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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
Murderer Dies in Prison
David Waters, the man who authorities say was the mastermind behind a plot to rob and murder Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her son Jon and granddaughter Robin Murray, died in prison January 27 at the Federal Medical center in Butner, N.C. He reportedly succumbed to lung cancer at age 55.
In January 2001, Waters reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, and led authorities to a remote Texas ranch where the dismembered bodies of the three prominent Atheists were found. He pleaded guilty to extorting nearly $600,000 from the O'Hairs, and avoided prosecution for his role in the grisly murders.
Mrs. O'Hair was best known as a plaintiff in the historic Murray v Curlett (1963) U.S. Supreme Court case which, in a combined decision, struck down the practice of mandatory, unison prayer and Bible verse recitation in the public schools. She was also founder of American Atheists, and for decades after her famous legal victory continued to be active in the fight for civil rights and state-church separation. Her son, Jon Garth Murray and adopted granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, later helped lead American Atheists.
The family disappeared in the fall of 1995. It was soon learned that nearly $600,000 had been removed from one of the Atheist corporations controlled by the O'Hairs and later converted to gold coins. Media, religious and political groups, and even supporters and detractors of the family within the nonbeliever community weighed in with various theories. Despite the paucity of evidence, some \rushed to judgement\ and openly accused the O'Hairs of theft and embezzlement, and suggested that the family had absconded to New Zealand, Russia, or other foreign destinations.
Evidence gradually pointed to David Waters who had been hired as a typesetter by the O'Hairs and later became office manager for American Atheists. Waters had earlier admitted to stealing $54,000 from their Austin, Texas headquaters. News articles and tenacious work by the San Antonio Express writer John MacCormack also linked him to the disappearance of the family, and Waters became a prime suspect. He was arrested on a weapons charge in early 1999, and eventually pleaded to conspiracy. Investigators meticulously pieced together a detailed account of how Waters, in collaboration with severeal other men, plotted to kidnap, extort and murder the Murray O'Hair family.
The decapitated and handless corpse of one Waters assocate, Danny Fry, was found by a riverbed outside of Dallas, Texas. Another man, Gary Karr, was convicted for his role in the kidnapping scheme. Investigators say that the trio gained control of the O'Hair family and held them hostage in a San Antonio motel. There, they forced Mr. Murray to convert money to gold coins, and then killed the three Atheists, dismembered them in a rented storage unit and buried the remains.
In a strange twist of irony, the gold coins were stashed in another rental unit and later stolen by juveniles, who spent all of the loot.
U.S. Attorney Gerald Carruth told the San Antonio Express-News that Walters \was the mastermind of this plot.\ He had described Waters during a court trial as a \depraved recidivist.\ One investigator in the case also described Walters as a \lying son of a bitch.\
Waters had an extensive history of run-ins with the legal system, and as a youth spent time in juvenile detention facilities and foster homes. In 1964, he and a group of young men were charged with the murder of another youth. Waters served 12 years. After being paroled, he was arrested in 1977 for severely beating his mother.
According to the Austin American Statesman newspaper, Waters told a fellow prison inmate that he also ordered the death of his wife, Ann Waters and her friend Cheryl Jo Block in 1980. Block's boyfriend was convicted of the crime. And in 2001, Waters confessed to murdering another man, Billy King of Peoria, Ill.
\We always have believed and still believe that Mr. Waters was the mastermind of this plot,\ added Carruth. \After he agreed to plead and show us where the bodies were, it allowed us to finally put the case to rest.\
Prior to his arrest, Waters repeatedly attempted to exonerate himself of any wrong-doing by suggesting that the O'Hairs had pilfered and abandoned their organization in an elaborate scheme to flee the country. He even enlisted the assistance of a ghost writer, and began compiling a manuscript as the basis of an unpublished book filled with disparaging and sometimes inaccurate characterizations of Mrs. O'Hair and her family. But he never willingly revealed the real story behind the case -- that he and his associates hatched their own scheme revolving around violent kidnapping, extortion and mass murder. Indeed, his claim of innocence, that he had been framed for the disappearance, was demolished when Waters led investigators to that remote grave site in the Texas desert. That plea agreement saved his own life, but could not bring back his victims.
Waters' death in a federal corrections system hospital was likely something he had never anticipated. It is a post script to a story marked by sensationalized and often inaccurate headlines, stereotypes, and celebrity-oriented gossip. The tragedy often provided Mrs. O'Hair's critics with a platform, and the high media profile made it difficult, if not impossible at times, to set the record straight. It was a sad commentary, too, as even some former friends and acquaintances gave vent to their own prejudices and uninformed theories about the case. These opinions, too, fell into disrepute as Mr. Waters confessed his role in the murder/extortion scheme.
The passage of time will hopefully witness a sober evaluation of the important role that Madalyn O'Hair played on the American cultural landscape from the early 1960s to her unfortunate death. Her activism -- as a woman, an outspoken civil libertarian and an unapologetic Atheist -- was typical of other social movers-and-shakers during a tumultuous period in American history. She was often a study in contrasts, brash and aggressive when challenging religion, and to many a heroine taking up a difficult and unpopular cause. Over time, even some of her critics came to admire her forthrightness. What you saw in Madalyn O'Hair was what you got.
She and her family did not perish by the hand of those institutions she repeatedly challenged -- church and state. Rather, it was the sheer greed of Mr. Waters and his associates that claimed her life, as well as those of Jon Garth Murray and Robin Murray O'Hair. It is not an unusual set of circumstances. Violence of this kind touches many families each year, and one need only pick up the daily paper or turn on the nightly news to confirm that fact. People are slaughtered in the course of everything from store robberies to home invasions, or even at the hands of a crazed sniper. It is this stark fact that renders the O'Hair case so senseless.
We can say many things about David Waters. He was part of a plan to kill three innocent people who, despite what anyone may think of them, did not deserve such a hideous fate. Some might find comfort in the fact that Waters got his ultimate comeuppance, that even if he would have survived cancer, he would still have died in prison. Others may point to the fact that Waters grew up in a dysfunctional family, spent his early years in foster homes and an insensitive juvenile corrections system, and \fell through the cracks\ in a society that should care more about children and young people. Yet, not everyone from such a background turns into a serial killer. And no matter how one struggles with the moral calculus of this story, weighing individual responsibility against environmental and other circumstances, the fact remains that three wonderful and courageous people -- Madalyn O'Hair, Jon Garth Murray and Robin Murray -- are no longer with us.
We continue to honor their memories, lives and achievements.