Victimless crime

Keep Dallas Observer Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Dallas and help keep the future of Dallas Observer free.

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.

The hand was stacked with bloody sneakers and bow saws, gold thieves and strip clubs, feral hogs and phone bills, wire transfers and storage units, Rolex watches and white cargo vans. And when the last card was played, the feds had presented a circumstantial case based on 68 witnesses and more than 320 exhibits that Waters, Karr, and Fry had done in the O'Hairs. It was only three bodies shy of a royal flush.

"If you follow the money you can figure out what happened, and Madalyn Murray O'Hair did not get any of the money to flee the country," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerald Carruth in his closing argument. "Karr did it for the money. He did it because he was greedy, and Mr. Waters did it for revenge."

Unlike Fry, who had no history of violence, Karr, on paper at least, was perfectly qualified for a freelance kidnapping. His record, beginning in the late '60s, held eight violent felonies, including aggravated kidnapping, armed robbery, and rape. And he was available. In April 1995, six months before the O'Hairs vanished, Karr was released from prison in Illinois after serving nearly 21 years for a violent crime spree.

Karr and Waters had met years earlier as trusties in a prison honor dorm in Illinois, and as evidence showed, had stayed in touch while Karr finished his sentence. Karr went to trial after declining government offers of leniency in exchange for his telling the feds where the O'Hairs' bodies are hidden and for his testimony against Waters. "If you tell, in hell you will dwell" was the prison code he honored, according to an inmate witness. Karr was charged with conspiring with others to kidnap, extort, and rob O'Hair and her two children, as well as other counts pertaining to interstate commerce and money laundering. If convicted, he faced a life term.

Waters was returned to state prison on the original theft conviction after his arrest on the weapons violation and faces a federal term for gun possession by a felon after that. He has not been charged with the O'Hair disappearance and did not appear in person during Karr's trial. He denies knowing anything about the O'Hairs' or Fry's fates. He has even denied knowing anyone named Gary Karr.

Karr took a different approach: In the year leading up to his trial, he talked plenty about his role in the O'Hair case and also mentioned Danny Fry. In March 1999, when federal agents and a Dallas detective visited him in his apartment in Michigan, Karr was a good host and chatted with them for hours. Police charged him after finding two illegal handguns.

In his eight-page written statement to police, Karr described his role in the O'Hairs' disappearance as that of an errand boy, hired by Waters for security and odd jobs. "Waters told me the O'Hairs were leaving behind everything and were getting away from the IRS. Waters offered me $7,000 to help guard and run errands," Karr told police last year. "The O'Hairs were not kidnapped or abducted as they freely and voluntarily moved with Waters."

If Michigan prison snitches are to be believed, Karr could barely keep his mouth shut during his long months behind bars in the Wayne County Jail and Milan Federal Detention Center near Detroit. Three prison inmates testified against him in Austin. In these accounts, Karr's role was upgraded from errand boy. "He told me him, David Waters, and Danny Fry had kidnapped the O'Hairs from their home, killed the O'Hairs, and extorted them for $500,000," testified Jason Cross, a clean-cut bank robber serving seven years. "He helped cut up the bodies and put them in barrels. He also flew to New Jersey with Mr. O'Hair to help escort him so he didn't get out of hand while they held the O'Hairs at the apartment," Cross said. And, said the snitch, Karr had an ace in the hole. "He said without the bodies, they don't have any evidence. That was his ticket to freedom."

By trial time, Karr had finally clammed up--too late. A gray man in a gray suit seated at the defense table, Karr did not take the stand in his own defense and was a nearly invisible presence. At times, he seemed more a spectator, and in one sense, he was not even the real defendant. Because, as one lawyer put it, at the heart of the whole ugly, deadly affair was "the collision of two strong-willed and strange people, David Waters and Madalyn Murray O'Hair." And if federal agents were determined to get Karr, they are obsessed with Waters, the alleged mastermind of the plot. As one put it, the Karr trial was a mere "dress rehearsal" for the main event.

Over two weeks of presenting evidence, the feds led a close procession of witnesses and exhibits through the courtroom, treating Karr to their version of This Was Your Life from late August through early October of 1995. They tracked him from Illinois to Florida to Texas, and then back and forth again. They placed Karr in Austin renting cargo vans, in San Antonio leasing low-rent apartments, in Camp Wood at alleged burial sites, in Detroit selling a diamond purchased by Jon Garth Murray in San Antonio, and in Florida telling tall tales about his business in Texas. And they used an eyewitness to place him and Madalyn O'Hair at the Warren Inn in San Antonio at the same time in 1995. Authorities claim that the kidnappers held the O'Hairs at the motel while the family raised ransom money during September 1995. Prosecutors put Karr in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.

The defense mocked the government's case as incomplete and speculative. "Are they in Romania? Are they buried near a housing project? Are they buried in the woods? Are they washed down to the Gulf of Mexico and now floating in the Red Sea?" said attorney Tom Mills during his closing argument. "I don't know what happened to them."

But there was too much blood and too much rancor. When it ended, there remained some mystery but little hope about the fates of the three atheists. No one who attended held out much belief that the O'Hairs are hanging out in New Zealand or Iceland or Romania, Patti Jo Steffens included. After she last saw Fry, Steffens made a chilling discovery in the apartment she shared with Waters: a bag holding three pairs of bloody sneakers and a blood-soaked washcloth.

"There was just chunks of blood, like they were standing in a puddle of blood," she said of the sneakers. "It just almost made me sick. David jumped up, nostrils flaring, and said, 'Don't even look in there,'" she said. The bag soon disappeared.

At trial's end there was little reason to wonder about Danny Fry either. If the feds are correct, one of Fry's last acts, and the one that took him over the edge, was to help Waters and Karr dismember the three large O'Hairs with bow saws in a drive-in storage unit in Austin. Fry's revulsion may have sealed his fate. According to a jailhouse snitch, Fry was killed because his confederates feared he wasn't up to the security issues associated with celebrity abduction, murder, and dismemberment.

"[Karr] said they took the bodies from the apartment to the storage unit, where they were to be cut up and put into barrels. He said it was very bloody, very messy. He said Fry was very squeamish. He got himself in a little too deep," Cross testified. So, the two tough guys from Illinois took care of the problem. "He said they had shot Danny Fry and cut his head off and cut his hands off because they were afraid he was gonna tell on them," Cross said.

O'Hair had crash-landed into the nation's staid consciousness in June 1963 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two controversial lawsuits, including one filed by her, that banned mandatory prayer from public schools.

Quickly anointed "the most hated woman in America," O'Hair reveled in her role as thorn in the side of the believers, slandering God on late-night talk shows and picketing the Pope and other religious leaders. But her avarice and caustic personality offended atheists as well. By the time she vanished in 1995, O'Hair was a sickly, aging woman running a cluster of small atheist organizations in Austin, and her national influence had ebbed to the point of irrelevance.

The trial over her disappearance unfolded in a federal courthouse in Austin, where O'Hair had filed numerous suits over the years in her battle to hold the line between state and church. And before testifying, each witness in her disappearance trial swore a modified oath to tell the truth--but with no mention of God, a concession that might have made even O'Hair smile. "Normally, I would ask them to say, 'So help you God,' but because there were so many atheists involved, I just left that out," says Margaret Simms, the court clerk.

Representing Karr was court-appointed lawyer Mills of Dallas and his associate Christie Williams, a former Dallas County prosecutor. Mills had volunteered for the cut-rate job last year while Karr was being held in Michigan on gun charges. "I just thought it was a historically classic criminal trial. If you're a criminal defense lawyer, it was a magnet," Mills says.

The trial was certain to draw national attention. Already, Mills says, he had received an inquiry from one of the men recently charged in Alabama with bombing the Birmingham church in which four black girls had died more than three decades ago. After some thought, he turned it down. "We didn't know where the money would come from, and we didn't want any Klan money," he says.

Arrested last year in Michigan, Karr didn't get back to Texas until late March, and his lawyers had little more than a month to prepare for a complex trial. In contrast, their adversaries--Assistant U.S. Attorneys Carruth and Dan Mills, IRS criminal investigator Edmond Martin, and FBI agent Donna Cowling--had spent 15 months building their case. As one put it before trial, "We're loaded for bear."

But the bear hunters were missing one critical element. "There are three potential items of evidence that Mr. Carruth did not mention to you, and that would be the dead bodies of Madalyn O'Hair, Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray O'Hair," said Tom Mills in his opening statement to the jury. On his witness list, Mills playfully included the three O'Hairs with the notation: "If available."

"I think they're in Romania or Northern England. I've got my private investigator searching high and low for them," he said straight-faced into a television camera as trial began.

The government had one other obstacle to overcome. "This case is basically Crud vs. Crud," remarked a lawyer who watched much of the trial as a spectator. "Somehow they've got to make the O'Hairs sympathetic to the jury."

But if the feds' case lacked the bodies, it had plenty of facts. And as the government case gained momentum, Karr's defenders quickly became guerrilla fighters, darting from alleys to lob Molotov cocktails, smoke bombs, and red herrings, hoping to plant the magic bullet known as "reasonable doubt" in the mind of at least one juror. Karr's defense was two-pronged: His first was that the O'Hairs had made their long-planned getaway ahead of the IRS and are now hiding somewhere overseas. The second defense was that if someone killed them, it wasn't Karr.

Carruth was happy to point out the inherent contradiction. "The defense can't have it both ways. They want to say the O'Hairs fled the country, but if they didn't, Mr. Karr had nothing to do with their demise," he told the jury.

It didn't help much that Karr had already conceded most of the government's case in loose talk to cops, prison buddies, his ex-wife, and his former employer in Florida. Partway through the trial, Mills said his firm in Dallas received a letter from Waters, who was apparently following the course of the events from his state prison cell. "He said my client is an idiot, that he talks too much," Mills said.

The trial's first witness was American Atheists President Ellen Johnson, a chipper blonde dressed in a cotton-candy-pink dress, who had never before spoken publicly about the case. It was quickly apparent Johnson still revered the lost leader whom she referred to as Dr. O'Hair, despite the absence of any known doctoral degree. The usage prompted the lawyers to begin referring to one another as "doctor" during trial breaks. Prosecutors used Johnson to introduce the O'Hairs to the jury, showing portions of a videotaped speech from earlier in 1995. The O'Hairs did not disappoint.

"Because prayer is insane, children should not be taught to pray. It doesn't help them with anything," declared a seated Madalyn on the tape.

"There is no God. There is no hell. There is no heaven. There is no he, she, it, or any deity to answer prayer," added Jon in his slightly lisping tone.

Johnson described the crucial month of September 1995, after the O'Hairs had left Austin for San Antonio and were keeping in touch with atheist officials by cell phone. At one point, she said, Jon Murray asked her to send him two blank corporate checks in San Antonio. "I said, 'No, I will not. I have no idea if there is a gun to your head or not,'" recalled Johnson, who later relented and mailed him the checks, both of which were cashed for large sums.

Johnson also related the last conversation she had with "an extremely distraught" Robin Murray O'Hair sometime during that month. "I was saying, 'What's going on? What's wrong?' I was so upset because something was terribly wrong," Johnson recalled. "The very last words I remember Robin saying were, 'I know you'll do the right thing,'" she said.

The next witness, the O'Hairs' tax lawyer, Craig Etter, quickly countered defense claims that the family fled ahead of zealous revenuers. He testified that a tentative settlement for all contested matters had been reached with the IRS by summer 1995. Besides, he said, O'Hair had only contempt for the IRS and would never have fled. He cited a letter she had written to an IRS agent who was requesting financial information. "The letter said, 'Fuck You,' and it was signed, 'Madalyn Murray O'Hair,'" he recalled.

Other atheist officials described how in 1993 and 1994, when the O'Hairs were engaged in civil litigation in California that could have ruined them had they lost, they began liquidating and moving assets. The precautions included hiding their main asset, the entire Charles E. Stevens Memorial Library, which held the world's largest collection of atheist historical and archival materials. The library, which was Madalyn's pride and joy, was packed up in Austin and stashed in a Houston storage facility until it was later moved to Kansas City. But, the witnesses said, by late 1995, the danger from the civil case had passed, the heat was off, and the O'Hairs were not going anywhere. And although a family retirement to New Zealand had been talked about for years, it was still somewhere over the horizon.

"My sense is that it [New Zealand] existed as a back-pocket plan, almost a fantasy, but nothing they were seriously considering," testified Conrad Goeringer, another atheist official. And, he said, the O'Hairs would never have considered recruiting Waters to help them do anything, as Karr told police. "They had no use for this man, and they were very afraid of him. They told me this many times," he said.

The preliminaries over, matters quickly got serious on the trial's third day. Steffens took the stand to testify about her strange and sometimes conflicted life with David Waters, a hardened ex-con whom she had taken up with after first dating his brother Ron, a well-behaved if nervous Peoria baker.

More particularly, Steffens told the jury about the critical months of late 1995 when Karr and Fry came to stay with them in their apartment in Austin. Steffens joins Waters and O'Hair as the story's most complex characters. A woman who majored in history and English literature in college, Steffens used words like "ebullient" and "paradigm" with facility. She could also articulate the nuances of her abusive seven-year relationship with Waters, which included occasional savage beatings. But Steffens' walk on the dark side also emerged during trial.

She posed for porno shots, took heroin and other drugs, helped Waters steal from the O'Hairs and destroy evidence, and then abruptly left him in late 1998 to marry another man after the first newspaper story about Fry was published in Texas. Steffens also admitted to receiving $16,000 in cash from Waters during September 1995, while he was away in San Antonio, allegedly stripping the O'Hairs of their assets. She used the money to buy a pickup.

On October 3, 1995, the day after Danny Fry was purportedly killed and beheaded, she enjoyed room service, a facial, a massage, and other upscale amenities while she and Waters spent the night at Austin's priciest hotel, The Four Seasons. But, she reminded the court, she didn't kill or kidnap anyone. "I have accepted money and done some really stupid things. I didn't do anything to those people. I didn't participate in the planning of it," she said.

Then, early last year, when Fry's headless body was identified, a panicked Steffens ran straight to the FBI. Offered immunity in exchange for her testimony, she started talking. During trial, Steffens told how Waters' antagonism toward O'Hair became deeply personal after the atheist leader used her July 1995 newsletter to reprise his lurid personal and criminal past. "He was furious with her and, not to be melodramatic, vowed revenge. He had a genius IQ, and he considered her to be the true intelligentsia, and he just had fantasies about separating her from her money," she said. "After that newsletter appeared, a calm came over him about Madalyn. I really think he wanted to prove a point to her, face to face."

Steffens also testified how Karr, Waters, and Fry returned from their mysterious one-month mission at the end of September 1995, heavy with cash, fatigue, and bad vibes, and then how the three again left a day or so later. She said that when Waters and Karr reappeared without Fry, both were in a good humor and joking about how Waters could not read a map. And it seemed Waters had been in a fight. "David had on a short-sleeved black shirt, and his arms were covered with deep fingerprint bruises," she recalled. Asked about it, Waters had said, "Oh, it's just boys horseplaying," Steffens recalled.

As this trial proved repeatedly, unhappy old girlfriends are not always an ex-con's best friend.

Charlene Karr, a lanky woman with dark hair piled on top and spilling over her forehead, traveled from Florida to tell the jury how she met her future husband more than 25 years ago in Illinois.

"I met him on a highway," she testified. "We were cruising. I just thought he was a very handsome man."

An inconvenient crime spree and a resultant 30- to 50-year sentence for Karr took the flame out of the romance, though somewhere an ember still burned. And after Karr was released from prison in early 1995, the couple picked up where they left off after Karr came to see her in Florida.

"I was coming home from work, and he was sitting on my front step," she said.

Then, she testified, after working in Florida for a few months for a contractor, Karr went to Texas to visit David Waters and make some money.

"He told me he was going to play in a big card game, that David Waters had the money to put up and Gary would play the cards," she recalled.

When he returned, Karr was dressed in Armani suits and had three Rolex watches, lots of cash, and some improbable stories about people never making it home alive. According to Karr, Waters said he had killed them.

"He told me it was Madalyn O'Hair, that she took the prayer out of schools, and that David Waters hated her. He told me about the daughter and the son, and how David disposed of them," she testified.

Eventually, Charlene testified, the romance could not survive the weirdness going on in Texas, particularly when Karr threatened to shoot her over what she knew about his peculiar activities there.

"He has threatened to kill me. He told me he hid behind a tree in front of my house and waited for me to get home. He was with someone. He wanted to kill me because I knew what I knew," she testified.

Karr also talked with Arthur Miller, his employer in Florida during parts of 1995, about his visits to Texas. Here, too, Miller testified, Karr's story about a high-dollar card game didn't hold up. It gave way to another tale of helping atheists flee the country. But after Karr's final visit to Texas, the talk was about hiding bodies. "He said it didn't go well. He felt that David had killed these people and buried their bodies in an arroyo, and he and David had spent a couple of days running around in West Texas cleaning up David's mess," Miller said. "Waters was concerned that if these assumed bodies washed up, there would be a problem."

For all the gruesome testimony about treachery, dismembered bodies, and other wickedness, the trial was not without comic relief, and much was provided by three guys from San Antonio.

At the center of the case is a half million dollars' worth of gold coins. And among the more intriguing questions of the whole convoluted tale was, Whatever happened to the loot? During trial, several witnesses testified about how on September 29, 1995, an unwashed, unkempt Jon Murray had picked up the shipment of Krugerrands, Maple Leafs, and American Eagles at a conference room at the Frost Bank in San Antonio. "He was a little ripe," recalled jeweler Cory Ticknor, who sold the coins. But Murray didn't keep the gold for long. Other witnesses testified that a day or so later, Waters put the coins, contained in a large black suitcase, in a storage locker on Burnet Road in Austin and returned on October 3, 1995, to find the locker open and empty. Did Waters hide it? Did the bad guys spend it? Did the O'Hairs take it overseas? None of the above.

Last summer, the FBI held a news conference in San Antonio describing how three San Antonio youths had found the pot at the end of the rainbow at a storage locker in Austin. According to the feds, the three had randomly broken into the locker Waters had rented by using a skeleton key and made off with the 100 pounds of gold. At Karr's trial, the cheerfully unrepentant coin thieves, who were given immunity in exchange for their testimony, told the world about their great adventure and good times compliments of those bad, bad guys from Peoria and the atheists.

The boys said that when they figured out what they had, they just did what came naturally, blowing the money on strippers, guns, hot cars, stereo equipment, townhouses, fancy furniture, jewelry, and a junket to Vegas. "Mostly we went to strip clubs. I spent $1,000 to $1,500 a day. I went every day," said Jaime Valdes, properly attired in a white shirt and tie. "I'd buy drinks for everybody, pay for table dances for people, buy drinks for all the waitresses. You could go ask them; they still remember," he said, prompting laughter from jurors and spectators.

Valdes said he rented two homes at the same time, one for himself and one for his girlfriend, who worked as a stripper at a club in San Antonio. Sometimes, he would pay her $500 to stay home from work and spend the day with him.

Joey Cardenas, now trying to get his private investigator's license, recalled how he and his two lucky buddies had divvied the coins up in Valdes' home, much as kids would a mound of Halloween candy. "The pile was in the middle of the floor. We were all around it and we would just grab a handful. Sometimes you did one handful. Sometimes you did two. It didn't matter," said Cardenas. Valdes and Cardenas estimated they got between $120,000 and $140,000 each.

The third thief, Joe Cortez Jr., who had the master key, said he never even knew how much he spent and had nothing left from their spending binge. Cardenas likewise had nothing. Only Valdes had something to show for his mad bullion binge. "Only a 3-year-old daughter," he said.

Karr went to trial, risking a life sentence, having spurned repeated government offers of leniency in exchange for his testifying against Waters and showing them where the O'Hairs' bodies are buried. But all the government offers had come with a caveat: It was good only if Karr had not killed anyone. Late in the trial, it was apparent why Karr may not have been able to make a deal. After Fry vanished, David Waters had reappeared with deep fingerprint bruises on his arms. Was it from jumping and then holding a struggling Danny Fry while his buddy delivered the coup de grace? Convict testimony suggested just such a scene.

"Karr said he shot Danny Fry," said Cross, Karr's prison buddy in Michigan. He said Karr told him he used his .22-caliber pistol on Fry because it made less of a mess than a bigger gun. "He said the bullet doesn't exit the body. It just kind of bounces around inside," Cross recalled. While sharing contraband cigarettes in prison, Karr, the seasoned convict, had cautioned Cross about talking to other inmates about sensitive matters.

"He said other inmates would try to get a downward departure or go home early" by ratting on their buddies to authorities, Cross said.

"And Mr. Karr apparently did not follow his own advice," said Carruth.

"No, he did not," replied Cross.

After days of nagging and sparring with the government's army of witnesses, Karr's lawyers took two hours to present four of their own. The best was an entirely serious Southern Baptist minister who said he believed he saw O'Hair in a resort town in Romania in 1997 and had reported this to Austin police.

"She looked overweight, sickly, and in her mid-70s, and with whitish, grayish hair. She was fully engaged in eating," recalled William Gordon Jr. of Georgia. "I can simply say the woman looked like Madalyn Murray O'Hair. I can't say beyond a shadow of a doubt it was her," he said.

A lawyer watching the trial from the gallery reacted with shock when the defense rested its case so quickly. "Knock me over with a feather. They're pretty much left with claiming the government didn't prove it," he said outside the courtroom. "I would have put that old boy [Karr] on the stand; maybe he's got some personality to convince the jury. They've pretty much made Waters into Lucifer. Maybe he could have testified that everything he did was because he was afraid of Waters," the lawyer said. "I told that to Carruth, and he said, 'We'd eat him up.' And I said, 'He's already been eaten up.'"

In closing arguments, Karr's lawyers searched for the magic bullet of reasonable doubt, telling the jury that the government's massive six-day download of circumstantial evidence was ridden with inconsistencies. "Their theory is baloney. Their facts are weak, flawed, and defective," said Mills. "Mr. Karr's defense is from the Boy Scout handbook. You can't make a strong structure with weak wood, and the prosecution did not have the facts."

Defense lawyer Christie Williams echoed the theme, telling jurors, "You have the right to expect more than a theory. You have a right to know absolutely, conclusively what happened, and they haven't done that."

Prosecutors, however, argued that the defense's explanation, that O'Hair and her two children had bolted for Eastern Europe, leaving the $500,000 in gold with their nemesis Waters, was a greater fantasy. "Would you flee to Romania if you were old and sick?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Mills.

"That's just a rabbit trail they are trying to lead you down, to get you away from the real evidence, the killing of the O'Hairs by this man and others," he said.

The jury retired to deliberate late on a Tuesday morning. It did not reappear, or even send out a note, until Friday afternoon. In the absence of the judge and jury, the courtroom quickly lost its formal ambience. As deliberations went to their second, third, and then fourth day, the government lawyers relaxed, joking and sharing war stories of past trials with gray-haired reporters who had covered them. The trial portion over, the four lawyers chatted easily with one another, and defense attorney Mills circulated a poster, one of his trial exhibits, getting signatures from reporters and others in the courtroom. He also made periodic visits to Karr, waiting it out in a holding cell one floor up.

"Gary said the inmates at the Travis County Jail and Bastrop County Jail have been following the story in the papers and on television and are overwhelmingly optimistic about his chances. That's two representative samples," he said with a straight face.

During the wait, the humor ran heavily to jokes about wild hogs, which the government argued during trial had consumed all traces of the O'Hairs, and to Romanian humor. One prosecutor impressed the crowd with his knowledge of Transylvanian trivia, beginning with the character Vlad the Impaler, who, as the name suggests, stuck his victims on pikes. Vlad was the inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula, according to the local expert.

Then, Friday afternoon, after more than 30 hours of secret deliberation, the jury sent out two notes for Judge Sam Sparks, and the atmosphere went instantly tense. The notes suggested the panel was at an impasse on one or more charges. Sparks instructed the jury to keep deliberating, but hinted that he would accept a partial verdict. But that possibility became moot three hours later, when the jury announced it had reached verdicts on all five counts. The panel appeared exhausted and drawn as it filed back into the courtroom. One woman appeared to have been crying. None looked in Karr's direction. When the clerk read the verdict, the jury had found Karr guilty of four of five counts, but acquitted him of the first charge, conspiracy to kidnap the O'Hairs. Karr was found guilty of conspiring to rob and extort the O'Hairs; traveling interstate to commit a crime of violence; money laundering; and interstate transport of stolen property.

"It seems interesting at least that he was found not guilty of kidnapping, and that was the basis for the state's whole theory," said a subdued Tom Mills.

In conversations with jurors, it was apparent that one defense bullet had landed. "We didn't necessarily say there was no kidnapping. It's something we didn't decide," says juror Jeff Sloan. "We had gotten to the point where there was a lot of frustration and brain fade. I am fried," he said as he left the courthouse.

In an interview days after the verdict, the jury foreman said that the majority of the panel did not even believe the O'Hairs are dead. "I would say that three jurors think they are dead and the other nine think they are alive somewhere in the world," said Hector R. Rodriguez, who also said no one on the panel bought the government's horror-story ending. "No one believed there was a dismemberment. It was too implausible based on what we heard and assessing the credibility of the witnesses."

Nevertheless, after the verdict, Edmond Martin, the IRS investigator who began working the case in late 1996, said, "Initially, I was looking for Jon Murray for money laundering, and I ended up with Waters, Karr, and Fry, and four dead people.

"No one deserved to die like Danny Fry died, and I believe the O'Hairs died the same way. You can't let a crime like that go unpunished."

Karr, who did not react visibly to the verdict, will return to court August 4 to be sentenced by Sparks. And unless he changes his mind about cooperating with the feds, he faces a mandatory life sentence.

Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.