Ain't got no body
The bones of the Great Atheist are out there, possibly somewhere west of San Antonio near the remote Hill Country town of Camp Wood, where normally the only break from the rural routine is the fall invasion of deer hunters.
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.
And for federal authorities obviously daunted by the vagaries of a 5,000-acre Hill Country ranch, Karr may be critical to learning where the O'Hair bodies are buried in the caliche--if they have not been moved in the last three and a half years.
In the past two months, Karr's lawyer, Richard Helfrick, publicly asked why Texas prosecutors were not calling on him. These days he will not say whether he has been approached by anyone interested in making a deal.
But before Karr could go to Texas, where he faces another federal charge of transporting stolen property, his firearms case must be tried in Michigan.
"Trial is set for July 6. They'll probably wait and see what happens up here and then, in the normal course of things, bring him down there," Helfrick says of federal authorities.
While Waters languishes in a Hays County prison south of Austin, the man who ghosted a book for him about his 14 months working for Madalyn Murray O'Hair is trying to strike while the iron is hot.
Harry Preston of Garland, who is still owed half the $5,000 fee he charged Waters to write the book in 1997, says Waters' legal problems have made the book suddenly popular--with reporters if not buyers.
Several publishers have looked at the book, but so far none has made an offer. The book opens with Waters being hired in February 1993 to set type for O'Hair's newsletter at $7 an hour. It ends with him pleading guilty to stealing $54,400 from various O'Hair organizations.
In between, Waters makes a very convincing case by using purloined atheist documents, including letters and facsimile messages, that the O'Hairs were liquidating assets in preparation for a permanent move to New Zealand.
Read from one angle, the book could be Waters' alibi: The O'Hairs are alive and well in Auckland. Read from another, it could be his motive, as he accuses them of a doublecross that led to the theft charge.
Although the book ends long before the O'Hairs vanished, it provides a fascinating insight into the world that O'Hair reigned over until September 1995.
And what is very clear is that David Waters had no love of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. She is portrayed as a cynical, foul-mouthed, unwashed bully who despised both her followers and her servile boards of directors.
"I was impressed. And appalled. This shrewd, hard-as-nails old woman controlled an empire consisting of a mere 2,081 members, and yet she amassed millions of dollars in cash, bonds, property, and other assets. All the while she pleaded poverty," he wrote.
"Move over Bob Tilton, Jim Bakker, and all you other religious hucksters. Per capita, Madalyn had beat you all to hell."
Preston claims not to have a clue as to the one question the book does not address--did Waters have anything to do with the O'Hairs' disappearance?
"I've written about a lot of people, but this is the first time I've run into someone who could be a murderer. Did David murder them? What happened to the old gal?" Preston muses.
"The other thing that comes to mind. If, please God, the book sells, and David is found guilty, do I send him a check even though he's waiting to be fried in the hot seat? I don't know. I think there are a lot of interesting side issues," he says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.