Picking Up the Pieces

Karr Conviction Closes Another Chapter in O'Hair Case

Gary Karr
Gary Karr
Photo By John Anderson

For all their trouble, David Waters and Gary Karr never really enjoyed the spoils of their murderous rampage. After allegedly robbing, murdering and cutting up the O'Hair family and allegedly robbing, murdering, and cutting up Danny Fry, Karr and Waters went on a very short spending spree. On Oct. 3, 1995, just four days after Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her son, Jon Garth Murray, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray-O'Hair, disappeared, Waters and Karr checked into the Four Seasons on Town Lake and began living it up. While there, they spent hundreds of dollars on room-service meals, complete with champagne. They went shopping and purchased fancy watches, Armani suits, Johnston and Murphy shoes, and $200 neckties. Karr even bought a Harley. In all, they spent or hid about $80,000 of the $500,000 in gold coins they extorted from Jon Garth Murray. They put the rest of the loot -- Krugerrands, Canadian Maple Leafs, and American Eagles -- in a suitcase and stashed it in a storage locker at Burnet Road Self Storage.

On Oct. 3, 1995, three young San Antonio hoodlums drove into Burnet Road Self Storage at 6400 Burnet Road, looking to do a bit of robbery of their own. At locker No. 1640, they hit the jackpot. Joey Cardenas, Joe Raymond Cortez Jr., and Jaime Valdes lugged the heavy suitcase, without even opening it, into the back of their car. When they discovered the coins, they had no idea what they were worth. So they stopped at a bookstore to do some research. Then they went to Valdes' parents' house in San Antonio, where they divvied up the loot. Within days, they began their own spending spree. Valdes said he spent $1,000 or more a night at strip clubs, buying drinks and table dances for everyone in the bar. Cortez, who is now serving time in state prison for murder, spent his money on two Mustangs, guns, couches, a fancy watch, and -- what else? -- strippers.

In the wake of Karr's trial, which ended last Friday with convictions on four of five federal charges, the testimony of three San Antonio thugs lends a cruel but somewhat sweet irony to a series of horrific crimes. For months, Waters and Karr plotted ways to steal the O'Hairs' money. After four murders, the two career criminals allegedly achieved their goal, only to become victims of a random crime.

While that may be the most delectable irony, a few other facets of the case of the missing atheists stand out. First and foremost is the barbarity of Waters, a barbarity that was mixed with a cool, inscrutable exterior. Second was the sloth of the Austin Police Department, which was countered by the incredibly organized and motivated investigators at the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation, who amassed an avalanche of circumstantial evidence that will likely send the 52-year-old Karr to prison for the rest of his life.

Finally, there's the fact that Karr and Waters came close to getting away with murder. And if not for the work of John MacCormack, a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, private investigator Tim Young, and the methodical investigation of IRS special agent Edmond Martin and FBI agent Donna Cowling, they would have.

Muddy Waters

David Waters has what are sometimes called brass balls. In the months prior to his arrest, Waters courted the media. He chatted up Texas Monthly at the Pflugerville auction of the O'Hairs' belongings, appeared on the TV show America's Most Wanted, was profiled by The Dallas Morning News, and contacted The Austin Chronicle looking for a bit of attention. Waters' mission was to sell his theory that the O'Hairs had skipped town with a load of cash while trying to keep federal investigators at bay.

Rather than flee as federal investigators closed in around him, Waters tried to lie his way out of the mess. But Waters was on parole for stealing $54,000 from the O'Hairs when he worked for them as the office manager at their atheist headquarters on Cameron Road. He couldn't afford to flee because his gold had been stolen. Waters was broke and out of a job.

When I visited Waters in his North Austin apartment in October 1998, he was chatty. A few days earlier, he had sent an e-mail to the Chronicle inviting me to look at some documents which he claimed proved that the O'Hairs' disappearance "was not at all sudden, but was actually the culmination of a rather convoluted scheme carried out over a considerable period of time." Within minutes after sitting down at his kitchen table, which overlooks a small auto salvage yard, Waters began talking about religion. The gist of Waters' statement was "There may be a God out there and I am not going to say that there absolutely is no God." It wasn't the sort of testimonial likely to garner a featured spot on Billy Graham's next TV special, but for some reason, Waters wanted to make it clear that he wasn't an atheist.

Over the next two hours, the interview grew increasingly weird. As I took notes, Waters slowly, very slowly, showed me a series of letters from 1993 and 1994, that he told me he had stolen from the O'Hairs during his employment. Most of the papers were correspondence between Jon Murray and Don Sanders, a Houstonian who was helping Murray hide the contents of the Charles E. Stevens America Atheist Library and Archive, an asset the atheists were trying to conceal to prevent it from being seized in an ongoing court battle. A few letters from late 1993 appeared to suggest that the three atheists were planning to disappear. But Waters' letters contained nothing that might explain where the trio went or what happened to them.

Nevertheless, Waters couldn't keep his mouth shut. He had to promote the idea that the O'Hairs left with the money. And he didn't mind naming himself as a suspect. As soon as the atheists disappeared, said Waters, "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."

We met for two hours. Not until toward the end of the interview, when I told him I had to leave for another appointment, did Waters casually mention that, by the way, he was on probation for stealing $54,000 from the O'Hairs and had agreed to pay restitution. He also forgot to mention that he was sent to prison in 1978 for assaulting his own mother (he allegedly urinated on her and assaulted her with a broomstick), and earlier, as a teenager, for his part in beating another teen to death.

Five months later, Waters was pitching his theory to reporters from The Dallas Morning News. "I wish I knew what happened," Waters told the paper. "It's very frustrating." He later added that it "might be better if someone actually accused me of something. If you are accused, you get a forum."

Thirteen days after the story appeared, Waters was arrested after investigators found 119 rounds of ammunition in his apartment. The search warrant for Waters' apartment was backed by the affidavit of IRS agent Martin, which alleged that Karr and Waters robbed and murdered the O'Hairs and Fry.

Sloth at APD

By the summer of 1998, Tim Young and John MacCormack didn't have all the facts, but they certainly had most of them.

Young, a private investigator who specializes in finding missing persons, had been working with MacCormack for about 19 months, chasing leads, examining phone records and credit card bills, and talking to maids and barkeeps in the area around the Warren Inn, a budget hotel in San Antonio where the three atheists were last seen alive. They also checked leads that the O'Hairs had traveled to New Zealand and several other locales.

After following up on leads provided by Danny Fry's family members, Young and MacCormack became convinced that Waters and Karr had killed Fry and the O'Hairs. But the two disagreed about what to do. Young, who had agreed to work on the case in exchange for expense money from the Express-News, wanted to go to the police. MacCormack wanted to publish the information. The disagreement led them to go their separate ways. And on August 11, 1998, Young wrote a letter to Stephen Baker at the Austin Police Department, laying out his theory about what happened in the disappearance.

He included names, addresses, driver license numbers, dates of birth, and other information for Waters, Karr, and Fry. He laid out the story of how Jon Murray had traveled to New Jersey with Karr a week before the three atheists vanished. He included the details of Waters' criminal history (including murder and theft) as well as the facts about vehicles that Waters and his girlfriend, Patti Jo Steffens, had purchased in San Antonio in the weeks prior to and after the atheists disappeared.

Young said that shortly after he sent the letter to Baker, he got a call. "Where do you guys get this stuff?" an incredulous Baker asked Young.

After his many months of hard work, Young was stunned. "It was clear to me that he didn't even read the whole three-page letter," Young says. "He was still under the impression they were sipping martinis in New Zealand. It was disheartening getting that reaction."

When I interviewed Baker in late October of 1998, he was still dismissive about the entire disappearance. Baker said he had never questioned Waters and knew nothing about the restitution Waters was supposed to pay to the O'Hairs. Of the connections between Fry and Waters, Baker said, "We haven't been able to confirm any connections between the two." He added, "We can't dig any more than we already have."

Despite Baker's disinterest, Young persisted in his efforts to get law enforcement involved in the case. In mid-August, he sent a copy of the letter to U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm in Washington, hoping that Gramm's office would pass it along to the FBI. A few weeks later, William J. Murray, Madalyn Murray O'Hair's estranged, born-again Christian son, asked Fort Worth U.S. Rep. Dick Armey to request the FBI's help.

The delay in police reaction to the disappearance of the O'Hairs can't be blamed solely on APD. But some of it can. Murray filed a missing persons report on his mother, brother, and daughter on Sept. 24, 1996. But he never felt the police took him seriously.

The delay in response to the disappearance frustrated at least two of the jurors who on June 2 found Karr, 52, guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion, traveling interstate to commit violent acts, money laundering, and interstate transportation of stolen property. (Karr now faces mandatory life in prison without parole.) They found him not guilty of conspiracy to commit kidnapping because they didn't believe there was sufficient evidence. (The sticking point, according to one of the jurors, was the difficulty in determining exactly if and when a kidnapping had occurred.)

The two jurors, Tom Hurt, a 38-year-old designer, and Jeff Sloan, a 43-year-old employee of Dell Computer Corp., said they were frustrated that police had not acted sooner. If they had, the jurors believe, a murder charge would have been more likely. "The government in general dropped the ball on this early on and that's why we were dealing with circumstantial evidence," said Hurt, who thinks it is almost certain that the O'Hairs are dead. "The government ignored the fact that the O'Hairs disappeared. Then five years later, [Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerald] Carruth and his team are saying, 'Look at the evidence.' Part of me was saying if someone had been really watching what was happening, you wouldn't be asking us to put together disparate pieces of circumstantial evidence."

David Waters
David Waters
Photo By John Anderson

Sloan, too, believes the O'Hairs are dead. But he doubts murder charges will be made because, he said, "it took so long for homicide investigators to get involved in the case."

The Reporter

The key break in the O'Hair case was, says MacCormack, a "complete fluke." On Oct. 2, 1998 (coincidentally, the same day that Waters contacted the Chronicle looking for publicity) MacCormack saw a wire service story from the Dallas Morning News mentioning a headless, handless body that had been confounding Dallas County homicide detectives ever since it had been dumped near Seagoville exactly three years earlier. It was entirely coincidental that MacCormack saw the story. But in the months before seeing the article, MacCormack had spoken at length with Bob Fry, Danny Fry's brother. The description of the body, which was very hairy, was a general match for Danny Fry. And Bob Fry had told MacCormack that his brother had been staying with Waters in Austin and that he feared his brother had been the victim of foul play.

Acting on a hunch, MacCormack contacted the Dallas County Sheriff's Office and gave investigators the information about Fry's contact with Waters and the other circumstantial evidence that he and Young provided the APD several months earlier. Over the next two months, Bob Fry and his daughter, Lisa Fry, provided DNA samples to the homicide investigators. Those samples later proved the headless, handless corpse was, in fact, Danny Fry.

Of all the mistakes that Waters and Karr made, dumping Fry's body on the banks of the Trinity River where it could be easily discovered, may have been the dumbest. Perhaps they were in a hurry. Or perhaps they were scared. Whatever the reason, Fry's corpse inflamed investigators. "It was almost like they were daring us to discover this thing," Dallas County Detective Robert Bjorklund told MacCormack in late 1998.

Indeed, Waters and Karr could have covered their tracks had they simply done a better job of dumping their fourth victim. The two murderers had already done the grisly deed of dismembering the three atheists with bow saws. Why not do one more dissection on their former friend and co-conspirator?

That question may never be answered. But federal officials are quick to praise MacCormack's role in the mystery. Martin, the lead federal investigator on the O'Hair case, said he would not have launched an inquiry into the disappearance but for a story written by MacCormack. "The initiation for my investigation was when MacCormack reported that the American Atheists were missing $600,000 and they believed the money was in the hands of Jon Murray," said Martin, a special agent with the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS. That story, written by MacCormack in 1996, was one of several that convinced investigators that the atheists had not fled the country, but had instead been robbed and murdered.

The investigation into the disappearance accelerated in late January of last year, after the DNA tests proved that the headless, handless man whose body was dumped near Seagoville was that of Fry. That development, and MacCormack's story, published on Jan. 31, 1999, gave federal officials "a direct connection between Fry and Karr and Waters. Before that, I didn't have probable cause to execute a search warrant on Karr and Waters," said Martin.

Martin also deserves credit. A 24-year veteran of the IRS, Martin pieced together a mountain of circumstantial evidence that included 66 witnesses -- from dog handlers at Griffith Small Animal Hospital to murderers -- and 325 exhibits including credit card receipts and telephone bills. Jeff Sloan, one of the jurors, said deciding the complex case was one of the most intense periods of his life. He also said he was "truly amazed that Martin and Cowling could piece it together."

MacCormack's Jan. 31, 1999, story also caused a change in Steffens, Waters' ex-girlfriend. Shortly after the story appeared, Steffens contacted the FBI and offered information that helped federal authorities obtain a search warrant for Waters' apartment. On the witness stand, Steffens said that MacCormack's story identifying Fry's body "changed my whole paradigm." Since leaving Waters, Steffens has remarried, changed her name, and moved out of state.

On March 24, 1999, seven weeks after MacCormack's story on Fry appeared, agents from the IRS, FBI, and the Dallas County Sheriff's Office raided Karr's apartment in Michigan and Waters's apartment in Austin. Both men were arrested for possessing ammunition. As convicted felons, they were prohibited from having any ammunition or firearms. Last year, Waters was sentenced to eight years in federal prison on the weapons charge and up to 60 years for violating the terms of his parole.

Gerald Carruth, an assistant U.S. attorney who acted as the lead prosecutor on the case against Karr, said of MacCormack, you "have to give credit where credit is due." In particular, Carruth said MacCormack's role in identifying Fry's body "was a major factor in the development of this case."

MacCormack says his hunch about Fry's body was just one of several theories he was compelled to chase down. "Why else whack somebody's head off?" he asked with a laugh. MacCormack insists that much of the credit for breaking the case belongs to Young, who is now based in Phoenix. MacCormack, a jovial, sleepy-eyed 50-year-old who has been working as a reporter for 26 years, credits Young as being a "spectacular investigator" who "kept after this long after I would have dropped it." Young sees it differently. MacCormack is "probably the hardest worker I've ever come across, in any field," he said. "I think he's a helluva reporter."

What Next?

Now that the atheists are almost certainly dead, federal officials are wondering what to do next. The easiest murder case to prosecute is against Karr for his role in the murder of Fry. During the trial, Jason Cross, a former prison mate of Karr's, testified that Karr told him that he had killed Fry with a .22 firearm. Cross also quoted Karr as saying that he knew where the bodies were buried and that that knowledge would help him stay out of jail.

Karr faces other incriminating evidence. Last week, during the jury deliberations, Karr's defense attorney, Tom Mills, told me that the U.S. Attorney's Office has lab results proving that a hair found on Fry's body matches Karr's. Federal authorities are also testing a blue plastic barrel that they believe was used by Karr and Waters to store the butchered bodies of the O'Hairs. The barrel was recovered on the same ranch near Camp Wood that is believed to be the spot where Karr and Waters buried the atheists' remains in 1995.

But Karr already is facing life without parole. Federal authorities are concerned that Waters, now serving a lengthy state term, followed by eight years in the federal penitentiary, could still get out of prison before he dies. And there are several people, including his former girlfriend, Steffens, that Waters might hunt down to gain revenge. Federal officials may hope that Karr cuts a deal in exchange for testifying against Waters. But Mills says Karr has never indicated that he would agree to a deal.

Gerald Carruth, the folksy, fireplug-shaped assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Karr -- and who prosecuted Waters for weapons violations last year -- refused to speculate on what will happen next. "The investigation of this case will continue," he said, a few minutes after the verdict was delivered.

While the case against Karr may be drawing to an end (sentencing is Aug. 4), it's clear that Madalyn Murray O'Hair would have been pleased by all the media attention. A half-dozen print reporters and a half-dozen TV cameras were present throughout the trial, which focused on a grisly plot by greedy thieves to separate her from her money. She would have loved being in the courtroom, watching the witnesses get sworn in, and would have proudly noted that the "so help me God" section of the pledge to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" had been discarded, thanks to her efforts. That she was apparently murdered by Karr and Waters would also have confirmed her cynicism about the human race. On March 16, 1984, she wrote in her diary that the "whole gawd-dam world is made up of liars, cheats & swindlers whose single driving force is greed."

The theft of the gold from locker 1640 certainly appears to confirm her faith in the greediness of humankind. But even with Karr's conviction, it's clear that we haven't heard the last from Madalyn. "There are no bodies and there are a lot of scenarios to explain how they may have died," said Sloan, one of the jurors. "There are still massive pieces missing. And there always will be."

Perhaps more than anything, O'Hair would have applauded the gruesome manner in which her body was disposed. In 1986, she wrote an essay for the American Atheist about her hopes that nothing special would happen to her body. She didn't want any "dirty Christers" to get their hands on her corpse. Instead, she advised that if the atheists lived nearer the coast, it would be better if Jon and Robin "could fling the carcass into the water," where the fish could feed on it. A dead body, O'Hair wrote, was nothing more than "a fallen leaf from a tree, a dog killed on the highway, a fish caught in a net." Given the unceremonious way that Karr and Waters allegedly disposed of her body, O'Hair certainly got her wish.

O'Hair on the Web

For more on the case of the missing atheists: auschron.com/issues/vol18/issue40/pols.athiests.html

[Get additional links from this page]



The San Antonio Express-News' archive of stories on the atheists' disappearance, all written by John MacCormack, is perhaps the best single

source of info on the mystery.


Robert Bryce can be contacted at rbryce@swbell.net

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