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COLUMN ONE : Massacre and Myth in Texas : One man ended Charles Whitman's coldblooded Austin slaughter. Was it the hero of legend, or a second officer in the tower, who says that he fired the crucial shots?

July 29, 1994|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Tex. — Legends die hard in Texas, and so the truth may never be known about who really killed Charles Whitman on top of the University of Texas tower here nearly three decades ago.

Was it Officer Ramiro Martinez, showered with national acclaim as a true Texas hero, who rode that fame in a 20-year career with the fabled Texas Rangers and was lionized in a made-for-TV movie?

Or was it Officer Houston McCoy, a lanky, slow-moving drifter who eventually left police work and took a twisted trail that has left him drunk, broke and divorced?

"I'm a west Texas cowboy and west Texas cowboys don't normally open their mouths," McCoy said the other day, after all these years coming forth to claim, with a good deal of proof, that he is the real hero.

"But if Ramiro Martinez was sitting right here and saying he shot Charles Whitman, I'd call him a liar right to his face."

One hundred miles away but worlds apart, Martinez feels equally unkind toward McCoy. "All I can say is I feel sorry for him," he said with a ring of disgust.

Whomever it is, the man who shot Charles Whitman was the bravest of them all.

Whitman, an altar boy, an Eagle Scout, a Marine--the All-American Kid--had climbed to the top of the 300-foot Texas landmark and opened fire. In cold-blooded murder on a hot August day, 16 were left dead and 31 injured, and a nation forever changed.

It was the first of its kind, the first time a madman would shoot down so many innocent people in a public arena. It was 1966, before police had SWAT teams and hostage negotiators, before police in Austin even had walkie-talkies or bulletproof vests or the firepower to cut down a crazy blond-haired sharpshooter who packed his footlocker full of guns and lugged it up the tower.

The Whitman shooting spree stunned the nation, and more would follow in the years ahead. The San Ysidro McDonald's. The Stockton schoolyard. The post office slayings. Today the random killings--sometimes as many as two or three a month--often seem to go unnoticed, relegated to the back pages of the nation's newspapers.

But in fact they are traumatic events in our lifetime, events so difficult to deal with that many of the survivors and their families and the police officers forced to risk their lives never fully recover.

That is certainly true in Texas.

In some ways, said James Alan Fox, an East Coast criminologist, Whitman never died at all. Rather, he lives on in the lore of the Wild West, more so than most of the other killers Fox has studied as the co-author of two books about mass murder in America.

"Charlie Whitman looked and acted so normal," said Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

"He targeted college students, purely innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had all the elements for affecting the American psyche."

In the hoopla that surrounded the tower shooting, could the public have been duped? If the wrong man was named a hero, how do you correct such a mistake? How do you right history? Maybe you don't. Maybe it's like that John Ford movie classic, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," in which the wrong man is honored for killing a notorious outlaw. At the end of the Western, the editor of the Shinbone Star, upon learning the truth, tears up his notes and says: "This is the West, sir. When fact becomes legend, print the legend."

Thus, the legend.

*

Guns at the Whitman home. Guns in the family pickup. Guns at the firing range and in long hunting trips in the Florida marsh. It was a love passed down from his father, Charles Whitman Sr., who at 76 is still working in the plumbing business around West Palm Beach.

The elder Whitman had three sons, and when each graduated high school, he handed them a new car and "all the love I could give them." Today, all three boys are buried together in South Florida--one killed in a barroom shootout in Florida, another lost to AIDS in California, and Charlie dead on top of the tower in Texas.

"We went hunting all the time," the elder Whitman recalled in a recent interview, speaking of his namesake and favorite son. "Both of us did. I taught him how to shoot before he even joined the Marines."

He was rated a sharpshooter in the military, just one peg below expert, and it was said "he could hit a quail on the fly with a .22 rifle."

Later he married, moved to Austin, and enrolled as an architectural engineering student at the university here. He soon was earning A's and Bs. In the summer of 1966 he was a junior majoring in architectural engineering, drove a Navy blue Chevrolet Impala and, doctors discovered later, had a small tumor in his brain.

The night before he climbed the tower, he shot his mother in her Austin apartment, then stabbed her with his old military bayonet. He lifted her body into bed and covered her with a floral bedspread.

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