God Only Knows

Dismembered bodies. Gold booty and an ex-con's grudge. A trial rips into the mysteries of the disappearance of atheist icon Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Unlike Fry, who had only a DWI in his past, Karr, on paper at least, was perfectly qualified for a freelance kidnapping. His record, beginning in the late '60s, held eight violent felonies, including aggravated kidnapping, armed robbery and rape. And he was available. In April 1995, six months before the O'Hairs vanished, an Illinois prison released Karr after he served nearly 21 years for a violent crime spree.

Karr and Waters had met years earlier at a prison honor dorm in Illinois and, as evidence showed, had stayed in touch while Karr finished his sentence. Karr went to trial after declining government offers of leniency in exchange for telling the feds where the O'Hairs' bodies are hidden and testifying against Waters. "If you tell, in hell you will dwell" was the prison code he honored, according to an inmate witness. Karr was charged with conspiring with others to kidnap, extort and rob O'Hair and her two children, as well as other counts pertaining to interstate commerce and money laundering. A conviction would carry a life prison term.

Waters was returned to state prison on the original theft conviction after his arrest on the weapons violation. He faces a federal term for gun possession by a felon after that. He has not been charged with the O'Hair disappearance and did not appear in person during Karr's trial. He denies knowing anything about the fates of the O'Hairs or Fry. He has even denied knowing anyone named Gary Karr.

Carruth (center) led the federal prosecution team against Karr.
Carruth (center) led the federal prosecution team against Karr.
The government rests its case: Carruth, flanked by FBI agents Donna Cowling and Sykes Houston.
John Anderson
The government rests its case: Carruth, flanked by FBI agents Donna Cowling and Sykes Houston.

Karr took a different approach: In the year leading up to his trial, he talked plenty about his role in the O'Hair case and also mentioned Danny Fry. In March 1999, when federal agents and a Dallas detective visited him in his apartment in Michigan, Karr was a good host and chatted with them for hours. Police charged him after finding two illegal handguns.

In his eight-page written statement to police, Karr described his role in the O'Hairs' disappearance as that of an errand boy, hired by Waters for security and odd jobs. "Waters told me the O'Hairs were leaving behind everything and were getting away from the IRS. Waters offered me $7,000 to help guard and run errands," Karr told police. "The O'Hairs were not kidnapped or abducted, as they freely and voluntarily moved with Waters."

If Michigan prison snitches are to be believed, Karr could barely keep his mouth shut during his months behind bars in the Wayne County Jail and Milan Federal Detention Center near Detroit. Three prison inmates testified against him in Austin. In these accounts, Karr's role was upgraded from errand boy. "He told me him, David Waters and Danny Fry had kidnapped the O'Hairs from their home, killed the O'Hairs and extorted them for $500,000," testified Jason Cross, a clean-cut bank robber serving seven years. "He helped cut up the bodies and put them in barrels. He also flew to New Jersey with Mr. O'Hair to help escort him so he didn't get out of hand while they held the O'Hairs at the apartment," said Cross. And, said the snitch, Karr had an ace in the hole. "He said without the bodies, they don't have any evidence. That was his ticket to freedom."

By trial time, Karr had finally clammed up -- too late. A gray man in a gray suit seated at the defense table, Karr did not take the stand in his own defense and was a nearly invisible presence. At times he seemed more a spectator, and in one sense, he was not even the real defendant. Because, as one lawyer put it, at the heart of the whole ugly, deadly affair was "the collision of two strong-willed and strange people, David Waters and Madalyn Murray O'Hair." And if federal agents were determined to get Karr, they are obsessed with Waters, the alleged mastermind of the plot. As one put it, the Karr trial was a mere "dress rehearsal" for the main event.

Over two weeks of presenting evidence, the feds led a close procession of witnesses and exhibits through the courtroom, treating Karr to their version of This Is Your Life from late August through early October 1995. They tracked him from Illinois to Florida to Texas, and then back and forth again. They placed Karr in Austin renting cargo vans, in San Antonio leasing low-rent apartments, in Camp Wood at alleged burial sites, in Detroit selling a diamond purchased by Jon Garth Murray in San Antonio, and in Florida, telling tall tales about his business in Texas. They used an eyewitness to place him and O'Hair at the Warren Inn in San Antonio at the same time in 1995. Authorities claim that the kidnappers held the O'Hairs at the motel while the family raised ransom money during September. Prosecutors put Karr in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.

The defense mocked the government's case as incomplete and speculative. "Are they in Romania? Are they buried near a housing project? Are they buried in the woods? Are they washed down to the Gulf of Mexico and now floating in the Red Sea?" attorney Tom Mills said during his closing argument. "I don't know what happened to them."

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