Forget Romania. Call off the bloodhounds in New Zealand. The search for the world's most famous and most missing atheist is now only a forensic test result or two away from being over.
In just a few hours of digging last weekend on a remote Hill Country ranch 120 miles west of San Antonio, federal agents turned up the dismembered remains of four people. Three apparently complete skeletons are believed to belong to Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her son and granddaughter who vanished more than five years ago with $500,000 in gold coins.
"We have recovered what appear to be the remains of three people, including skulls," FBI spokesman Darren Holmes said Sunday. "All the bones appear to be severed, although at this time, we don't know what cutting device was used." Officials said the bones were charred as though they had been set on fire. They were dumped in a shallow 4-by-6 grave, with O'Hair's dismembered corpse on top of those of her son Jon Garth Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, whom Madalyn Murray O'Hair adopted as her daughter. The fourth find, consisting of a skull, a pair of hands, and some clothing buried nearby in a plastic bag, likely belongs to Danny Fry, whose headless body was found on a riverbank in Seagoville just days after the O'Hairs vanished.
David Waters, the alleged mastermind of the O'Hair kidnapping and murder, led federal agents to the burial site Saturday. He was also an old buddy of Fry, whom he brought to Texas in 1995 for a mysterious big-money job--the O'Hair caper. Officials believe Waters and another partner feared Fry would talk and killed him after the O'Hairs were disposed of.
The breakthrough in the case came earlier last week when Waters, on the brink of trial for kidnapping and robbery, entered a plea agreement January 24 in which he agreed to tell everything about the crime and lead authorities to the remains. In return, prosecutors agreed to give Waters "use immunity" for everything he reveals and to accept a plea to a crime that will likely land him a 20-year sentence. "Had Mr. Waters elected to go to trial and been convicted of all the charges, and received a life sentence, the disappearance of the O'Hair family would still be unsolved," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerald Carruth. "By executing the plea agreement, Mr. Waters will be expected to serve a substantial portion of his life behind bars, and we now have additional evidence to unravel the mystery." Unless he lives to be 100, Waters, 53, likely will die behind bars. He faces approximately 25 years in state and federal prison on other convictions. Federal prosecutors have agreed to help him seek a transfer from state to federal prison and to recommend to other prosecutors that he not be charged with any other crimes.
Led by Waters to the site beside a crude ranch road, FBI agents dug and soon encountered a "treasure trove" of artifacts, clothing, and other items that may once have belonged to the atheist family. Most significant, a metal hip joint was unearthed Sunday, complete with serial number, that may match an artificial joint that O'Hair had installed several years before her death. A forensic anthropologist examined each item as it came from the grave. No cause of death was immediately apparent.
Federal authorities, who could scarcely conceal their glee, are hopeful that the contents of the shallow caliche pit will allow them to officially resolve one of the century's most baffling celebrity disappearance cases. If forensic tests confirm the bones to be the O'Hairs', speculation that the atheist family troika has been hiding overseas, sustained by purloined atheist funds, since they vanished in late 1995 with a half-million in gold coins, will also be retired. "I'm glad to see this has finally come to an end. It will put an end to a lot of rumors that the O'Hairs absconded with money and things of that nature," said Spike Tyson, former director of American Atheists in Austin.
The find would allow the government to close a criminal investigation that it began as a money-laundering case four years ago, when news accounts described the disappearance of $600,000 in atheist funds. The probe eventually morphed into a grinding murder investigation into the suspected deaths of four people who vanished on the same weekend in late 1995. Fry's headless, handless body was found on the bank of the Trinity River on October 2, 1995, three days after the O'Hairs vanished in San Antonio. More than three years elapsed before a tip from a San Antonio newspaper reporter led Dallas County sheriff's deputies to identify the body as Fry's.
Authorities believe the O'Hairs were kidnapped, robbed, murdered, and dismembered by a group of at least three men--Waters, Gary Karr, and Fry. They believe Karr and Waters then turned on Fry, killing him and butchering his body so it could not be identified. But it was Karr who started talking almost two years ago, when he was arrested in Michigan. Although he afforded himself only a minor, noncriminal role in the O'Hair disappearance, he confirmed that Waters was involved and that people had been killed. Agents had searched the vast property near Camp Wood three times before, guided only by a map drawn by Karr. As it turned out last week, Karr's map was drawn in good faith and had brought agents to within a dozen yards of the actual burial spot.
"We were within a stone's throw of where we were before," said FBI supervisor Roderick Beverly, who added later, "In this country, 15 or 20 feet is like 15 or 20 miles."
The search was made possible by a radical change of heart by Waters, a man with a lengthy record of violent crime who was once described in court by a prosecutor as a "depraved recidivist." Waters has a rap sheet that begins with criminal trespass of a vehicle in Peoria, Illinois, in 1964, and extends through convictions for murder, battery, check forgery, and theft. According to information gathered by federal prosecutors, he was a suspect in at least three other murders before he even met O'Hair. His last nasty impulse occurred January 22, just a week before he was due to go to trial for the O'Hair kidnapping, according to a government motion filed in federal court in Austin. "David Waters communicated a threat to harm a witness and the witness' family in order to prevent the testimony of the witness regarding the disappearance of (the O'Hair family)," it reads.
He is currently serving a state prison term for stealing money from the O'Hairs, whom he had worked for in Austin in 1993 and 1994. After that, he must serve an eight-year sentence in federal prison on a firearms conviction. Waters was linked to their disappearance by a mountain of circumstantial evidence, but until last week, he had steadfastly denied any knowledge of their fate.
A jury last summer found Karr guilty of extortion, money laundering, and two other offenses related to the O'Hair case but acquitted him of kidnapping; he was sentenced to life in prison.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
No one has been charged with the Fry slaying, and Waters' plea bargain likely shields him from prosecution. Karr, who one witness testified shot Fry to death, may be in different circumstances. So far, however, neither Dallas nor federal prosecutors have shown much enthusiasm for taking the Fry murder case to court. That may change with the recovery of his remains and with Waters as a possible cooperating witness. Karr's lawyer, Tom Mills of Dallas, said Waters may now finger Karr. "I would assume Waters is blaming everything on Karr or anyone else," Mills said. "Up until now he's been the devil incarnate, the most manipulative son of a bitch that ever walked the land. If he blames everything on Karr, will they believe it? I don't know."
O'Hair gained fame in 1963, when the Supreme Court, ruling on two lawsuits, including one filed by her on behalf of her son Bill, declared mandatory prayer in public schools unconstitutional.
At the time of her disappearance, O'Hair, 75, was an infirm and aging woman overseeing a small cluster of atheist organizations in Austin. Since her death, American Atheists has moved its headquarters to New Jersey from Austin, and there is little sign left of the three decades O'Hair spent there as a very public figure.
O'Hair died a violent, horrible death at the hands of Waters, who hated her and fantasized about torturing her. The only thing she was spared was the final ignominy of Christian last rites. "I have told Jon and Robin that when I die, they should gather me up in a sheet, unwashed, drag or carry me out and put me on a pyre in the backyard and burn my carcass," wrote O'Hair in a 1986 article in American Atheist Magazine. "I don't want any damned Christer praying over the body or even putting his hands on it." A Hill Country burial in a shallow grave dug by her murderers wasn't what Madalyn Murray O'Hair had in mind. But perversely, as her words suggest, it was probably preferable to falling into the praying hands of her lifelong enemies.