Lucky break

The case of the headless, handless corpse shook off the summer doldrums last week and lurched forward, as events in Detroit and San Antonio added insight and enigma to the gruesome tale.

In Detroit, at a court hearing for Gary Karr, one of those suspected of murdering and beheading Danny Fry and dumping his body in Dallas County in 1995, a witness testified about how one of Fry's brothers came close to getting the same lethal medicine.

In San Marcos, Texas, the prison letters of David Waters, the second suspect in Fry's death, expressed confidence that the long-missing atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her two children are alive and well.

And in San Antonio, the feds explained what they believe happened to the $500,000 in gold coins that Fry, Karr, and Waters allegedly stole from O'Hair before murdering her and her two children in late 1995.

According to the FBI, a gang of San Antonio crooks accidentally made the score of their sorry lives when they broke the lock of Unit No. 1640 at the Burnet Road Self-Storage in North Austin about October 3, 1995.

"They were there breaking into storage warehouses, which was their livelihood at the time, and they just happened to hit the right one at the right time," says Roderick Beverly, ranking agent for the FBI in San Antonio.

Inside the unit, the FBI says, the thieves found a large suitcase full of Krugerrands, Canadian Maple Leaf, and American Eagle gold coins -- about $400,000 worth, give or take a few doubloons. The load had been bought five days earlier by Jon Murray, Madalyn's son, from a San Antonio jeweler. Money for the purchase came from funds taken from the accounts of Madalyn Murray O'Hair's atheist organizations. But after the O'Hair family was permanently out of the picture, David Waters stashed the coins in the Austin storage locker, the FBI believes.

When the lucky crooks found them, they did the only sensible thing and spent the atheist lucre with reckless and conspicuous abandon.

But such good fortune draws attention, particularly in the context of a high-profile case involving the disappearance of America's most famous atheist. Eventually someone snitched, and the feds came knocking.

"We have three primary suspects in the theft and another eight to 10 involved in the theft thereafter," Beverly says. When confronted, the thieves quickly confessed and therefore likely will face no charges, he says.

But was it serendipity or an inside job?

In the news conference last week, the FBI said no connections were apparent between the three who allegedly stole the gold from the O'Hairs and the three thieves who then relieved them of the swag.

"The only affiliations we have found are among themselves," Beverly says.

If so, the crooks were clairvoyant as well as lucky. They apparently knew just which locker to hit, as no others were invaded at the storage facility.

"We didn't have any burglaries during that time on the property that we were aware of," says Angela Miller, manager of the Austin self-storage business.

Austin police say they had no calls to the site in October 1995.

While admitting the sheer improbability of it all, FBI officials say there is a reasonable explanation, even it if cannot be shared with the public.

"It was a complete fluke," FBI spokesman Rene Salinas says. "If I could tell you more, it would make sense."

Meanwhile, in a courtroom in Detroit, Gary Karr took the stand to try to persuade a judge that he should not go on trial on gun possession charges that could put him away for the rest of his life.

Karr, a man with at least seven other felonies on his record, has been locked up since shortly after the police found two loaded handguns in his Novi, Michigan, apartment during a search in late March.

As a convicted felon, Karr, like Waters, is forbidden to possess guns or ammunition. Both men were charged with unlawful gun possession when police searched their apartments. (Waters lived in Austin.)

Waters has pleaded guilty and will be sentenced this week.

But Karr is claiming the evidence the government has against him is inadmissible. He testified that police searched his home without a warrant or his permission when they found the two guns in his bedroom.

Police, however, say he gave them the OK to look around. The judge will rule on the issue next month.

Incidental to this issue was the testimony of FBI Agent Bill O'Leary. O'Leary said Bob Fry, the brother of the headless man, was almost killed by Waters in 1995 when he began asking questions after Danny did not return home to Florida from a trip to Texas.

"It [Karr's statement] states that he and David Waters were prepared to kill Bob Fry, that David had prepared his weapons," O'Leary testified.

But Karr's lawyer attacked this and other FBI statements about Karr implicating himself in four Texas homicides as exaggerations of the record.

"That is not what the statement says about Bob Fry. At no point does Karr say he's going to participate in the killing of Bob Fry, and, in fact, he tells Waters if he's going to do it, he's on his own," says Richard Helfrick, Karr's lawyer.

Bob Fry did get an unexpected visit in Florida from Waters and another man in 1995 after his brother disappeared, but he says Waters only threatened him.

"He must have changed his mind when he thought I didn't have anything," Bob Fry says. "I thought at the time my life hinged on what I said."

Waters has not spoken to the press since he was jailed in late March. In his letters from prison, however, he is unforgiving of the federal officials who put him behind bars, perhaps for good.

"As regards the FBI 'investigation,' what they have most recently put forth to the media is a self-serving document rife with false allegations and misrepresentations, including preposterous fantasies culled from the addled mind of someone with a history of psychological problems coupled with drug and alcohol abuse," wrote Waters of the IRS investigator who filed an affidavit accusing Waters of the O'Hair murders. The affidavit was unsealed last month.

"Of course, this is all generated by the same group of people who found it perfectly acceptable to murder their quarry in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, under color of authority," he wrote.

And, exposing himself as perhaps the last optimist that the O'Hairs are drawing breath, Waters wrote: "One fact that seems to have gotten lost in all this is that the O'Hairs have been sighted dozens of times since 1995. Considering the number of sightings involved and the odds against them all being cases of mistaken identity, I think it more likely that the O'Hairs are alive and well and enjoying this immensely."

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John Maccormack