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National Perspective | UPDATE

Faith Adds a New Twist to Saga of Atheist O'Hair

April 01, 1999|CLAUDIA KOLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — In the end, it was curiosity and Christian charity that may have relaunched the search for atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Long after it seemed authorities had given up on the 1995 disappearance of O'Hair, her son and her granddaughter, a San Antonio newsman who liked a good mystery and O'Hair's born-again Christian son appear to have re-galvanized official action. If so, the men represent just two more unlikely elements in an already confounding saga.

Last week, two ex-convicts were taken into custody in Texas and Michigan on federal arms charges. Though officials don't publicly link the two to O'Hair's disappearance, people familiar with the case say they may be closely entwined with her fate.

One of the men, David Roland Waters, a former office manager for O'Hair, pleaded guilty to embezzling $54,415 from O'Hair's organization seven months before she vanished. The other man, Gary Karr, spent eight months in a minimum security prison with Waters in the mid-1980s.

Theories abounded after the sharp-tongued anti-religion crusader suddenly vanished from American Atheists Inc. headquarters in Austin four years ago. A laconic typed note indicated that 77-year-old O'Hair, her son John Garth Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray, had left because of an emergency. Left behind were their passports, three cherished Scottish terriers and the ailing O'Hair's diabetes medication.

The three are known to have withdrawn half a million dollars from a San Antonio bank to buy gold coins. But after a few weeks of cell phone calls with atheist colleagues, none of the three was heard from again. Meanwhile, Austin police and atheist colleagues didn't know quite how to react to the disappearance.

For one thing, O'Hair, who'd been battling the IRS, apparently once mulled fleeing the country for New Zealand. And O'Hair hadn't broken any law by disappearing. "In Texas, it's not illegal if you're over 21 [to] go wherever you want and do whatever you want," Austin police spokesman Gary Olfers said this week. "We still don't have any evidence that foul play has been involved . . . . Just two weeks ago, in an Austin paper, it was reported that she was seen on a Mexico beach."

Ellen Johnson, current president of American Atheist Inc., said the group didn't file a missing persons report because it was hard to believe O'Hair left involuntarily.

A bona fide history-maker, O'Hair featured son William in a test that led to the Supreme Court's 1963 ban on school prayer. But O'Hair's journals and those who knew her depict an avaricious, foul-mouthed and hate-filled narcissist who alienated even those within her own movement.

"There really wasn't any outcry" after her disappearance, San Antonio Express-News reporter John MacCormack said. "A lot of people were glad she was gone."

Prosecutors haven't commented on the latest twist, but Waters' court-appointed lawyer told reporters that a federal prosecutor had said his client was implicated in the disappearance.

Although prosecutors won't say what prompted the arms raids, their actions didn't surprise MacCormack. He pursued the O'Hair story with old-school doggedness and last fall uncovered a grisly, and possibly major, lead in the drama. Acting on information he'd gathered along with Phoenix private detective Tim Young, MacCormack told police of his hunch that a headless, handless body found near the Trinity River in Dallas three years ago belonged to a Florida confidence man named Danny Fry.

Fry, who had joined his old buddy Waters in Austin for a business deal, was last heard from just one day after O'Hair's last phone call.

The arrests gratified O'Hair's son William Murray, a Christian religious lobbyist who hadn't spoken to his mother in decades. He was the only person to file a missing persons report on his mother, whom he once called a "madwoman." In recent months, Murray pleaded with Rep. Dick Armey to call the FBI into the case.

Despite their pursuit of a case authorities seemed to have let go, neither MacCormack nor Murray voiced any personal affinity for the missing atheist.

His feelings for his mother notwithstanding, Murray said faith drove him to try to solve what he believes is a murder. The perpetrators probably couldn't grasp such an attitude, he said, but "they did not understand the very essence of being a Christian."

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