A woman scorned

It was a foregone conclusion that ex-con David R. Waters, one of the men suspected of killing atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair, would be sentenced to serious prison time in a court hearing last week on an old theft case in Austin.

What was not anticipated was that he would be publicly gutted from the witness stand by Patti Steffens Chavez, a former girlfriend who emerged from hiding to tell the world about life with Waters.

"He was very calm and methodical. He said, 'I'm going to show you what pain is. I'm going to hurt you,'" recalled Chavez, describing one of a series of violent attacks by Waters, some involving knives or guns, during their seven-year relationship.

"He is an extremely intelligent man...He is extremely adept at using language to threaten and intimidate," said Chavez, who left Waters a year ago and has since married.

And, she testified, Waters had hatched a plot to do in O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and her granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair (whom Madalyn Murray O'Hair adopted) more than a year and a half before the three vanished from San Antonio in late 1995.

"He said he was going over there to lay in wait for them, and kidnap and hurt them and probably kill them," she testified.

Although the O'Hairs are presumed dead, their bodies have not been found.

Waters' alleged plan to kill them in April 1994 was aborted after Chavez begged him to call it off, and when the O'Hairs did not return as expected from California, where they were defending themselves in a lawsuit.

"I called over there [to the atheist offices] and said, 'Please get out of there," she recalled of her conversation with Waters. "I guess he was kind of freaked out himself. They hadn't returned [from California], and he hadn't heard from them...he was angry with me for not having any moxie."

During the same period, Waters, who was employed by O'Hair, stole $54,000 from atheist accounts, $80,000 in bonds, an office computer, some medallions given to O'Hair by pornographer Larry Flynt, and thousands of dollars in old U.S. currency that did not bear the hated words "In God We Trust," Chavez said.

Chavez had appeared this spring as a thinly disguised confidential source in an affidavit filed in federal court. In that anonymous role, she outlined much of the government's case against Waters in the O'Hair disappearance and also in the murder of Florida con man Danny Fry.

Fry's headless, handless body was found October 2, 1995, near Seagoville, but was not identified until this spring. The FBI believes Fry was an accomplice of Waters' in the O'Hair murders.

Chavez's testimony last week, however, was the first public account of the crucial three-year period, from 1993 to late 1995, during which Waters went to work for the O'Hairs and they disappeared.

During and after the hearing, Waters' lawyer Patrick Ganne tried to paint Chavez as a bitter, mentally unstable woman bent on revenge, but he made little headway.

Although she at times choked up, Chavez testified unflinchingly about the man who sat a few yards away at the defense table, a man she described as a "menace to society."

Chavez said it was the revelation this spring of the gruesome fate of Fry that convinced her to contact the FBI. Although Waters has not been charged and denies any involvement, the same federal affidavit that accuses him in the O'Hair murders names him as Fry's killer.

Chavez apparently came to the same conclusion.

When pressed by Ganne about what benefits she derived from going to federal authorities, Chavez referred to Fry.

"I thought it would be a benefit to be no longer involved in a situation where a man was decapitated and his hands were cut off," she said.

Chavez, who left Austin for an unknown out-of-state refuge early this spring, has been given immunity from prosecution by federal authorities. Under Ganne's cross-examination, she acknowledged she could be seen as an accomplice in some of Waters' alleged crimes.

Although the O'Hair disappearance dominated the hearing, Waters' reason for appearing before Judge Wilford Flowers last week had nothing to do with that unsolved mystery. Rather, it stemmed from Waters' guilty plea in May 1995 to stealing $54,400 from O'Hair's atheist organizations when he was her office manager in Austin in 1994. At the time of the guilty plea, adjudication of the case was deferred. Waters was ordered to pay back the money and told to stay out of trouble for 10 years. The restitution was later reduced to $15,000.

Had Waters complied, the theft charges would have been erased from his criminal record after 10 years. His record already held convictions for murder, forgery, and battery.

But that possibility ended on May 27 when Waters pleaded guilty to two firearms charges in federal court in Austin. During a March 24 search of his Austin apartment, FBI agents found 119 rounds of ammunition, which, as a convicted felon, he was prohibited from possessing.

State prosecutors then filed a motion with Flowers asking him to sentence Waters on the 1995 theft plea and to punish him severely as a habitual offender.

"He is violent in nature. He was given an extraordinary chance, and he messed it up. I'm here to ask you to give this man a life sentence in prison," assistant district attorney Gregg Cox told Flowers.

Ganne, however, said Waters was being punished for crimes he did not commit, for crimes that may not have occurred, and not for the simple theft case on the docket.

"We're not here to contest the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her son, and granddaughter. They have nothing to do with the facts at hand, despite the best efforts of the federal government and the district attorney to make it appear so," he said in his opening statement.

Present in the courtroom were FBI and IRS agents, an assistant U.S. attorney, and members of the Austin Police Department, all involved in the O'Hair murder investigation. Ganne at one point referred to them as "vultures."

"You are to sentence a man for stealing $15,000. That is the only issue before you," Ganne said to the judge in his closing remarks.

As a habitual criminal, Waters faced a range of 25 years to life in prison for the theft conviction. Flowers unceremoniously gave him 60 years, of which he will have to serve at least 15, according to Ganne.

Waters, who appeared in court in the same print shirt he was wearing when he was arrested, said nothing to Chavez or the judge during the three-hour hearing.

But as he was being led out in handcuffs, he quoted an obscure 17th-century English dramatist, William Congreve, when asked by reporters about Chavez's testimony:

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," he said.

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John Maccormack