For the two ex-cons accused of kidnapping and murdering missing atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her two children, the "South Pacific getaway" defense may just have been torpedoed by three familiar letters: DNA.

In a motion filed recently in Austin, federal authorities say they have genetic evidence to support their theory that the Unholy Trio was murdered and sawed into pieces after they vanished in late 1995 from San Antonio. According to the feds, the O'Hairs were dismembered in an Austin storage locker, after which their remains were loaded into blue plastic drums for disposal in parts yet unknown. More than four years later, authorities claim they recovered critical genetic evidence from the storage unit.

"Swabs of suspected blood were submitted for laboratory analysis and resulted in identification of DNA of human origin consistent with mitochondrial DNA sequences shared by two of the missing Murray O'Hair family members," read a sworn pleading by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerald Carruth.

The claim, if it holds up in court, represents the first hard evidence that the O'Hair family met a very bad end at the hands of David Waters, Gary Karr, and Danny Fry.

The gruesome DNA finding comes as small surprise, given what befell Fry, allegedly at the hands of Waters and Karr. On October 2, 1995, two days after the O'Hairs vanished, Fry's headless, handless body appeared on the bank of the Trinity River near Seagoville.

The findings would appear to foreclose the obvious trial defense for Waters and Karr that in late 1995 the O'Hairs pulled off their long-planned and well-documented scheme to flee the country, and have lived since then in anonymous, exotic exile.

O'Hair came to prominence almost four decades ago when the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling on two cases, including one involving her son William, outlawed mandatory prayer in public schools. But by 1995, she was an obscure, contentious figure, running a clutch of atheist organizations out of Austin.

O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and daughter Robin Murray O'Hair were last known to be alive on September 29, 1995, when Murray received shipment of $500,000 in gold coins purchased with atheist funds from a San Antonio jeweler. The three vanished that day. Fry was last seen a day or two later in Waters' Austin apartment.

The claim of DNA evidence about the O'Hairs was one of several startling new cards that became public when the prosecution tipped its tightly held hand in the motion filed by Carruth in response to a request filed by Waters. Waters, who is in prison, asked the court to order the return of hundreds of items seized by the government nearly a year ago in a raid on his Austin apartment. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks has abated Waters' request.

In another significant development last week, a judge in Detroit, where Karr has been held on a gun charge since last March, made a ruling that may clear the way for Karr to be brought to Texas. After months of deliberation, U.S. District Judge Paul Borman granted a motion by Karr's public defender in Michigan, Richard Helfrick, to prohibit the government from using the two handguns found in Karr's apartment as evidence against him. The ruling was welcome news to prosecutors in Texas who have been waiting since last summer for the matter to be resolved. Unless Borman's ruling is appealed, Karr is expected to arrive in Texas in a week or so.

In Texas, Karr faces charges of kidnapping and robbing the O'Hairs. Given Judge Sparks' "rocket docket," he could go to trial in a month or two, unless some type of deal is struck with him providing evidence against Waters, the alleged mastermind of the O'Hair kidnapping. So far, that appears unlikely. Karr's lawyer in Texas, Thomas Mills of Dallas, says talks with Carruth did not go far. The feds appear to think that even without bodies, they have a strong case, one that became stronger yet with revelations of DNA evidence.

"The subject of a plea in exchange for consideration has been discussed, but the offers have not been of the type that Mr. Karr has any interest," Mills says. Karr has not been charged with the O'Hair murders, nor in the murder of Fry. Waters has not been charged in connection with either case. Waters is serving a long prison sentence for violating the terms of a probated sentence he received after being convicted of stealing $54,000 from the O'Hairs a year before they vanished.

Among the other fresh tidbits contained in Carruth's motion was the claim by an unnamed informant that Karr identified a bow saw found in Waters' apartment last spring as one of two used "to cut up bodies in a storage unit and put the bodies in 55-gallon drums." The motion also offered new insight into the role of a Fort Worth man, Gerald Lee Osborne.

"This storage unit was rented for [Waters] by Gerald Lee 'Chico' Osborne on September 26, 1995, using a false address, telephone number, and Social Security number," reads the motion.

According to the government, Karr and Waters collaborated in other crimes after the O'Hairs vanished. In July 1998, the pair went to Indianapolis to commit a "home invasion," in which they forced their way into a house. "Two white males matching the description of [Waters] and Gary Karr gained entry to the home through the ruse of impersonating florists delivering flowers, then handcuffed the victim while they ransacked the house and fled in a van," reads the motion. The robbers made off with currency, coins, jewelry, as well as three firearms, including a .22-caliber pistol that was later seized in Karr's Michigan apartment.

Osborne, whose role in the affair remains unclear, is awaiting trial in Fort Worth on charges of being a felon in possession of ammunition. Authorities found a few bullets when they questioned him a year ago. His trial is set for April 24. His federal public defender, Robert Herrington, says Osborne believes he is being aggressively prosecuted on the ammunition case to pressure him to become a federal witness against Waters and Karr.

"They've expressed an interest in talking to him, but I've basically said, 'What's the point?'" Herrington says. "Mr. Osborne does not know who killed the O'Hairs. He did not kill the O'Hairs, and he does not know anything about their missing money. As a result, we don't know what we can say to the government to satisfy them."

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John Maccormack