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The Case of the Headless, Handless Corpse

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After a lifetime of conflict with his mother, Bill had struck the ultimate low blow by converting to fundamentalist Christianity. One of Murray's current projects is to put prayer and Bible reading back into the public schools.

"I hope she had an experience with Jesus Christ before she passed away, and maybe that is part of the reason for her mysterious disappearance," Bill Murray said on the first anniversary of his mother's absence.

"If she had the hope that by disappearing no one could pray over her remains, or she could make it clear she hadn't converted, she's done exactly the opposite. All she has done is leave room for speculation," he said.

Ultimately, Bill Murray would lose all faith in the ability or will of the Austin police to find his mother. He would conclude, as have others, that she and her two children had been kidnapped and murdered.

But none of this was apparent in late 1996.
At that time, Madalyn, who had pulled so many amazing stunts in her nearly four decades in the American public eye, was merely missing in action. Her sudden, mysterious disappearance was entirely in character.

From fleeing to Mexico to escape a charge that she assaulted 10 Baltimore policemen during a domestic brawl in the mid-'60s, to trying to heist the $300 million fortune of paralyzed porn king Larry Flynt, for whom she worked as a speechwriter in the early '80s, to the alleged attempted rip-off of the $16 million estate of right-wing California publisher James Hervey Johnson, O'Hair had proved herself capable of anything, particularly if the money was right.

Some thought the vanishing act was just a twisted publicity stunt. Her enemies were quick to pile on.

"I think what you see is the flip side of the television evangelist scheme. They've been ripping off their membership for years, pleading for money and receiving millions, and this money is essentially unaccounted for," says Roy Withers, a San Diego lawyer and O'Hair antagonist.

Withers represented the estate of Johnson, founder of Truth Seeker Magazine, which, after years of litigation, fought off O'Hair's attempt to take control of the conservative atheist organization.

"I don't think there is much romance in her disappearance. I think you'll find money and illness at the root of it. They had a contingency plan, and they executed it. This is probably Madalyn's final act, to take care of her kids. They are lost without her, figuratively and literally," Withers said in late 1996.

There was more than just good lawyerly spin to this theory.
For years, Madalyn, Jon, and Robin had run their atheist organizations in Austin as a troika, maintaining complete control over the various atheist boards and organization finances.

Rumors had long circulated of vast sums secreted in overseas accounts for the trio's eventual retirement. After their disappearance, evidence showed that the family had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in New Zealand, both in their own names and in organization accounts.

It was known among inner atheist circles that the O'Hair family had examined various options for a permanent overseas retirement, with New Zealand and Australia the favored destinations.

"It doesn't surprise me at all. They made statements in the past. 'Fuck this government. Fuck this country. Fuck the IRS. We're taken care of,'" said John Vinson, an Austin lawyer, after the anniversary of the O'Hair disappearance rolled around.

"They mentioned New Zealand a number of times--also Germany and the Cayman Islands. It was not surprising. It was expected. When the government was going to come down on them, they were going to leave, and they had a lot of money stashed away," said Vinson, a former American Atheists lawyer.

"Madalyn suffers from what we call 'founder's syndrome.' She founded this organization and treated it like her own, and she thinks she deserves whatever money she wants. She can hide it for her retirement or give it to her children," he said.

At the time of her disappearance, Madalyn, 76, was in poor health, suffering from diabetes and heart problems. On top of that, there was a long-running battle with the IRS over unpaid back taxes.

Ultimately the IRS would enforce a claim for $250,000 against her.
But without proof of her fate, any theory worked as well as any other back in 1996, from aliens to abduction to foreign exile.

"My theory is, they were kidnapped and are being held prisoner somewhere in this country," says Arnold Via, a longtime O'Hair loyalist, who hosted the three at his Virginia home in August 1995. "Off the wall, I claim the Vatican did it, the Vatican or the CIA. Someone with enough clout to cover it up."

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John Maccormack

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