The Case of the Headless, Handless Corpse

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The loss of an additional $15,500 by American Atheists, also attributed to Jon Murray, was described in a separate filing.

The admissions of huge losses contradicted repeated claims by atheist officials that all corporate assets were intact when the O'Hairs vanished.

Johnson refused to comment on the issue.
Tyson says only, "It's a very odd thing. It would appear to me they are probably not alive. Six hundred thousand dollars is a lot of reason to kill someone."

Most of the money had been withdrawn from an atheist account in New Zealand, news that further juiced the insider O'Hair bailout theory.

"Years ago, Jon and I discussed the possibility, if things got too hot and they had to skip the country, that New Zealand was the ideal place to go for the international bailout," says David Travis, an American Atheists employee.

Travis disclosed that six months before the O'Hairs had vanished, while opening the mail, he had come across a statement from a bank in New Zealand for an account containing 1.2 million New Zealand dollars.

"I don't believe for an instant there has been any foul play involved. I'm quite certain it was a voluntary disappearance. Madalyn's health was bad, and it did seem to be getting worse," he says.

But disappear where? And how?
Was it possible that these three very conspicuous people could simply vanish without a trace? Private investigators monitoring financial and telephone connections could not find a hint of activity anywhere.

As the months passed, it became harder and harder to conjure up the specter of Madalyn, Jon, and Robin serenely sipping drinks on some South Seas isle.

"You have three obese people. Robin requires two airline seats wherever she goes. My mother uses the f-word in virtually every sentence that comes out of her mouth," says Bill Murray, O'Hair's first son.

"Just singularly, they would be remembered. Together, it is just like waving a red flag in front of a bull," he says.

And where had the $625,000 gone?
The answer came in early 1998, when a collaboration between Tim Young, a private investigator, and the San Antonio Express-News bore fruit. Young, who specializes in finding people who do not want to be found, had approached the paper in late 1996 with an interesting proposal.

He offered to search for O'Hair in exchange for expense money and publicity, if he was successful. He figured that within a month or so, the job would be done.

Young proved to be an electronic alchemist at turning leaden financial, motor vehicle, and phone records into nuggets of crucial intelligence. He hit pay dirt in late 1997 when he recovered Jon Murray's cellular telephone records for September 1995.

An examination of the more than 150 calls made by Murray that month showed numerous calls to financial institutions, pharmacies, and jewelers, among them Cory Ticknor, owner of a store on Fredericksburg Road in northwest San Antonio.

The records showed numerous calls to Ellen Johnson in New Jersey and to American Atheists officials in Austin. There were also 46 calls to long-distance service connectors, a necessary step to making international calls on cell phones, like Murray's, that do not have that capability.

Analysis of the phone records led to the discovery of a crucial transaction.
While in San Antonio, Murray had bought $600,000 in gold coins--Krugerrands, Canadian Maple Leafs, and American Eagles--from Ticknor, using money wired from an atheist account in New Zealand.

Murray had taken delivery of $500,000 of those coins on September 29, 1995, but had never returned for the final $100,000 in coins, which arrived three days later.

"Mr. Murray left town when he left town, and for his own reasons. He didn't tell anyone where he was going," says Demetrio Duarte, Ticknor's lawyer. "The shipments came on a certain date, and if he didn't want to wait, that was his choice."

More than two years later, Ticknor handed the undelivered coins over to the IRS, which had opened a money-laundering investigation over the transfer of more than $600,000 from New Zealand.

The next big break in the case came in June 1998, when a tipster alerted the Express-News to the coincidental disappearance in San Antonio of Danny Fry.

"It was a kidnapping. I have the name of the person who organized it," the tipster began, referring to the O'Hair family's disappearance. "I was told by a third party who was involved, and that person has disappeared."

The man, who knew Fry, said he had seen a TV newsmagazine segment on the O'Hair disappearance and was struck by the coincidence of Fry's disappearance at the same time in San Antonio.

Crank calls about O'Hair were nothing new to reporters working the story.
Among the places she had been spotted were the Seattle airport, a monster-truck show somewhere in the Midwest, and even as a worshiper in a small Roman Catholic Mass. But this call sounded different.

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John Maccormack

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