By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Federal authorities believe that in 1995, Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her two children were murdered, dismembered, and stuffed into blue 55-gallon drums, and then buried somewhere on a ranch outside of town.
And so far they have come looking twice, flashing blue raid jackets, posing for snapshots with local children, and adding an unexpected theological wrinkle to the business of body searching.
"It's a great day for Christianity," said landowner Don Friend, as federal agents scoured his property over Easter weekend for the remains of the nemesis of organized religion. Friend, of nearby Uvalde, is not implicated in the case.
Other locals are astonished that such a bizarre and notorious affair found its way to Camp Wood, population 595.
"Everyone couldn't believe anything like that would happen out here. It was more disbelief than anything, although there was a certain excitement about it, and a curiosity," Mayor Jim Blakeney says. "And when they came back the second time, they really believed it."
But despite the heavy interest in the site by the FBI agents who used cadaver dogs, infrared heat sensors, and metal detectors, the bones have not been found.
"We don't have any immediate plans to return," said FBI spokesman Darren Holmes after the latest search on May 6.
For the moment, at least, the feds appear stumped. The tipster who told them the O'Hairs were buried near Camp Wood didn't tell them exactly where.
O'Hair rose to prominence more than 30 years ago following a Supreme Court decision that outlawed prayer in public schools. After three decades of belligerent atheist activism, she vanished in late 1995.
For the FBI, her remains are the crucial missing element of a complex puzzle that began taking on a coherent and sinister shape in late January. That's when a headless, handless body that was dumped east of Dallas in October 1995 finally was given a name.
Using DNA comparison, the corpse was found to be that of Danny Fry, a Florida con man who had come to Texas in the summer of 1995, several months before America's most famous atheist and her two adult children disappeared.
According to Fry family members, he had come west for a big money deal at the behest of David Waters, a former office manager of O'Hair's in Austin and a four-time convicted felon.
But instead of returning to Florida in early October 1995, as he had promised on September 30, Fry vanished.
Not until this spring did his relatives learn that he had been murdered and beheaded just days later, right after the O'Hairs had picked up $500,000 in gold coins in San Antonio on September 29, 1995, and then dropped off the radar screen.
Many bits of circumstantial evidence suggest the cases are linked.
And it was the discovery of Fry's grisly fate that finally laid to rest theories that the O'Hairs had taken the money and run and were alive and well in foreign exile.
Throughout February and March, police action was furious.
Dallas sheriff's detectives joined IRS and FBI agents to fan out across the country, interviewing dozens of associates of Waters, Fry, and the O'Hairs.
On March 24, the investigation broke the surface as FBI and Dallas detectives simultaneously questioned people in Austin, Fort Worth, Detroit, and Chicago about the O'Hair case.
Apartment searches turned up weapons and ammunition, and led to the arrests of Waters and another ex-con in Detroit named Gary Karr on firearms charges.
Like Waters, Karr had a weighty criminal past, having served more than 20 years in Illinois prisons for a 1970s crime spree that included rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery. Karr met Waters in prison and was released in May 1995, months before the O'Hairs vanished. He, too, came to Texas that fall.
Also like Waters, Karr is being held without bond, but that may soon end. The gun and ammo charges are serving as convenient holding devices while authorities try to get conclusive evidence of the kidnapping and multiple homicides they believe occurred.
But without bodies, proof remains wanting.
With Waters facing a June 7 trial in Austin on the firearms charge, time may be running a bit tight. His lawyer Patrick Ganne claims the ammo found in Waters' apartment belonged to an ex-girlfriend. (Federal law prohibits convicted felons from possessing ammunition.) Ganne also intends to try to suppress the evidence by attacking the legitimacy of the search warrant. Besides, he says, Waters is innocent.
"He's always maintained he knows nothing about it," Ganne says of the O'Hair disappearance.
"Like the old joke goes, 'That's my story, and I'm sticking to it,'" he says of Waters.
If a jury buys either defense, Waters may walk free.
Dallas prosecutors, who do not lack a body, are believed to be preparing a case against Waters in the Fry murder, but so far no indictment has been returned.
Karr, whose trial comes a month later in Detroit, has reportedly admitted some knowledge of the O'Hair case, but has not admitted being a participant.