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.

But there was too much blood and too much rancor. When it ended, there remained some mystery but little doubt about the fates of three atheists. No one who attended held out much hope that the O'Hairs are hanging out in New Zealand or Iceland or Romania, Patti Jo Steffens included. After she last saw Fry, Steffens made a chilling discovery in the apartment she shared with Waters: a bag holding three pairs of bloody sneakers and a blood-soaked washcloth.

"There was just chunks of blood, like they were standing in a puddle of blood," she said of the sneakers. "It just almost made me sick. David jumped up, nostrils flaring, and said, 'Don't even look in there,' " she said. The bag soon disappeared.

At trial's end there was little to wonder about Danny Fry, either. If the feds are correct, one of Fry's last acts, and the one that took him over the edge, was to help Waters and Karr dismember the three large O'Hairs with bow saws in a drive-in storage unit in Austin. Fry's revulsion may have sealed his fate. According to a jailhouse snitch, Fry was killed because his confederates feared he wasn't up to the security issues associated with celebrity abduction, murder and dismemberment.

Tom Mills, Karr's attorney, contended that the O'Hair clan may have gone to Europe.
Tom Mills, Karr's attorney, contended that the O'Hair clan may have gone to Europe.

"[Karr] said they took the bodies from the apartment to the storage unit, where they were to be cut up and put into barrels. He said it was very bloody, very messy. He said Fry was very squeamish. He got himself in a little too deep," Cross testified. So the two tough guys from Illinois took care of the problem. "He said they had shot Danny Fry, and cut his head off and cut [his] hands off because they were afraid he was gonna tell on them," Cross said.

O'Hair crash-landed into the nation's staid consciousness in June 1963 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two controversial lawsuits, including one filed by her, that banned mandatory prayer in public schools.

Quickly anointed "the most hated woman in America," O'Hair reveled in her role as thorn in the side of the believers, slandering God on late-night talk shows and picketing the pope and other religious leaders. But her avarice and caustic personality offended atheists as well. By the time she vanished in 1995, O'Hair was a sickly, aging woman running a cluster of small atheist organizations in Austin, and her national influence had ebbed to the point of irrelevance.

The trial over her disappearance unfolded in a federal courthouse in Austin, where O'Hair had filed numerous suits over the years in her battle to hold the line between state and church. And before testifying, each witness in her disappearance trial swore a modified oath to tell the truth -- with no mention of God -- a concession that might have made even O'Hair smile. "Normally, I would ask them to say, 'So help you God,' but because there were so many atheists involved, I just left that out," says Margaret Simms, the court clerk.

Representing Karr was court-appointed lawyer Mills of Dallas. He had volunteered for the cut-rate job last year while Karr was being held in Michigan on gun charges. "I just thought it was a historically classic criminal trial. If you're a criminal defense lawyer, it was a magnet," Mills says.

The trial was certain to draw national attention. Already, Mills says, he had received an inquiry from one of the men recently charged in Alabama with bombing a Birmingham church in which four black girls died more than three decades ago. After some thought, he turned it down. "We didn't know where the money would come from, and we didn't want any Klan money," he says.

Arrested last year in Michigan, Karr didn't get back to Texas until the end of March. His defense team had little more than a month to prepare for a complex trial. In contrast, their adversaries -- assistant U.S. attorneys Carruth and Dan Mills, IRS criminal investigator Edmond Martin and FBI agent Donna Cowling -- spent 15 months building their case. As one member of the team said before trial, "We're loaded for bear."

But the bear hunters were missing one critical element. "There are three potential items of evidence that Mr. Carruth did not mention to you, and that would be the dead bodies of Madalyn O'Hair, Jon Garth Murray and Robin Murray O'Hair," Tom Mills told jurors in his opening statement. On his witness list, Mills playfully included the three O'Hairs with this notation: "If available."

"I think they're in Romania or northern England. I've got my private investigator searching high and low for them," he said straight-faced into a television camera as the trial began.

The government had one other obstacle to overcome. "This case is basically Crud vs. Crud," remarked a lawyer-spectator. "Somehow they've got to make the O'Hairs sympathetic to the jury."

But if the feds' case lacked the bodies, it had plenty of facts. And as the government case gained momentum, Karr's defenders quickly became guerrilla fighters, hoping to plant the magical bullet known as reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror. Karr's defense was two-pronged: The first was that the O'Hairs had made their long-planned getaway ahead of the IRS and are now hiding somewhere overseas. The second defense was that if someone killed them, it wasn't Karr.

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