The Cast of Characters
John MacCormack, 49, reporter, San Antonio Express-News
While other investigators have been sniffing around the case, MacCormack has broken all of the significant developments, including Jon's cell phone records and the fact that Jon bought $600,000 worth of gold coins before he disappeared. He also broke the story regarding the disappearance of Danny Fry. A sleepy-eyed 49-year-old state reporter for the Express News, MacCormack, who has been a reporter for 25 years (Dallas Times-Herald, Miami Herald) is now following other leads in the case. He refuses to reveal his theory on the disappearance.
David Waters, 48, former office employee,
American Atheist General Headquarters
Perhaps the most complex character in the story, he contacted the Chronicle in early October seeking publicity for documents he had taken from the AAGHQ. A few weeks later, he said he had given the papers to someone else. In 1995, he pled guilty to stealing $54,000 from the missing atheists, and he has prior convictions for murder, battery, and forgery. Waters, who believes the missing atheists are alive, said he has never been questioned by police about the disappearances, nor does he believe he is a suspect in the case. Regarding the disappearance of Danny Fry, "his stopover here was one of many on his itinerary. He has his own legal problems."
William J. "Bill" Murray III, 51, chairman of the
Washington, D.C.-based Religious Freedom Coalition
The closest living relative to the missing trio, he filed a missing persons report with Austin police in 1996, a move that finally led to an investigation of the disappearance. Murray, who had been estranged from his mother, brother, and daughter for more than a decade before the disappearance, initially sought, and later decided against, vying for control of their estate. "Absolutely I think they are dead," he says. "I work in Washington. I have Washington contacts. I know where they are not. They are not in any nation that corresponds with the U.S. Either they are in the U.S., dead, or in Cuba, Libya, Afghanistan, or some other country like that. And I just don't think that's likely." Noting that three people like the Murray O'Hairs can't live for very long on the $500,000 in gold coins that Jon had, he says "it's stupid" to believe they're still alive.
William J. "Bill" Murray
Spike Tyson, 48, office manager, American Atheist General Headquarters
He won't speculate on the disappearance, saying it would be improper to do so while an investigation is ongoing. Tyson moved into the Murray O'Hairs' home a few months after they disappeared. (He recalls the refrigerator was full of food and the freezer was well-stocked with ice cream, steaks, and other food. "All of Madalyn's medicine was sitting there in the refrigerator, too.") Tyson says the Austin Police Department has contacted him once, by phone. "They only asked me one question: 'Do you know where Madalyn Murray O'Hair is?'," says Tyson, a Vietnam veteran. He plans to move to New Jersey to work at the American Atheist headquarters there, and says the move east should allow the atheists to focus on their mission. "We will be getting over and away from the shadow of the O'Hairs. It's a way to make a good break with the past." Tyson lost all of his personal belongings, including his stamp and coin collections, when the IRS seized the Murray O'Hairs' home in February of 1997. His efforts to recover his property -- which includes a stamp collection he started in 1954 and a piece of Revolutionary War currency, a Massachusetts $7 bank note -- have been unsuccessful. "Basically, I'm fucked," he said. "I've talked to a couple of lawyers. I was told it would cost many thousands of dollars to get it back. Here again is another case of the jackbooted thugs. That's really what they are."
Ellen Johnson, 43, president, American Atheists, Boonton, NJ.
A fast-talking, combative woman who took over the atheist organization after Madalyn's disappearance, Johnson damaged her own credibility early on when she told reporters in October of 1995 that the Murray O'Hairs were on a two month-long business trip. "Madalyn is just fine," Johnson told reporters. "This has nothing to do with her health." In early 1996, Johnson quietly paid the overdue property taxes on the O'Hair's home in northwest Austin. Now that the trio is gone, Johnson is trying to forge ahead with her vision for the atheists, and says she hopes the move from Austin to New Jersey will allow the group to get better exposure in New York and Washington, D.C. She has a passionate dislike of Waters. Last month, she said of him, "He's a thief. He's a murderer. He's a liar. We want David Waters to go to jail. We want the judge to rule that Waters must go to jail for not paying restitution." In an interview with the Chronicle, she refused to speculate on what happened to Madalyn, but last year she told The New York Times, "I have a tendency to think foul play was involved." She screens all her phone calls on her phone machine. She talked to the Chronicle several times, then quit returning calls.
Detective Stephen Baker, Austin Police Dept., missing persons and juvenile division
Baker says that evidence appears to show that the Murray O'Hairs had been planning a scam for some time. "That's why I'm of the opinion that they are not dead and that there was no foul play involved. I still have that feeling. If somebody wants to show me a body or a crime scene, I'll be glad to have my opinion changed." He thinks the trio changed their names in San Antonio, got new passports, and left the country. He has not interviewed Tyson, Waters, or Johnson. He has had reports of Madalyn sightings in Romania and New Zealand, and also one report of Madalyn in South Austin driving a 1964 station wagon. Says Baker of the investigation, "We can't dig any more than we already have."
Danny Fry, 42, a small-time con man from Florida who has disappeared
According to the Express-News, Fry moved to Texas from Florida to work with Waters. He 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.