antonio.

The records showed numerous calls to Ellen Johnson in New Jersey and to American Atheists officials in Austin. There were also 46 calls to long-distance service connectors, a necessary step to making international calls on cell phones, like Murray's, that do not have that capability.

Analysis of the phone records led to the discovery of a crucial transaction.
While in San Antonio, Murray had bought $600,000 in gold coins--Krugerrands, Canadian Maple Leafs, and American Eagles--from Ticknor, using money wired from an atheist account in New Zealand.

Murray had taken delivery of $500,000 of those coins on September 29, 1995, but had never returned for the final $100,000 in coins, which arrived three days later.

"Mr. Murray left town when he left town, and for his own reasons. He didn't tell anyone where he was going," says Demetrio Duarte, Ticknor's lawyer. "The shipments came on a certain date, and if he didn't want to wait, that was his choice."

More than two years later, Ticknor handed the undelivered coins over to the IRS, which had opened a money-laundering investigation over the transfer of more than $600,000 from New Zealand.

The next big break in the case came in June 1998, when a tipster alerted the Express-News to the coincidental disappearance in San Antonio of Danny Fry.

"It was a kidnapping. I have the name of the person who organized it," the tipster began, referring to the O'Hair family's disappearance. "I was told by a third party who was involved, and that person has disappeared."

The man, who knew Fry, said he had seen a TV newsmagazine segment on the O'Hair disappearance and was struck by the coincidence of Fry's disappearance at the same time in San Antonio.

Crank calls about O'Hair were nothing new to reporters working the story.
Among the places she had been spotted were the Seattle airport, a monster-truck show somewhere in the Midwest, and even as a worshiper in a small Roman Catholic Mass. But this call sounded different.

As the tipster added names and details, the South Seas island family beach scenes began to make way for darker images, ones of kidnapping, robbery, and murder.

One name made this tip worth taking seriously.
According to the informant, Fry had come to Texas at the behest of David R. Waters, whose name would instantly ring a bell with any student of the O'Hair case.

Waters had worked for the Murray O'Hairs a few years earlier in Austin, first as a typesetter and later as office manager.

He quit in 1993, shortly before $54,000 turned up missing from various atheist accounts. A police investigation revealed that Waters had written himself checks for that amount.

Waters eventually turned himself in, pleaded guilty in May 1995, and received probation and orders to repay the O'Hairs. Another term of his sentence was to have no contact with the family.

Over the decades of running the atheist center in east Austin, O'Hair had become less and less selective about whom she hired to keep things afloat. Her diaries, full of complaining about money and unreliable help, reflected her derisive view of her staff.

"Rubber check time," she wrote in July 1980. "After all these years, we are back to that again. It's harder than digging potatoes to try to get money to run the center. We have no one to work in that office but scums, chicken fuckers, fags, masturbators, dumb niggers, spicks, witless cunts, derelicts, lumpen proletarian and transvestites," she wrote.

To O'Hair, Waters was just another lump, fit for typesetting.
To Waters, newly arrived in Texas, American Atheists was just a job.
"The ad in the paper was something I was qualified to do. Simple as that," he recalls.

But it is doubtful that O'Hair had ever knowingly hired a convicted murderer, and when she later found out what she had done, even the great atheist who feared neither God nor man became anxious.

"Once they found out what Waters' record was, they were definitely afraid of him. A member looked it up in the Peoria newspaper files and sent a copy of the articles where he was convicted of murder," American Atheists employee David Travis says.

"And of course Madalyn showed it to all the employees so we could all see what a bad guy David Waters was. That would have been in 1994, after Waters quit, but before he turned himself in," he says.

At age 17, while living in Illinois, Waters was charged and convicted with three other teenagers in the murder of a fourth teen, who was beaten to death with a fence post after an argument over 50 cents in gas money.

Waters and the others pleaded guilty, saying they had been drinking heavily and sniffing ether when the killing occurred in 1964. Three of the youths, including Waters, received sentences of 30 to 60 years. Waters served 12 years before he was paroled in 1976.

Waters had subsequent convictions of forgery and battery, the latter involving a 1977 assault on his mother, Betty Waters of Creve Coeur, Illinois.

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