In a story full of oddities, the disappearance of two cocker spaniels named Gannon and Shannon may be the most puzzling.
The two dogs - owned by Jon Garth Murray and Robin Murray-O'Hair, the son and adopted granddaughter of atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair - were being taken care of by Orin "Spike" Tyson, the new office manager at American Atheists, Inc. Tyson took possession of the dogs last fall, after the three atheists vanished. The three - who went few places without their beloved dogs, Gannon, Shannon and a third dog, Gallagher, a terrier owned by Madalyn O'Hair - left Austin last September and have not been seen since.
In mid-December, Tyson was working at the Cameron Road headquarters of American Atheists, Inc., the group founded and led by O'Hair. Gallagher was inside with him. Gannon and Shannon were in a fenced yard behind the building. The yard is surrounded by six-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire. The gate was locked with a padlock, and also with a chain and padlock. Tyson left the building to do a few errands. He left the two dogs in the yard, and Gallagher inside the building. When Tyson returned, Gallagher was waiting for him. Gannon and Shannon were gone. The locks were not broken.
Tyson theorizes that someone climbed the fence to let the dogs out. Whatever happened to them, the missing spaniels are just one hairy facet of the ongoing mystery surrounding America's most famous atheists.
There are two primary theories about the disappearance: that the trio absconded with a large sum of cash that was stashed in an offshore bank account known only to them; or that Madalyn, a 77-year-old diabetic, was in declining health and wanted to die without letting others pray over her corpse.
"Until 4:35pm on September 28, I knew precisely where they were," says Tyson, who has taken over many of the tasks formerly done by the missing atheists. But Tyson won't say where that was. Nor will he speculate on what happened to them after that.
This much is known: There is no evidence of foul play; Tyson says no money is missing; no one has filed a missing persons report with the Austin Police Department; the lawn and flowers in front of the home on Greystone Drive that the three missing people shared have been carefully tended; and on March 27, someone with a savings account at a NatWest branch bank in Boonton, New Jersey, paid $5,490.98 for a cashier's check which was used to pay the overdue property taxes on the O'Hairs' home.
Madalyn Murray-O'Hair has been in the public eye since June, 1963. When the Supreme Court agreed with her belief that prayer should be prohibited in public schools, she became the leading voice of atheism in America. Her television show, American Atheist Forum, was carried by 140 cable systems. Today, the group she founded in 1965 claims a mailing list of 50,000 and a yearly budget of $500,000.
However, she and her family have had numerous difficulties in recent years with the Internal Revenue Service, and are involved in an ongoing legal battle in California federal court. The IRS had been seeking a total of $1.5 million from Jon, 41, who was president of the group, and Robin, 31, the editor of the organization's magazine, accusing them of using the organization's funds for their personal use. But on April 17, the IRS agreed to sharp reductions in the amounts it was seeking. According to Craig Etter, the family's Washington, D.C.-based tax lawyer, the IRS will soon send a tax bill for $29,210 to Jon and another for $7,577 to Robin.
Roy Withers, a San Diego attorney with the law firm of Withers & Goulding, has been battling the atheists in federal court since 1987, and he may know more about their organization than anyone. He claims to have found 12 different organizations that Madalyn set up to shield the group from liability. "They consciously created a spiderweb," says Withers, who called the missing trio "small-time crooks. At least when Jimmy Swaggart does this there's something there. These people are shallow."
On April 9, Withers was at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, California, presenting oral arguments in a civil action known as Jackson v. Truth Seeker et al. Withers hopes to recover some $6 million in damages from Madalyn and her organization, who he said conspired to gain control of the estate of his client, James Hervey Johnson, who owned an atheist publication called The Truth Seeker. The court will decide if Withers can obtain a new trial.
Withers, who deposed Madalyn five times in the course of the litigation, suspects that her failing health was the reason for the disappearance. "The last time I deposed her she was not doing well," Withers said. "She was increasingly debilitated." He believes Madalyn is dead and that her two children are living in Mexico.
David R. Travis, who worked at the American Atheist headquarters for three years prior to the disappearance, doesn't know if any of the three are dead. But he believes they may have access to funds in an account at the New Zealand Guardian Trust Co. in Manukau, New Zealand. During his work in the office, Travis came across a financial statement which indicated that the trio had an account in the name of the United Secularists of America which contained about $900,000.
"I don't believe that was the only account," says Travis, who handled the organization's daily financial transactions. Citing confidentiality laws, officials at the financial institution in Manukau refused to comment.
Tyson insists the group isn't missing any money and that it has bank accounts in numerous countries. But he has little time to think about the group's missing leaders. On April 17, he explained to a visitor that his immediate task was to get a shipment of literature to the post office. Large mailbags and boxes containing thousands of copies of the August 1995 edition of American Atheist magazine lie near the door. The issue was almost finished when the O'Hairs disappeared. But it was left to Tyson and others to finish the issue, which contains only a passing reference to the disappearance. On page three, Ellen Johnson, the new president of American Atheists who lives in Boonton, New Jersey - the same town from which the cashier's check to pay the property taxes on the family's Austin home originated - writes, "For us, the Murray O'Hairs are just not here."
Johnson refused to be interviewed for this story. In an e-mail message to this reporter, she said, "Spike [Tyson] already told you everything you need to know." Electronic messages sent to three other members of the American Atheists board of directors were not answered.
While no one knows if the Murray O'Hairs have absconded with any money, there's little doubt that Madalyn did not want any "religionists" to get their "filthy paws" on her corpse. In an article printed in American Atheist in November 1986 regarding atheist funerals, she wrote that when she died, "I don't want some religious nut to shove a rosary up the ass of my body, or a communion wafer down its throat." She went on, "I have told Jon and Robin that when I die, they should gather me up in a sheet, unwashed, drag or carry me out and put me on a pyre in the backyard and burn my carcass... I don't want any damn Christer praying over the body or even putting his hands on it."
In particular, Madalyn did not want her estranged son, William J. Murray III, who has been a favorite speaker on the conservative Christian circuit, to be near her after she dies (see sidebar). Calling him a "traitor," Madalyn wrote that "One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess; I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times... He is beyond human forgiveness."
But if Madalyn is indeed dead, then her children are not obeying her wishes. In the same article, she wrote that she expects Jon and Robin to "get rid of the body, but I expect them to be back at the American Atheist Center the next day digging into the work."
As the weeks pass, the irony surrounding the trio's disappearance becomes inescapable: Just like the Christians they despise, the Murray O'Hairs' friends and admirers are awaiting the return of their leader. And for those who can't wait, you can still hear Madalyn rage about the merging of church and state by calling Dial the Atheist at 458-5731.
In the meantime, Tyson is paying the lawn maintenance and utility bills on the family's house, which is valued at $223,000. And last week, he moved into the house. Tyson said he knows the New Jersey resident who paid the taxes on the house, but he won't provide a name. "I would like for them to return," said Tyson, "if for nothing to else but to explain what's going on. That's assuming they are alive. I don't care for an apology, I just want to know why."
Whether Madalyn and her children are in New Zealand, Mexico, or still here in the U.S., no one with the organization will offer an explanation. However, Madalyn may have left behind a clue. Or perhaps it's a taunt. In an article titled, "The Matter of Prayer," which is included in the issue of American Atheist now being mailed out, she wrote that her decades-long crusade against religion and prayer has taken a toll. "I and my family have been paying the price of ostracism from the culture ever since. Perhaps one day in the future, the people of the world will catch up to me and mine."
For a woman who hated the mysteries of faith, Madalyn Murray O'Hair has certainly created an intriguing one.
Some atheists, like Travis, are angry at the missing leaders. "I think they have betrayed and damaged their own movement," he said. And he predicts that American Atheists, Inc. will decline without them. "With the O'Hairs gone, they will lose the cult of personality, which certainly existed," he said. "There were a lot of Madalyn worshippers out there, and I hate to use the word `worship'."
But Travis, like everyone else, still wants to know what happened to the dogs, to Jon and Robin, and to Madalyn. "Maybe she wasn't Jimmy Hoffa," he said. "But it's still quite a puzzlement." n