Dead Giveaway

A plea bargain closes the book on the mysterious disappearance of Madalyn Murray O'Hair

"We were within a stone's throw of where we were before," said FBI supervisor Roderick Beverly, who added later, "In this country, 15 or 20 feet is like 15 or 20 miles."

The search was made possible by a radical change of heart by Waters, a man with a lengthy record of violent crime who was once described in court by a prosecutor as a "depraved recidivist." Waters has a rap sheet that begins with criminal trespass of a vehicle in Peoria, Illinois, in 1964, and extends through convictions for murder, battery, check forgery, and theft. According to information gathered by federal prosecutors, he was a suspect in at least three other murders before he even met O'Hair. His last nasty impulse occurred January 22, just a week before he was due to go to trial for the O'Hair kidnapping, according to a government motion filed in federal court in Austin. "David Waters communicated a threat to harm a witness and the witness' family in order to prevent the testimony of the witness regarding the disappearance of (the O'Hair family)," it reads.

He is currently serving a state prison term for stealing money from the O'Hairs, whom he had worked for in Austin in 1993 and 1994. After that, he must serve an eight-year sentence in federal prison on a firearms conviction. Waters was linked to their disappearance by a mountain of circumstantial evidence, but until last week, he had steadfastly denied any knowledge of their fate.

A jury last summer found Karr guilty of extortion, money laundering, and two other offenses related to the O'Hair case but acquitted him of kidnapping; he was sentenced to life in prison.

No one has been charged with the Fry slaying, and Waters' plea bargain likely shields him from prosecution. Karr, who one witness testified shot Fry to death, may be in different circumstances. So far, however, neither Dallas nor federal prosecutors have shown much enthusiasm for taking the Fry murder case to court. That may change with the recovery of his remains and with Waters as a possible cooperating witness. Karr's lawyer, Tom Mills of Dallas, said Waters may now finger Karr. "I would assume Waters is blaming everything on Karr or anyone else," Mills said. "Up until now he's been the devil incarnate, the most manipulative son of a bitch that ever walked the land. If he blames everything on Karr, will they believe it? I don't know."

O'Hair gained fame in 1963, when the Supreme Court, ruling on two lawsuits, including one filed by her on behalf of her son Bill, declared mandatory prayer in public schools unconstitutional.

At the time of her disappearance, O'Hair, 75, was an infirm and aging woman overseeing a small cluster of atheist organizations in Austin. Since her death, American Atheists has moved its headquarters to New Jersey from Austin, and there is little sign left of the three decades O'Hair spent there as a very public figure.

O'Hair died a violent, horrible death at the hands of Waters, who hated her and fantasized about torturing her. The only thing she was spared was the final ignominy of Christian last rites. "I have told Jon and Robin that when I die, they should gather me up in a sheet, unwashed, drag or carry me out and put me on a pyre in the backyard and burn my carcass," wrote O'Hair in a 1986 article in American Atheist Magazine. "I don't want any damned Christer praying over the body or even putting his hands on it." A Hill Country burial in a shallow grave dug by her murderers wasn't what Madalyn Murray O'Hair had in mind. But perversely, as her words suggest, it was probably preferable to falling into the praying hands of her lifelong enemies.

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