Victimless crime

The last time anyone admits seeing Danny Fry alive is September 30, 1995, when he sat mutely, seemingly ill or in shock, on the veranda of the Austin apartment of his old buddy, ex-con David Waters. "He was sitting out there and he looked so...just really horror-stricken, like something was really weighing on him. This guy was super-bubbly, ebullient, always talking, and it just filled me with the worst feeling," recalled Waters' girlfriend, Patti Jo Steffens. It was Waters who had convinced Fry to come to Texas that fall for a lucrative score involving some rich and famous atheists. And now, the dirty work done, Fry was about to head back to Florida.

"I asked him if he wanted to ride along with me to the store. He said no, and when I came back, no one was there. His stuff was like it was thrown away. His suitcase was empty, and a garbage bag had his stuff. I just looked at his stuff and said, 'Oh no,'" Steffens testified. "I knew he wouldn't leave his daughter's birthday gift behind."

Steffens' haunting final recollection of Fry came last month in Austin during a federal trial that delved deeply into one of the century's most baffling celebrity disappearances, that of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. The three-week trial of Gary Karr, an ex-con with a résumé rich in violent crime, was the first detailed public airing of what authorities believe happened to the famous atheist and her two children and later to Fry, a small-time hustler from Florida.

The jagged plotline began at American Atheists General Headquarters in Austin, and, if authorities are correct, ended at a blood-soaked storage unit a dozen blocks to the west. Along the way the plot touched down in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Newark, Romania, New Zealand, and South Florida.

If O'Hair and Waters had the leading roles, the supporting cast ranged from atheist eccentrics to ex-girlfriends looking for payback, and from Peoria tough guys to a trio of clueless but lucky thieves from San Antonio.

Among them, Steffens was a star prosecution witness. At this point in her testimony about her last visit with Fry, Steffens, a deep-voiced woman dressed like a minister's wife, began to fight tears, and everyone in the courtroom knew why: If the details of Fry's final hours are unknown, his ghastly fate is not. On October 2, 1995, two days after Fry vanished from Waters' apartment, an old man picking cans found a headless, handless, and nude body on a riverbank near Seagoville. It was a white man, middle-aged, mid-sized, and with no identifying marks, scars, or tattoos. The head and hands were not found, nor were clothing or personal effects. And for more than three years, the motive for the mutilation slaying was as elusive as the name of the victim. But in late 1998, Dallas police received a critical tip, and three months later genetic testing confirmed the headless corpse was Fry.

The finding triggered an explosion of police activity in a disappearance case with a far higher profile, that of O'Hair, the atheist battle-ax credited or blamed with taking prayer out of public schools. Fry and O'Hair had both vanished from South Texas on the same weekend in late 1995. And beyond the coincidences of timing and geography was another, more ominous, link: David Waters.

Waters, a secretive and violent ex-con, had worked with Fry in Florida before moving to Texas in 1991. And in 1993 and 1994, he had worked for O'Hair at her offices in Austin. Waters' employment ended about the same time that $54,400 vanished from atheist accounts, and he later pleaded guilty to the embezzlement and received probation.

When the O'Hairs vanished in late 1995 along with $500,000 in gold coins, the unholy trinity of Madalyn, her son Jon Garth Murray, and daughter Robin Murray O'Hair left behind few friends and fewer clues. Many in Austin, including the police, were glad to see them gone. And as months went by without an explanation, many thought that the unpredictable O'Hair had fled to some foreign port to live out her final years on atheist funds.

But such wishful thinking died when the headless corpse got a name. Hazy scenarios of money laundering, false passports, and overseas exile were instantly replaced by darker images of abduction, ransom, murder, and dismemberment. Confirmation of Fry's murder ignited a stalled federal investigation into the O'Hair case, and long-frustrated Dallas detectives quickly rolled south to San Antonio and Austin looking for his killers. In March 1999 the feds raided four locations and charged Waters and Karr with weapons violations. And last month in Austin, after 15 months of grinding investigation, the government laid down their cards for the world to see.

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John Maccormack