When a tough-talking, scar-faced convict named David R. Waters died of lung cancer in January in a federal prison hospital in North Carolina, an unusual flurry of coverage followed.
The news hook was Waters' role as evil mastermind of the infamous kidnapping and murder of Austin-based atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair and two family members in 1995. Two years before his death, Waters had finally confessed to the crimes and led federal authorities to a shallow grave in the Hill Country that contained the dismembered and burned bodies of the O'Hairs.
The caliche hole near Camp Wood also contained the head and hands of Danny Fry, a con man from Florida who played a supporting role in the brazen abduction in Austin in August 1995. It was Fry who ended up as the headless, handless corpse that was found on the bank of the Trinity River near Seagoville on October 2, 1995, three days after the O'Hairs were dispatched in San Antonio (see "The Case of the Headless, Handless Corpse," by John MacCormack, February 18, 1999).
And it was Fry's brother who provided a critical break in the case in 1998 when he called a San Antonio newspaper reporter to name Waters as the sinister key to both the Fry and O'Hair disappearances. The tip ultimately led to the identification of Fry's corpse and the arrest of Waters and Gary Karr, another ex-con, for the O'Hair crimes. But while Waters lived, the details remained a mystery.
In dying, Waters cleared the way for the FBI in June to release a 321-page transcript of interviews he gave agents in early 2001 as part of a plea agreement. In exchange for coming clean, Waters was allowed to plead guilty to one conspiracy count related to the O'Hair case. In return, he was transferred from his dreaded Texas state prison cell to less onerous federal custody.
Over those four days of interviews in 2001, the agents confronted Waters about inconsistencies and lies in his various renditions of the O'Hair crime, as well as conflicting accounts of who killed Fry and why. Ultimately, Waters came up with a statement that the agents found credible.
And a bizarre story it was, of three calculating killers and their three clueless victims spending an intimate month crammed into a cheap San Antonio motel room, where the O'Hairs were taken while waiting for ransom money to arrive from New Zealand.
Waters explained how he had convinced O'Hair's gullible son, Jon Garth Murray, that the three would be freed when the money arrived, and thus won Jon's trust and cooperation in the kidnapping. Jon was also allowed to use his cell phone and travel without supervision, but never alerted authorities.
"It got to the point where it was real bizarre, and Jon and I were like working together. He was like responsible for his group, and I was responsible for my group," Waters said. "One of his primary responsibilities was to control Madalyn. All he was concerned about was that I control Karr. They were terrified of Karr."
According to Waters, Karr repeatedly threatened to sexually assault Robin Murray O'Hair, 30, Madalyn's granddaughter, whom the atheist leader adopted as her daughter; Karr also was trigger-happy to kill Madalyn. Waters said that Madalyn goaded Karr into philosophical debates.
"He was completely out of his league, and I would chastise Madalyn, but she was taking a certain perverse delight, amusing herself in this fashion," Waters said. "So I had to talk to Jon. 'Jon, please talk to Madalyn. You see, I'm dealing with this guy, and he's not wrapped real tight.' And I say, 'She keeps poking him with a stick. He's like a mad dog. He's gonna try and bite her.'"
He said the six spent the time playing video games, card games and watching movies in their two-bedroom suite in the Warren Inn on the northwest side of San Antonio.
"I bought a video game console. Jon got interested in video games. He and I would sit in the living room, playing video games. Robin became his cheerleader, you know, in competitive video games. This pissed Madalyn off. He was having fun...something he was not allowed to do in his 40-some years. He was actually having fun," Waters told the agents.
Ultimately, however, the bickering and video games ended when the $500,000 ransom in gold coins was received on September 29, 1995. Waters told how later that night the three O'Hairs were strangled one by one and their bodies hauled to a rented storage unit in Austin. All three men took part in the stranglings.
There Karr did the dirty work of cutting them into pieces small enough to conceal in 55-gallon metal drums. He offered to do the job for a $50,000 bonus when Waters and Fry demurred.
"Danny and I were queasy. Karr thought it was amusing that neither one of us can, you know, we were both kind of queasy. That if he was going to do our work for us, $25,000 apiece," Waters recalled.
That day, September 30, 1995, was the last day any of Fry's relatives in Florida heard from him. After making a call from Waters' Austin apartment to wish his daughter Lisa a happy 16th birthday, he vanished.
"Danny was planning to leave. We would split up the money, and everybody was going to go their separate ways," he said.
Instead, Fry was lured to a remote spot east of Dallas and shot once in the head and then mutilated, to make it difficult for authorities to identify the body that was left behind.
In his initial statements, Waters told the agents that Karr had shot Fry, and he gave various reasons for the killing, including friction between Fry and Karr at the Warren Inn in San Antonio. But Karr, who is serving a life term in federal prison for convictions related to the abductions, vehemently denied killing Fry and appeared ready to take a polygraph test to prove his story, prompting the agents to confront Waters.
"Karr says, in no uncertain terms, that you're a lying son of a bitch," FBI agent Donna Cowling said to Waters, threatening to withdraw the plea agreement if he was found to be lying. Eventually, when pressed by the agents, Waters said, "I killed Danny Fry." And he soon admitted that Fry's execution had been part of the plan throughout.
"Danny's assistance was chosen because he was considered expendable...from the get-go," he acknowledged.
He said Fry never saw it coming when the three men got out of the car on the bank of the Trinity and began looking for a spot ostensibly to dump the O'Hair bodies.
"We get out of view, you know; I tap Karr so he can stand aside, and shot Danny in the back of the head," he said.
The agents, however, did not believe Waters' claim that Fry was killed on the riverbank on September 30, 1995, almost two days before his body was discovered by a wandering can picker. According to an autopsy, Fry was only about 12 hours dead when discovered, and there was almost no blood on the riverbank with him.
"Here's your problem, David," Cowling said. "Danny's gonna bleed out. There's gonna be blood. There's not blood at the crime scene. There is no way you killed Danny on Saturday. He was found on Monday. I'll tell you what the science says. There's no way," she said.
Authorities have always suspected that Fry might have been killed elsewhere in the Dallas area and dumped on the riverbank later, but Waters stuck to his account, and the matter was dropped.
Waters said it was Karr who butchered Fry's body in the riverbank darkness, using the same large knife he had purchased to cut up the O'Hairs. He explained the perverse logic behind this.
"It was, you know, a kind of sharing of responsibility. One guy shoots him and the other one has to dismember him. I wasn't going to dismember him, so I was essentially elected to shoot him," he said.
After he was killed, Fry's head, hands and clothing were put in a plastic bag that was hidden in the trunk of Waters' Camaro for the drive back to Austin. On the way, he had a flat.
"I had to pull over to the side of the road to change it. Once again, I thought I was going to have a cardiac arrest. The thought occurred to me that a well-meaning state trooper may stop by and check to see if we needed assistance. One never knows if he might decide he wants to have a look-see, and awfully embarrassing it might be if he wanted to know what was in that bag on the floor. Give the devil his due. Karr was not concerned one iota. Very, very composed, very assured of our situation," Waters said.
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.