The net tightens

Investigators close in on a suspect in the disappearance of atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair

In a perverse coincidence, federal agents and Dallas County sheriff's deputies chose March 24, David Roland Waters' 52nd birthday, to descend upon his Austin apartment to execute a search warrant. For Waters, a former office manager for missing atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair and an old buddy of Danny Fry, whose headless, handless corpse was dumped near Seagoville in 1995, it was a birthday to remember.

A dozen officers from five agencies searched Waters' car and apartment and, according to federal court papers, found 119 rounds of ammunition, including 49 rounds of silver-tipped hollow-point 9mm bullets.

"Mr. Waters was present during the search. He was very cooperative," FBI spokesman Darren Holmes said. "Up until the time we located the [ammunition], he was free to leave."

At day's end, Waters was in federal custody, charged with being a felon in possession of ammunition or firearms, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Although federal officials were mum about the motive for the raid, Waters' attorney, Patrick Ganne of Austin, quickly broadcast the behind-the-scenes dealings.

"I've been in touch with the assistant U.S. attorney, and he said a bunch of people are rolling over on him [Waters] and implicating him in the murder of the O'Hair family," Ganne said.

According to Ganne, Gerald Carruth, the federal prosecutor, wasted no time last week in turning the screws on Waters to come clean about his role in the O'Hair case.

"He said, 'Your client can get the death penalty for solicitation to commit murder,'" Ganne said.

Carruth would not comment about his contact with Ganne.
Waters has convictions for murder, battery, theft, and forgery and is on probation for stealing $54,000 from O'Hair atheist organizations when he worked for them in 1994.

The raid on his two-bedroom apartment in north Austin occurred as the FBI questioned people in Fort Worth, Chicago, and a suburb of Detroit over aspects of the O'Hair and Fry cases, sources say. One other man was arrested.

Although an FBI spokesman issued only bland pronouncements to the press, declining even to acknowledge the coordinated actions or to mention Fry or O'Hair, the raids are clear signs that leads are developing in one of the century's most baffling celebrity disappearances.

O'Hair became prominent in the early 1960s for her role in the court battles that banished prayer and Bible-reading from public schools. For the last three decades, the self-described "most hated woman in America" ran a cluster of atheist organizations in Austin.

Waters, an ex-con from Illinois, worked for O'Hair, first as a typesetter and then as office manager in 1993 and 1994, quitting shortly before $54,000 disappeared from organization accounts. He later turned himself in to Austin police, pleaded guilty to stealing the money, and was given probation on the condition that he repay the atheists and stay away from the O'Hair family.

O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and her granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair vanished from San Antonio in late September 1995 along with $500,000 in gold coins. Some theorize they took the money and ran, others that they were kidnapped and murdered. Austin police, with whom the missing-persons report was filed, have yet to acknowledge that a crime might have occurred.

It was not until last year, when newspaper accounts noted connections between the O'Hair case and the near simultaneous disappearance of Fry, that the more sinister scenario became persuasive ("The case of the headless, handless corpse," Dallas Observer, February 18).

Fry, who had known Waters in Florida and had stayed at his Austin apartment in 1995, disappeared from South Texas just days after the O'Hairs. His body was dumped near Seagoville on October 2, 1995, and for more than three years was not identified. Authorities identified the mutilated corpse as Fry's this year following DNA testing done at the suggestion of the San Antonio Express-News.

The disclosure galvanized the Dallas sheriff's office and federal investigators into action. They interviewed Fry's family and associates of the O'Hairs, culminating in the raids last week.

Despite a wealth of circumstantial evidence that put Waters, Fry, and the O'Hairs in San Antonio in September 1995--including telephone records and financial transactions--Waters has denied any knowledge of the Fry or O'Hair disappearances.

"I am in no way connected with their disappearance, demise, relocation to a sunny clime, or anything else that has to do with them," Waters said last fall while being interviewed by America's Most Wanted outside the Travis County Courthouse in Austin.

Waters said he has written a book about the O'Hair disappearance, laying out his theory that they took the money and ran. The book remains unpublished and unread by outsiders.

Last week, the coincidences that have kept Dallas and federal authorities busy for the last two months and made Waters a prime suspect triggered the questioning of a second man who also was seen as a possible suspect. On Thursday, an Illinois ex-con with a history of violent crime was charged with the same federal weapons offense as Waters.

Gary P. Karr, 50, who served eight months in an Illinois minimum-security prison with Waters in the mid-1980s, was arrested in Novi, Michigan, after FBI agents accompanied by a Dallas officer found two loaded handguns in his apartment. Karr had served more than 20 years in Illinois prisons after a spree of violent crime that included rape, armed robbery, and kidnapping. He was released in May 1995, four months before the O'Hairs vanished.

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