by Robert Bryce
Amid the maelstrom of weirdness that surrounds her disappearance, there is one immutable fact about Madalyn Murray O'Hair: She's more famous as a missing person than she ever would have been had she hung around. Beyond that fact, much of the story about the disappearance of O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and her granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, dissolves into messy theories, trails gone cold and once-talkative sources who have suddenly decided they don't want to talk anymore. One of the more peculiar sources is David Roland Waters. On Oct. 2, the following e-mail was sent to Chronicle editor Louis Black:
David Waters might have the scoop on Madalyn Murray O'Hair
photograph by John Anderson
"In the past, The Austin Chronicle has shown an interest in reporting on the Madalyn Murray O'Hair saga. If this interest still exists, I am in a position to offer you access to information that has never been released to the so-called 'mainstream' media organizations. This includes actual fax transmissions between the Murray O'Hairs and fellow conspirators within their organization. The documents indicate that Ms. O'Hair's 'disappearance' was not at all sudden, but was actually the culmination of a rather convoluted scheme carried out over a considerable period of time. If interested, please contact me.
Five days later, I was sitting at Waters' kitchen table, which overlooks a small auto junk yard in North Austin. Shortly after he told me that he is not an atheist, Waters and I began looking through his documents, all of which appeared authentic. Many of the letters were on American Atheist Inc. letterhead. None of them were photocopies, a fact which led to the obvious question: How did Waters get them? "I took the liberty of taking these documents," answered Waters, who worked at American Atheist General Headquarters in 1993 and 1994. "I had access to them due to my position as office manager."
Most of Waters' documents are letters written by Jon Murray, in which he gives instructions to others on how to move assets, including the atheist library. After an hour or so, I left, telling Waters that the Chronicle would be interested in publishing some of the papers. But when I talked to Waters in early November, he refused to show the papers again, saying he had another person who was interested in them and that Waters was being paid for the use of the papers. "He extended me an offer," said Waters, declining to say who "he" was. "Apparently, he's writing a book."
Waters' effort to gain publicity for the stolen documents requires a look at his background. In 1995, Waters pled guilty to stealing $54,000 from the Murray O'Hairs. He was put on probation and ordered to pay restitution. He has previous convictions on murder, battery, and forgery. An Aug. 16 story by John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express-News all but named Waters as a lead suspect in the disappearance of the missing trio. He recently appeared on the television show America's Most Wanted,during which he denied knowing anything about the whereabouts of the atheists.
Adding further intrigue to Waters' story is the disappearance of another man, Danny Fry, who moved from Florida to Austin in 1995 to work with Waters. Fry, who was 42 at the time of his arrival in Austin, was last heard from on Sept. 30, 1995, the day after Jon made his last phone call from San Antonio to American Atheist headquarters in Austin. No evidence of foul play has been discovered in the disappearance of Fry. Missing persons reports filed on Fry in Florida and in Austin have not yielded any new information. For his part, Waters says he has never been questioned by police about Fry's disappearance. Nor does he believe he is a suspect in the case.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Given all the attention on him, why was Waters calling reporters? At his Oct. 7 meeting with me, Waters said his documents showed "they didn't rush out of here leaving breakfast on the table. It [the disappearance] was carefully planned." He went on to say that other publications did not seem interested in his papers, and that he couldn't understand why not. So he contacted the Chronicle. Waters' papers are interesting, and at least one of the letters, written in late 1993, does indeed seem to indicate that the Murray O'Hairs were planning to disappear. But the papers contain nothing that might explain where the trio went or what happened to them. Most of the papers are correspondence between Jon Murray and Don Sanders, a Houstonian who was helping Jon hide the contents of the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archive.
The library, valued at between $1 million and $3 million, is arguably the most valuable single asset owned by the atheist organization. (It is now either in New Jersey or en route there. Ellen Johnson, the president of American Atheists Inc., told me that her group wants to re-establish the library and make it available to the public.) But in late 1993, the Murray O'Hairs were afraid that they could lose the library due to a lawsuit brought against them by San Diego attorney Roy Withers. Withers sued the three atheists for $6 million, claiming that the Murray O'Hairs had conspired to gain control of the estate of his client, James Hervey Johnson, who owned an atheist publication called The Truth Seeker.
Murray's job, in the event Withers won the suit, was to hide the library. And Waters' papers clearly show that Murray was trying to do just that. In one letter dated Dec. 26, 1993, Murray instructed Sanders to use someone else's credit card to rent a truck so that their path couldn't be traced. And this is where the $54,000 comes in. According to Waters, Murray was afraid that Withers would win the Truth Seeker case. So Murray instructed Waters to clean out the atheists' bank accounts in Austin and forward the cash via FedEx to the Murray O'Hair's motel in San Diego. "Jon said, 'I'll sign some checks so you can get the money out of the bank,'" recalled Waters. Waters said he balked at Jon's plan, but later agreed to do it if the atheists paid him $15,000. They agreed, so Waters did as instructed. A few days later, Jon called him and told him to stop taking money out of the bank accounts. But by that point, Waters had already withdrawn some of the money. Waters said he had had enough. "I put $40,000, minus the $15,000 we agreed on, I put it in the safe. Then I resigned, left the keys, and left."
Ten days after his resignation, the Murray O'Hairs asked the police to charge Waters with theft. Rather than fight the charge in court, Waters pled guilty and was ordered to pay restitution to the atheist organization. In January of last year, the court reduced the amount of restitution to $15,000. Waters is now supposed to be paying it off at the rate of $160 per month. He is behind in his restitution payments and could be sent to prison if he doesn't stay current.
Waters' story is one of many about the Murray O'Hair's financial shenanigans. In late 1993, the atheists' headquarters was burglarized, but only one computer was stolen. The stolen computer was the only one that had the full list of the library's catalog; it was never recovered. Another strange theft occurred in January of 1994 when more than $60,000 in bearer bonds and several thousand dollars in cash were taken from the office safe. And then there are the New Zealand bank accounts, which were discovered by David R. Travis, another former employee at the headquarters. During his duties, Travis came across statements from the New Zealand Guardian Trust Co., which showed that the missing trio had stashed $900,000 in offshore accounts. And Travis has made it clear that he believes there were other accounts.
Perhaps there were. Waters firmly believes that the Murray O'Hairs had been planning their getaway for a long time. "This wasn't an overnight thing," he says. "It appears to me that this was being contemplated well before I ever went to work at the GHQ [General Headquarters]. There were strong suspicions that these people were going to take flight. It suddenly happened, then all of a sudden we have all this speculation that they were abducted by little green men, they were abducted by the religious right, they were abducted by me, they were abducted by God only knows who."
Abducted or not, dead or not, no sign of the missing trio has been found. Private investigators hired by the San Antonio Express-News and former TV talk show host Phil Donahue have come up empty-handed. Detectives with the Austin Police Department have conducted an investigation and found no new information. Critics contend they haven't been looking very hard -- and that may be understandable given that there hasn't exactly been a great outpouring of public indignation about the disappearance.
Credit Card Clue
Then there is the clue of the maxed-out credit cards. While the dead tell no tales, their financial records do. At the time of the disappearance, Madalyn, Jon, and Robin were joint owners of a checking account at Frost National Bank. The account held more than $23,000. Frost Bank is based in San Antonio, and has branches all over the city.
Jon Garth Murray
Given that fact, why, in the days before they disappeared in San Antonio, were Jon and Robin using their credit cards for cash withdrawals? According to records from the U.S. Bankruptcy court, Robin left town owing $30,075 on nine different credit cards (not counting a couple of department store cards). Jon left owing $47,782 on 11 different cards. According to the bankruptcy records, Robin had used one card for a $3,500 cash advance and another for a $1,000 cash advance. Jon's bankruptcy records do not show any cash advances (creditors are not required to list them), but according to Spike Tyson, who moved into the Murray O'Hairs' home shortly after the disappearance, the credit card bills that came to the house showed that many of Jon and Robin's cards had been used for cash advances in amounts of $1,000, $2,000, and $3,000. "All of them were maxed out," says Tyson.
Gordon McNutt, the court-appointed receiver for Jon's estate, refused to comment directly on how many of Jon's cards had been used for cash advances, but he added he "would not dispute" what Tyson said about the cash advances.
Like all the other facts in this case, the credit card transactions do not prove anything. But they do add yet another strange detail to the disappearance.
Meanwhile, the organization that Madalyn, Jon, and Robin built in Austin is slowly being dismantled and sold. In September, the American Atheist General Headquarters building at 7215 Cameron Road was sold to AIDS Services of Austin for $800,000, less than half of what the Murray O'Hairs paid for it in 1987. In July, the Murray O'Hair home on Greystone Drive was sold, for $240,000, to satisfy creditors. The estates of Jon and Robin have declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy (liquidation). Madalyn's estate declared Chapter 7 (reorganization). McNutt, the receiver for Jon's estate, believes that the estate will be liquidated within the next three months or so.
It's a surprisingly quiet ending to Madalyn's 30-year stint in Texas. She arrived in Austin in 1965 with a flourish, having assaulted five police officers in Baltimore and fled to avoid prosecution. She went to Mexico, then came to Austin, where she successfully fought extradition charges to Maryland. Then, after 30 years of raising hell about God and religion, she, Jon, and Robin disappeared in San Antonio without leaving a trace.
By Christmas, the final remnants of American Atheists Inc. should be loaded onto moving vans and shipped to New Jersey. When the last computers and printing presses are packed, another chapter in the disappearance will be complete. And the memory of the Murray O'Hairs' three decade-long stint in Austin and San Antonio will grow a bit dimmer. But the intrigue continues. And the missing trio have clearly joined the ranks of "the famous disappeared." It's an exclusive list -- one that includes Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart, and D.B. Cooper (see below). It's the kind of notoriety that Madalyn Murray O'Hair loved. She couldn't have written a better ending.This story originally appeared on Nov. 20, 1998. For other stories on this case by Robert Bryce, see:
May 3, 1996: The Case of the Missing Atheists
June 4, 1999: Preying on Atheists
Aug. 27, 1999: Waters in the Pokey
Dec. 10, 1999 Atheist Abductors
Sept. 22, 2000: In Deep Waters