Convicted felon Gary Karr was indicted on conspiracy charges in the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
Convicted felon Gary Karr was indicted on conspiracy charges in the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
San Antonio Express-News

Squeeze play

After six months of apparent drift, the case of the vanished atheist came abruptly to life last week when a federal grand jury in Austin indicted Gary Karr, a Michigan handyman, on conspiracy charges of kidnapping, extortion, and robbery.

The five-count indictment -- the first against anyone in connection with the 1995 disappearance of atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair -- accuses Karr of various roles in the abduction. But nowhere does it mention their presumed murders. Neither does it include charges relating to the gruesome death of Danny Fry, one of Karr's alleged accomplices in the O'Hair caper, whose headless, handless body was found October 2, 1995, on the banks of the Trinity River near Seagoville.

Further, the indictment does not name David Waters, the O'Hairs' former office manager suspected of masterminding the plot to kidnap the first family of atheism and extort $600,000 from them. Neither the gold coins bought with the money nor the O'Hairs' remains have been found.

Karr's lawyers immediately labeled the indictment an attempt to squeeze their client into showing federal authorities where the O'Hairs' bodies are hidden and testifying against Waters.

"I think they want to put as much pressure on Karr as possible, maybe threaten him with death-penalty offenses, hoping he'll tell them something that helps their case," says attorney Thomas Mills of Dallas. "I find it significant that the homicides were not included. It looks to me like they want to squeeze him really hard. It's even weirder to have a conspiracy indictment with only one person named. How odd is that?"

Beyond a brief news release, federal officials declined comment. "Today's indictment is not the final chapter of this investigation. We are continuing our thorough effort to make sure that justice is served in this matter," said Bill Blagg, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas.

According to a sworn affidavit made public this spring, federal officials believe that Fry, Karr, and Waters kidnapped the O'Hair family from Austin in late August 1995, took them to San Antonio, and spent a month holding them while awaiting the transfer of $600,000 in atheist funds from New Zealand. The money was used to buy gold coins from a San Antonio dealer, and after $500,000 worth of Canadian Maple Leafs, Krugerrands, and American Eagles were delivered by the jeweler to Jon Murray, the three atheists were promptly killed and their bodies hidden, according to the affidavit.

Fry, a hard-drinking hustler from Florida, was killed two days later by Waters and Karr, according to the affidavit, and his nude body was dumped in Dallas minus head and hands. The reasons for his murder remain unclear. The body remained unidentified until January of this year, when genetic testing revealed it to be the missing Florida man.

The news of Fry's horrid fate revitalized the moribund investigation into the O'Hair case and led to the arrests of Karr and Waters two months later on gun charges. Both Karr and Waters remain behind bars. Waters is serving an eight-year federal term on gun-possession charges, which will be followed by a 60-year term in state prison on charges of stealing $54,000 from the O'Hairs in 1994.

Karr is being held in Detroit, awaiting trial on gun charges. He has reportedly acknowledged a limited role in the events surrounding the O'Hairs' disappearance and in March gave a lengthy statement to federal investigators and detectives from the Dallas County Sheriffs Office. His lawyer there, Richard Helfrick, says the December 7 indictment came from left field.

"I really don't understand the timing of this particular indictment and why, based on what the government has said in the past, Mr. Karr would be the only person indicted at this point," he says.

In the indictment, the government lists a series of actions that Karr allegedly took as part of the abduction and robbery of the O'Hairs, including renting vans, abandoning Robin's Porsche at the Robert Mueller Airport in Austin, traveling with Jon to New Jersey to expedite a banking transaction in September 1995, and following him to a San Antonio bank to pick up the $500,000 in gold on September 29, 1995, the last day any of the O'Hairs were seen alive.

"Mr. Karr has denied being involved in any criminal acts involving the O'Hairs or Mr. Fry," Helfrick says. "He's never denied he was there. He admits he rented those vans, and rented that motel [room], but he's denied those acts had any criminal intent."

Whatever his role, Karr's résumé made him the ideal hire for a kidnapping. Like Waters, he has an extensive record of violent crime. In 1974, Karr and a second man were arrested after a crime spree in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin in which two girls were kidnapped and raped. Convicted of aggravated kidnapping and armed robbery, he served 21 years of a 30-50 year term in Illinois state prisons and was released in May 1995.

While in prison, he apparently met Waters, who served time in Illinois for murder, assault, and forgery. For seven month in 1986 and 1987, both men were assigned to the Vienna Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison in which inmates were not confined to cells.

The news of Karr's indictment heartened parties on both sides of the ideological divide who have stakes in the O'Hair case. Bill Murray, O'Hair's surviving son, who became a fundamentalist Christian two decades ago, says, "I think this is a good move by the federal authorities, considering the reluctance of authorities in Texas to move, particularly on the Fry murder. I think this brings it closer to closure for everyone involved."

Murray believes Karr should cooperate with the feds -- not just to save his skin, but to save his soul as well. "I really wish that what would happen is that Mr. Karr would realize his situation, that he's never going to get out of jail, and turn his life over to God so he can have some peace in prison," he says. "Just tell everyone where the bodies are and what really happened."

Ron Barrier, a spokesman for American Atheists, one of the organizations founded by O'Hair, says, "I hope this is an important step toward, clearing the O'Hair family name and clearing American Atheists of any wrongdoing. We were getting hit with rumors of theft and complicity in the disappearance."

As dramatic as it might appear, Karr's indictment changes little. Although federal and Dallas investigators have a wealth of circumstantial evidence supporting their theory that Fry, Karr, and Waters kidnapped and murdered the O'Hairs and that Karr and Waters then turned on Fry, they have only one body. Without bodies, it is difficult to prove a murder. And in the O'Hairs' case, it would be doubly difficult since they left behind ample documentary evidence that they intended one day to abandon Austin and retire overseas, with New Zealand being their first choice.

The feds believe that Waters knew this and beat them to it, but proving that the O'Hairs are not alive would be daunting challenge in court. Mills believes the feds need Karr to get make a case against Waters. The questions are, What does Karr know and how much does he fear ending up being charged and tried for four murders, one of which comes complete with a headless body?

"I don't know what he knows," Mills says of Karr. "But the way the chess game plays out...if they say, 'OK, if he cooperates against Waters we won't seek the death penalty against him,' that means they must need him," he says. "And if he doesn't take this. They'll go after him for murder. But do they have a good case? I don't know if they have sufficient evidence. Maybe this will allow him to find out what their strong cards are."


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